Brew Biz: Werts and All

Written by Ken Carman

Ken Carman is a BJCP judge, homebrewer since 1979, and club member at Escambia Bay and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years.

Topic: Moose in Beer?

A fellow brewer and BJCP judge, Tom Gentry, owns a homebrew store in Goodlettsville, TN called Rebel Brewer. He is about as dedicated to the craft as one could be without wearing a backwards jacket and living in a rubber room. I know this because he hasn’t recommended using one of his kids for an adjunct yet. Unless he has a secret Ceylon brewing something in some lab somewhere right now he hasn’t told anyone about.

Does he know yet that he’s actually the one to blame for building the Ceylons? Tom, give me one read eye light move to the right if you do, one to the left if you’re clueless about your guilt in the almost total extinction of the human race.

(Isn’t adding “total” to “extinction” a bit redundant? Yes, “a bit redundant?” Indeed, “a bit…” Slap Ceylon “face” and continue with article…)

Anyway, I drove up to Goodlettsville to offer him a taste of one of my many experimental beers. I know, BJCP now calls that category “Specialty,” and I judge it that way. But frankly if I were organizing that list it truly would be “experimental;” not bounced off of that broad based of a term. Otherwise we get beers that match other categories and only qualify for “specialty” because someone threw in a little bit of something like chocolate that doesn’t belong in there, or makes a pale ale with a lager yeast. Now mixing two werts, one ale fermented, one lager, then some basil, a red bell pepper, all in a secondary with a real funky Belgian yeast? Now that’s “Experimental.” The word “Specialty” just doesn’t cut it.

The experimental ale I brought him is called Grapenuts Grog. I was having a carbonation problem so I asked his opinion of the brew as well. He pretended he was pissed. “I’ve always wanted to brew a Grapenut beer, and damn you… you beat me.” Well, Tom, just wait until I introduce you to what my brew slave Igor is preparing in my cellar. You’ll beg. You’ll weep. You’ll cry out loud, “Give me another! Another! Another, Mr. More Experimental Than Me Brewer, please!”

I kid.

I don’t even have a cellar. That I know of. Igor? Is that you down there, or my cats?

Tom has dreams of a Captain Crunch beer. Not me. I already know I’m not fond of corn taste in beer, which is why a lot of the big brewer beers like Miller stay as far away from me as possible. I do go for their homebrew-based brethren though in competition, only because that’s judging beer: something I love to do. But I have made many weird beers including several versions of rhubarb ale and several editions of Maplead… not honey-based: no honey at all. Maple syrup. I rarely brew the first now because judges seem unable to discern rhubarb from DMS. And I haven’t made Maplead for a while because no matter what I do, what I add, how much I carmelize, no judge: including myself, can distinguish it from mead. Why spend more than three times the cost for good maple syrup when you can do it with honey? And why do it when, no matter how well you describe your entry, even highly ranked judges still write on the form for my entry something like what one Master wrote, “Try a better grade of honey for this mead,” when I clearly marked everything in huge capital letters, “THIS HAS NO HONEY IN IT. IT’S MAPLE SYRUP-BASED.”

I know. The judge probably never even saw that on their forms. But after this happened over and over, all I can say is… well, unprintable.

I’ve also just brewed a Shredded Wheat Bran Brown. Promising.

While these are just a few of the weird beers I have brewed, I do respect the ability to fit into a narrow category, yet brew a distinct, unique beer. The problem is I really have no interest in doing it myself. There are already many incredible versions of these beers. Plus, my favorite way to brew is minus borders: up until recently I had dropped measuring specific gravity. I know: sacrilege. But it was actually working quite well. Plus I got tired of buying hydrometers and coming back to use them only to find them broken: unused. Now I have a really nice refractometer: so nice I feel like I’m cheating on my beer or something.

I feel no desire to tweak some recipe to fit someone’s idea of what makes a “perfect version of a…” not even my own. If I were an astronaut I’d rather go deep into outer space and discover new planets than go into orbit around some planet visited by trillions of other astronauts. I’ve heard all the arguments that usually start with “you have to learn to go by the rules before you break them” and I have yet to meet a brewer that spent a lot of time doing nothing but brewing by strict guidelines that made excellent exotics. The best brewers I’ve met love making both and didn’t wait to “learn to go by the rules” to brew weird beers. I just wish I loved brewing in-category beers in the same way I love brewing weird beers. I envy those who do.

Am I that crazy and out of the box? Maybe not. But I think it’s obvious I have tried.

Many judges hate doing the specialty table. I admit: I’m rarely placed there for two reasons: the obvious…. I’ve often entered in that category; which disqualifies me from judging it, and because I always tell them: “Put me wherever you need judges the most.” But because of that last qualifier, when I judge somewhere other than my own Nashville competition, I do wind up on the specialty table from time to time. I enjoy it, but it’s tough. So undefined. You must have a base beer the judge can bounce off of, which I actually think is a tad unfair. The idea, I would think to a certain extent, is to create new categories we can judge, not just expand old ones. Yet I understand; probably more than any non-judge: you have to give a judge some handle to grab a hold of, some borders. Otherwise it would be like telling a judge in a criminal trial that there is no such thing as “illegal” or “legal.” It’s all a matter of opinion. How fair would that be?

I know far too many who would rather our justice system be more like that. Of course I think they’d change their minds fast if they were the defendant. And those who enter their beer in competition might feel the same way when they get forms back that are practically useless because the judges had no guidelines whatsoever. The lesson: everyone has preferences, that doesn’t make a beer bad or good. There has to be guidelines or preferences is all judges will have to go by. I really don’t care for lagers, for the most part. Does that make them bad? Of course not.

I enjoy the specialty table, although I use my dump bucket more there than on any other table… except maybe Belgian. I love Belgian beer too, but it’s all too easy to go from “oh boy, funk” into, “ewe, funky.” And its far too easy to get into, “OK, that’s enough of that,” taste bud sense.

Here’s one “specialty” that often has other judges wishing they were on some other table: I have had a few meat-based specialty beers: not my favorite, although oyster stout with plenty of smoked oysters can be interesting, or smoked salmon. It is a little too easy, as I wrote on one form, to paraphrase, for “the fish to swim away with the recipe.” So if someone wants to brew with their fresh kill: a Maine moose, hey I’m all for taking a sip… but maybe just a sip. Personally I would smoke it or use unique spices. On its own I’m not sure moose would make that much a difference until it did… and then you probably would rather have had the moose simply walked away from the recipe: or have bagged the hunter instead. And since moose don’t brew as far as we know, we’re probably safe from the other specialty that would arrive in our brew glasses from that hunt.

A glass of Britney Spears Stout, anyone?

I understand those who refuse to go this far off the mash “beaten” path. They can be excellent brewers, the discipline can help and it absolutely is to be admired. If I wasn’t so dedicated to brewing by the seat of my pants I would say to myself, “Why not do both?” Of course I have yet to brew my Fruit of the Loom Lager, or Hanes Hefeweizen. No plans yet. I’ll keep you posted if I ever do. But if it were high alcohol, I could call it, “Da Underwear Bomb… er.” Maybe I can share a few glasses with any inquiring representatives of Homeland Security who “come a knockin?” Do you they’d be knocking down my door to have some, or just knocking down my door?

I have said too many times to myself as I shake my head at some brewers arguing about who has the best equipment, or getting all anal about their beer, “It’s a friggin hobby, folks, a hobby. It’s supposed to be fun.” I suppose “fun” is a matter of personal definition. And as long as you don’t insist everyone be like you, or that all the beer I brew must fit perfectly “in category,” I won’t insist everyone toss out most standards.

We do need both.

Really.

We do.

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Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to review, discuss and comment 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.”

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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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