A homebrew judge needs a nose that knows

I’m a beer-drinker, but after 47 different American light lagers crossed my palate a couple of Saturdays ago, I can assure you that Joe Sixpack is not a beer-taster.

My tongue just can’t take that kind of abuse.

The occasion was the regional judging of the American Homebrewers Association annual national competition, a prestigious event that brings to mind the precise, objective taste-testing of a Betty Crocker Cook-Off. . .only, in this contest, Betty is a boozer.

The folks at Home Sweet Homebrew, the Center City mecca for do-it-yourself brewmeisters, collected something like 460 different beers for this year’s judging. In the shadowy, cold warehouse of Red Bell’s brewery at 31st and Jefferson streets, we tasted everything from powerfully dark imperial stouts to the notoriously aforementioned light lagers.

This was Joe Sixpack’s first stab at judging spirits, if you don’t count that martini-sipping competition I was hustled into a few years back at some topless bar down the shore. I had successfully erased the twisted memory of those exotic cocktails (a peanut butter martini?) until recently, when an anonymous note and several indiscriminate photographs appeared in my mail slot.

Unlike making your own beer, which is a remarkably easy and fun hobby, judging the stuff is a somewhat exacting science.

It begins with a careful examination of the bottle. Judges eyeball the glass, holding it to the light to see God knows what. One guy I’ll call Judge Wapner offered me the first bottle and I replied admiringly, “Yup, looks like a beer to me.”

Fffffft. . .I popped the cap and started the pour.

“Not so much!” Wapner admonished. “We’re tasting, not drinking.”

Again, he held the glass to the light. You do a lot of this when judging homebrews, checking for color and clarity and little yeast thingies that creep around the cup. Light lagers are supposed to be crystal. That’s an incredibly tough goal for homebrewers, who tend to dump most anything into the kettle, as long as it’s fermentable.

Wapner seemed troubled by this sample. “I’m not sure – would you call that pale amber or golden?” he wondered.

“Um, looks yellow to me.”

He placed the glass beneath his perfectly honed nostrils and inhaled.

“Perfect. I detect just a delicate hops aroma. Czechoslovakian Saaz, I’m guessing,” Wapner intoned. “What do you think?”

“Um, I drank mine already.”

Wapner poured me another glass and showed how to swirl the brew to release its aroma.

For me, the smell of hops – like freshly mowed grass – is one of the most important qualities of a well-made beer. The absence of that aroma is one of the reasons I stopped drinking Budcoorsmiller’s factory-made lagers.

I caught the whiff of few hops this day. But Wapner assured me that was proper for this type of beer. A well-made American light lager (think Michelob) should have little distinctive hops aroma. Nor should it be cuttingly bitter, nor should it offer much of an aftertaste. This is lawnmower beer, designed to quickly satisfy a thirst with crisp refreshment.

So here were several dozen light lagers – produced by earnest, hopeful souls who sweated for hours at their kitchen stovetops – being judged by some lug who doesn’t even appreciate the style.

Wapner furiously scribbled on his score sheet, describing the mouthfeel and the nose, whether his sample was alkaline or metallic. He detected a phenolic aroma in one sample, a butterscotch in another. I marveled at his taste buds, I was in awe of his schnozzle.

Me – I wrote down descriptions like “tastes good.” Or “tastes really good.”

Amazingly, my scores were almost identical to those of the experienced judges.

I’d like to say all the entries were great and that they all deserve to be winners. I’d also like to say that Demi Moore is taking a dip in my back yard jacuzzi.

The truth is that, like the pros, homebrewers make a lot of good beer, and a lot of bad beer.

Alas, Joe Sixpack just isn’t the right person to judge them. I’d prefer to just drink ’em.

Joe Sixpack (written this week with a bottle of Victory Golden Monkey) appears every other Friday.


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