A Beer Judge’s Diary: Multiple Competitions Musings

By Ken Carman
By Ken Carman
  Every year my wife, Millie, and I judge at The Music City Brewoff: a competition run by one of two clubs we’re members of. This year I had to head north to take care of business at our retirement shack.
 As editors of The Brew-Score: publication of The Music City Brewers, I usually write an article on the Brew Off… or I ask someone else in the club to write one. This year our president did a year review and since we weren’t there I decided not to publish what I had in the works. But then I thought, “Hey, what about The Professor?”
  You see, other than being editors of the Brew-Score, and I’m a writer for the Professor, we do have an advantage when it comes to covering competitions. For almost 30 years I traveled as an entertainer… and starting in the late 90s I discovered there are competitions in many of my port-o-calls. Millie judges at them too, occasionally.
  I have discovered there are things we do right at The Music City Brew Off I can share, and things others do well that we all might learn from. And since this column is web-based, people in clubs nationwide can discover possible interesting additions to their competitions.
  At AWOG: Amber Waves of Grain, in Niagara Falls every spring, they have actual glasses for the judges. That’s something I think we just started this year at Music City Brew Off. We missed it, so I can’t comment on how it was done. At AWOG they have someone who takes them away: replacing them with fresh rinsed glasses. It’s grand to have an actual glass but this is labor intensive, from what I’ve seen. So if you have the man, or woman, power to do this: great. If not there are certainly easier ways.
  Every great, large, competition I have judged at has had a significant amount of pre-judging. You want your judges on the big day to not feel rushed, or have to do more than two flights if at all possible. Pre-judging is your key to that.
 You have to assess this per competition, and learn last year’s lessons. That means some consistency in management of the event: the more this varies the less likely lessons will be passed on. Indeed I would recommend a report be written up by all involved managing the event, making suggestions and mentioning what went well, what could have been better and offering possible solutions.
  For years I have been trying to start a competition in Beaver River, NY. One of the major snafus has been where to keep entries, sort them, take off labels and add only the entry number designation: crucial portions of this done by those who won’t be judging. Beaver River is a location with specific problems that makes all this a major headache. So pre-finding a place to enter, store, sort, relabel entries is crucial.
 Luckily Music City Brewoff has fellow club member, homebrew store owner and reggae terrorist Tom Gentry to store our entries, even host prejudging. Everything but stage his beloved reggae terrorist attacks.
  Cause I made dat last one up, Mon!
  An extra nod: Tom even gives us schwag and prizes for the competition. Just… open… them… VERY… carefully.
  BOOM!
  Yeah, I’m still kidding.
  I have judged at a few competitions in recent years where it seems obvious there had been less pre-judging than needed. You can usually tell because you’re judging into the late afternoon: sometimes missing lunch, or getting the dregs of what was a good meal. You’ve finished you’re second flight and… oops! …time to help another table. Then… oops! …time to help another table.
  I understand clubs do what they can and have the help they have. No finger pointing here. I also understand, especially when I judge elsewhere, I don’t know the specifics of what happened behind the scenes. I’m only mentioning this so others may learn.
  MCBO (Music City Brew Off) has gotten so good because we’ve been there: year after year, though different locations. We put up with staff at one hotel who had no idea what we were doing, but wanted to tell us what to do and when. They wanted hotel staff to go get the entries each time. We went and got our entries anyway.
 Can you imagine busy hotel staff trying to bring entries to many tables, in order, on time, when they haven’t the faintest idea the system that was developed to identify which entries went to which team of judges? Yikes.
  Like any club we have just so many volunteers, but we make good use of them, like pre-judging… club members willing to keep going and take on more duties. And we have had great organizers like Tom Vista and Jonathan Adams. A great organizer means a lot. In many ways: it’s everything. Then we have Phil Snyder who, last year, sorted and organized so much. It’s those club members willing to be there, frequently, constantly, that make the difference, and make a competition.
  Even minor things can become a big headache. Like when the entry number varies from the number it was given as it came in the door, and the judges, and the stewards, have to sort it out during judging. However, competition time: no matter how it’s done as it comes in the door, the judges and the stewards should have to worry about one number. They have enough to sort out.
  Hey, folks, no matter how much moderation is involved, we’re still adding a chance of confusion to those who are judging a beverage that, in part, is alcohol-based, right?
  Where a competition is held is crucial, and finding the right place is tough. Millie and I have judged to the tune of jackhammers, walked a plank to get to the bathroom, climbed stairs that would make the stairs at Hogwarts seem like escalators.
 This year I discovered something about site selection that may help. For years Fugetaboutit in Chattanooga has sought a home. Meanwhile, AWOG has been at a Knights of Columbus in Niagara Falls for quite a few years. This year Fugetaboutit was at a Knights of Columbus too. The nice thing about this location is you’re not tied to some pub, or unopened facility and there seem to be less limits on time, less distractions, less noise. I would assume Masons or any other organization which isn’t using their facilities that day might work as well. A hotel is nice too for really big competitions: no need to drive anywhere for the night for visiting judges. But hotels do have a regular flow of business that must come first to some extent. Look for one that has a space they can be dedicated to you: just you, and the available time for you to be there is rather liberal.
 I’m sure there’s no “perfect” location.
  Most competitions do bus tours of local breweries and brewpubs. We used to, but there are enough local clubs who come, so we do a club crawl on the premises. It saves on buses, insurance and keeps everything in house.
  I must admit: I still miss the tour.
  There’s something about going pub to pub with fellow judges that’s just a blast: especially one year when we had competition near Halloween and had a visit from THE ASSMAN. Memphis judge and homebrewer Phil Kane with a big, costume, butt strapped behind. The people you meet while judging beer are wonderful and quirky,and the last is what adds so much to the whole adventure.
  Lastly, I recommend we have more small BJCP competitions: even just a category or two.
  Years ago I went to Bluebonnet. That’s in Dallas: well over 2,000 entries, big fancy hotel, giant room filled with judges. We enjoyed. But, to be honest, it’s the competitions where you’re not just one of hundreds of judges, where the expensive hotel doesn’t charge for internet when the net at the $29 motel the week before in Georgia was free. Plus both judges, and brewers, aren’t lost in the in the chaos.
  Don’t get me wrong, I think big competitions are grand, I just think the smaller ones can offer something the huge ones can’t: a bigger sense of camaraderie, purpose and fun: yes, “fun,” that humungous competitions simply don’t have time for. One of the best competitions I’ve ever been to was in Mississippi: two categories, we stayed at the organizer’s house, he cooked breakfast, we brought our dogs and they even helped fix a flat tire at the end. Amazingly personal. Amazing and so much… fun! And I think we did a damn good job: our focus on each entry so much better than when we’re switching categories, tables and trying to tie up judging at other tables after we finish our own flights.
  Well, that’s another Diary. I’m sure as the years pass I’ll have more to report that might help others, more stories to tell, and share more of the passion all judges share: a love of homebrewing and hoping to help each other brew better.
                                                          -30-

 A Beer Judge’s Diary is a column that follows the judging adventures of BJCP judge Ken Carman and his wife, Millie; a column that celebrates both homebrewers and professionalism in beer judging.
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