The Topic: An Absinthe of Information
Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay, Salt City and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years.
Imagine you ask for a beer. A friend hands you a glass and you take a sniff. Huh??? Then a sip: you gag. What, did he think you wanted liquid licorice, or black jelly beans? Of course what your “friend” did, most likely, is pour you some absinthe instead. Indeed it may be bad absinthe that has been flavored with star anise oil. The good absinthe uses green anise. Real fans of the legendary quaff will tell you there’s a lot more to really good absinthe than the harshest, black, licorice; and certainly not some black jelly bean drink.
Maybe he thought he was being funny. But you probably aren’t laughing.
Beer judges sometimes have experiences almost as off putting, and it may not be the fault of the brewer who entered it.
A previous edition of Brew Biz mentioned a competition I was entering which had just restarted after a few years and their web site, their instructions, were confusing: at best. I understand competitions are run by volunteers, and I have no wish to dump on those who work their garbanzos off: not getting a single bean for their efforts: all for the cause of better brewing and better beer.
Indeed let me start by saying I found the organizer helpful and kind, especially after working with him through the, “OK, what now,” phase when site instructions were confusing and links didn’t work. The web site seemed professional: until I tried to use it. Even the organizer admitted he wasn’t surprised: since this was the first competition after a long time things weren’t a little messed up. This competition had been on a hiatus for quite a while.
Yes: I am deliberately trying to be vague to avoid giving you clues as to who I am referring to. Since we’re talking about the same competition, and I wish to do nothing but encourage more competitions: no names mentioned.
Got my score sheets back and I scored somewhat low: 24 and 29. The more experienced judge, who scored me the highest, picked up on the Buckwheat honey in my braggot. Great palate! Didn’t notice any defects or off flavors mentioned. Both admitted my entry more than just pleased them. No, the real reason for the lower scores was admitted on the sheets by both: absence of information regarding the entry. Both judges said the entry would have scored higher if they had known what they were judging.
I have been here before. It’s beyond aggravating, as a judge, if the brewer submits nothing about their entry: especially when you’re at a table judging an entry that already has less strict guidelines than, say, an American IPA or Stout. Specialty comes to mind, to provide one example.
I enjoy judging, and especially enjoy what some may consider the more oddball tables like Specialty and Mead. Having such information when you’re at those tables, as I well know, can be crucial. The problem here is it was submitted. In fact we submitted it three times: the second time in the shipment with the bottles because their website failed to keep my entry, even though I was logged in and registered. The site kept insisting I wasn’t after it said I was. I actually hodgepodged together an entry form and labels that were almost exactly like theirs, because theirs simply wouldn’t print.
Still: even after shipping it with the bottles, my wife said they claimed they had received nothing. So she sent them the info and even called to make sure they got it.
But apparently the judges still didn’t get specifics regarding my Jalapeno braggot. One even commented, “What were you trying to do here?”
I don’t blame the judges. I don’t blame anyone, really, but perhaps there are ways to assure judges get the information they need? Perhaps the BJCP could make a few suggestions, like when there’s no information on any entry maybe they should go back through the entry process before the competition and, if nothing is found, contact the brewer? I promise you: this has happened to me more times than I can count as a judge, only to find out later the information got lost somewhere in the mix.
Perhaps looking at the categories, and sub categories, might be in order. Where something needs to be entered can provide necessary information, and there’s no reason a jalapeno braggot couldn’t provide more info if entered under “Other Braggot.” “Other Mead” seems so inappropriate, but “thems the rules.” Yes, I have to enter a braggot with jalapenos under Other Mead. Somehow a braggot becomes not a braggot when there’s anything other than honey and beer in it.
The way I read the guidelines I can’t enter under Specialty either: even though it is as much beer as it is mead. The problem is I lose points because I don’t give the exact honeys used as if it were a mead, even though someone entering a Honey Porter doesn’t usually suffer under such. Judges seem confused regarding odd entries, like braggot.
I don’t mean to focus too much on my own situation, I do think some altering of entry rules could provide judges with more information; less worrying about, “OK, my double chocolate latte pumpkin champagne yeast ginger lager got a low score because the specific info I sent was lost.” Sometimes I think this is why some judges avoid the Specialty table.
I don’t. Maybe I’m weird. OK, I admit it: I’m “weird.” I suppose that’s why I often wind up on Specialty, Meads, Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer. I love them all. I’ve worked with kids since the early 80s and working with what others might consider pure chaos: whether accurate or not, is kind of my “specialty.’ Strict guidelines are helpful, but not so strict doesn’t bother me.
Well, to help solve my own conundrum: add “or under Specialty” to odd Braggot entries. Or, even better, add an “Other Braggot” category. Even if collapsed into another category at least the judges will know this isn’t Mead. But that won’t solve the main problem here.
More follow up on entries would help, as I mentioned, and maybe different labels for categories or sub-categories like Specialty, Braggot or Mead where specifics must be listed. Some kind of fast track for information sent by the brewer, rather than having it all mixed in with hundreds of entries.
Of course that will do nothing for those who simply don’t provide such information. Why they do such: I have no idea. One competition the brewer had written “guess” under special ingredients on a Specialty beer that had not other indication what it was in the name.
I hope I wasn’t perceived as too unkind. I hope I was professional, in my comments… not that there might have been the slightest chance it could have been, maybe sort of, deserved?
Judging beer well is one of my own, personal, missions. That last example was many years ago: not sure I was even BJCP yet. Hopefully I’d be even better at handling it now. But judging well is hard when important information winds up wandering, lost, like a child missing her parent in some mega outlet beer competition mall. Having your entry judged well is hard when information you did submit winds up stuck to Alice’s skirt like a wayward post-it-note down some brew-rabbit hole. Then judges are left asking themselves, quietly, “Just how am I to judge this if I know so little about the brewer’s intent?”
Absence doth NOT make the heart of the homebrewer who enters a competition grow fonder. And imagine your at the Specialty table and that homebrewer submitted a brown ale with a historical, distilled, beverage addition. But that information never made it to your table. Obviously, in that case, an “absinthe…” of information doesn’t make the judge’s palate grow any fonder either.
Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to reviewing, discussing and commenting on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer. Essentially, all things “beer.”