A Beer Judge’s Diary

By Ken Carman
By Ken Carman
  I’m gearing up for a competition I imagined, I registered, I have had to reimagine and also figure out how NOT to know who entered so I might be available to judge. I’m the head bottle washer, chef, purchasing agent…
  The Old Forge Old Ale Competition is all high gravity, collapsed category, so obviously I am very much in favor of collapsing categories. There are just some that shouldn’t be combined, and some you should be careful with.
  I understand: you have just so many entries, so sometimes it’s necessary. But Stout and Porter? Really? The problem here is they are so similar, yet obviously not, and the distinctiveness of each need not be lost. If nothing else we must be real careful with collapsed categories, especially when judging with newbies. At one competition, as head of the table, I had to remind them several times, “Uh, folks? We’ve switched categories.”  Sometimes alcohol is too much of a lubricant and they might slide by the change without noticing.
  One of the worst, yet official, collapsed categories is one few will notice: Braggot and Braggot with spices, fruits, whatever. That’s because it’s not really collapsed: it’s “official.” (But it’s damn near a shotgun wedding, IMO.) For some whacked reason the BJCP decided that a braggot with anything but beer and mead belongs in another subcategory: not with Braggot, or as a second sub under Braggot. I don’t care what you put in it the obvious fact is Braggot isn’t mead, Mead isn’t braggot and open category can be a killer judging time when the subcategory isn’t the same as what the quaff actually is.
  I’ve had one competition actually judge my braggots as braggots, the rest prove the obvious: despite repeat efforts to get it to them by the brewer, sometimes judges don’t get the right information, sometimes they don’t understand braggots and, most often, a braggot gets judged as just another open category mead.
  It’s like judging a pumpkin beer as just another English brown ale.
  Now some collapsed categories are actually not bad at all: even wise. Pales and IPAs? Yes. In fact that collapse helps novices understand the differences. How many times have I sat at the judging table, shook my head, and said to my fellow judges once we’re in discussion mode, “Why didn’t they just enter as IPA?” (or even Imperial.) Then you have Imperials posing as Pales.
  I understand: sometimes judges enter in multiple categories and subcategories, but more than occasionally I wonder, “What were you thinking?” like in Chattanooga when on first pour of a Pale we saw little though the obsidian black. OK, pale refers to the malt, but… taste, aroma? Stout. Not a bad one, either, but…
  I do understand that all categories collapse, to a certain extent, into big BOS, but even then category is important. Plus the longer you can keep them separate: judged on their own category merits, the better. And I am no style Nazi. A common discussion at the table is over which to place as one, or two, or… and I am challenging, or being challenged by, someone who thinks because it’s right down the center style-wise it should be ranked higher than one that’s still within the style: far better, but near the edge.
  I’m an edgy kind of guy. Besides, to me, as long as it’s in the ballpark style-wise, the point then is what’s best, what’s incredible, what wows the palate.
  You can’t help but collapse in many competitions. If you have only four Barleywines having a Barleywine table is silly, and a waste of judges. (Of course if you have plenty and you collapse into other high gravs you could have the opposite: wasted judges.) And collapsing helps avoid the problem I had one year when they kept switching me to high grav tables. I refused to judge big BOS with John Palmer. No offense John, but my taste buds were fried.
  But collapsing Sours into Stouts? Eh, unless absolutely necessary I would avoid.
  And, no, that’s not just an “example.” That did happen.
  Ei!

 (Note: capitalization was a pain here. I felt the official category should be capitalized, but actual “stout?” Maybe not.)

                                                           -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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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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