A BJCP/AHA homebrew competition, here? Why: yes!!! And: why not?
The Topic: Small Competitions and the Best of Mississippi
Written by Ken Carman for Professorgoodales.net
Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years.
History was made.
Yes, there have been competitions, but the first officially sanctioned: BJCP and AHA competition in Mississippi was held November 19th, 2011 in Brandon, Mississippi: a suburb of Jackson. A competition in a state where homebrewing is still illegal. In fact I think Ole Miss. is one of the last states, if not the last.
Usually I just do a more news reporter-like competition story for The Professor when I cover my judging adventures, and save Brew Biz for reviews of brew businesses, interviews with important brewers and other facets of the biz. But I feel this column covers two important topics in beer world.
1. That history was made: Mississippi has taken another important step in not just legitimizing homebrew with their first sanctioned competition, but blazing a path that hopefully will be taken many, many more times.
2. Most sanctioned competitions I have judged at are blow out affairs with hundreds to close to a thousand entries, over 6,000 bottles at one. (3 bottles were required.) This was a very small competition with just two categories and a small stipend was offered to judges who traveled to the competition… and as those of who judge often know: judges frequently travel many miles at their own expense. But I would never decide against judging at a competition because it is small. In fact I find small competitions are like small towns and small churches: more intimate, more focused on the reasons why people gather together. Less on the pub crawl, less on competing with other big towns, or the huge coffee hour after the church service.
Big, more often than not, is not better: it’s worse.
That doesn’t mean I’ll stop judging at competitions like Bluebonnet where they had close to 6,000 bottles. It does mean, as a boy who lived near New York City when I was real young, but also a boy who loved it when he moved and started going to a K-12 school with only 500 students, I think I instinctively knew that small competitions like this would have as much, or more, to offer than brew-extravaganzas.
Not unlike the difference between being just one bottle of Bud amongst many on a mega-brewer’s bottling line or all the bottles in one special one off batch. A judge in a small competition might feel like one very special brew amongst a very small number of one off batches for an up and coming nano-brewery.
A lot more care and consideration is give when you’re not one of many.
But the object of my reverie awaits. Let’s move on to the main event: the first sanctioned homebrew competition held near Jackson, Mississippi: Brandon, actually.
Competition Organizer Brad Lovejoy: yeah, that’s him, was a gracious host and a grand organizer. We spent a lot of time on the web planning; E-mailing back and forth, about how judging was to be handled in this small, two category, competition. We had 4 judges: split into two teams of two for American Pale: category 10: then a mini Best of Show (BOS), and three judges for Stouts: 13. They had breakfast both days and we stayed up stairs for the night. Wow! I’m not used to this much attention since I’m usually one judge amongst many.
See what I mean about big is not always better?
J.L. Thompson: yes, that’s his full name, folks, both judged and talked to the judges, and the stewards, before we started. He did a great job and had asked me to chime in with any advice. Except for a few minor things I didn’t have to say anything. I thought from the start J.L. had it handled, and handle it well he did.
Lunch? Barbecued chicken and ribs in the tap room/game room with spillover going into the patio/pool area. A shout out to Squealgood BBQ who did the catering. There was tons of food: all very tasty. I personally scarfed down several chicken quarters, as did Batmutt and Frankincense, minus bones, of course. Chicken bones turn brittle with heat. They can hurt dogs.
“Squeal good?” Great name, though the pigs may differ. And I’m sure they did squeal a bit before magically appearing on our plates. Their sacrifice was well appreciated by all. And they certainly didn’t “turn brittle with heat.” They turned, “Yum!!!”
“Batmutt” and “Frankincense?” Yes, we did bring our dogs: a collie and a short chihuahua wannabe. We did ask first, of course, and Brad seemed fine with it. Since our dogs don’t care for beer they were kept out of the judging.
“Don’t care for beer?”
We actually cut lunch short to finish judging, so let’s get back to discussing the main event, shall we?
We started out the morning with Brad and his wife making breakfast while we discussed the day ahead. Then we sat as stewards brought us entries. What I liked the most is this competition had what all great competitions have: they become a learning experience for all. As the ranking judge I found: as I often do, that I learned as much from the abilities of those who are judging beer either for the first time in a sanctioned competition, or just starting, as I do from other Certified judges and those ranked higher. In fact I find higher ranked judges a mixed bag: some teach me a lot, yet some are so sure of their abilities they miss important defects or pleasures in a beer. Some are so wedded to guidelines they’d take a bland beer and put it first because it fits the guidelines perfectly, while passing on a better than superb beer that fits the guidelines… but is on the border.
We had a pretty good load: Pales were in the high twenties and Stouts made up the rest of the total: 45 entries. Judge Millie, moi’ and J.L. did Best of Show, which went very smoothly.
Of course the award ceremony in the tap room/game room was grand with plenty of schwag for all.
Oh, did I mention it was also part man cave and the bathroom there is set up for graffiti? (Of which there was plenty, even on the seat. Loved it!!!)
That night we assessed how it all went as we stopped by Hal and Mals for a few drinks. Service slow, the company excellent. A little tough to talk: while I enjoyed the entertainment the crowd noise combined with the very talented one man show was loud, the place was hot. I actually dozed off for a while.
Absolutely nothing to do with beer.
We stayed up until midnight discussing club politics, judging, competition and so many other beer related things I’m sure I’ve forgotten. Brad was happy that so many people came so far for the competition, places like Greenville, Winona, Grenada and Starkville were represented: well over 100 miles. J.L.’s from the Memphis area: the barely Mississippi part of the Memphis area. And let’s not forget Nashville: 400 plus miles.
AM: after Brad’s great breakfast we dealt with a flat tire I had discovered early that morning. At 6am I fought with it, and fought with it. The bloody thing just wouldn’t come off. T.L. and I finally got it off with more kicks from behind and a twist from me. Then Brad patched it. We put on the spare.
I know at least of one judge, no names mentioned, who avoided the competition because homebrewing is still illegal in the state. I’m not sure if he understood what I was saying when I pointed out that (A) just having homebrew, as far as we both knew, is not illegal and (B) having a competition and judging homebrew are not illegal. I did mentioned if they held a homebrew demonstration I might run the other direction. What I didn’t mention is that if you live in a state where it’s illegal just going there for events that support the professional aspects of homebrewing is a very proactive act. And the fact that it was all so personal and on a one on one level; just a few judges and stewards professionally assessing beer, makes the whole experience that much more important in how how home brewing is viewed by all.
If it didn’t get anyone in trouble I would have this column in every paper in Mississippi. Maybe it might show politicians and the citizens of Mississippi just how serious homebrewers are, how professional. Something to counter movies like Beerfest that portray beer folk as sloppy, drunken, louts.
To me this is what competition is all about: homebrewers, stewards and judges getting together to honor the craft of homebrewing by talking, judging and assessing beer in just this kind of sanctioned, professional, atmosphere. An atmosphere organized to assure we are judging the beer, not who brewed it; keeping the main focus on the entries: on the craft. While I enjoy the big competitions, despite spending hundreds of dollars a night for a motel/hotel room that doesn’t even have free Wifi in one case, and despite the chance to hear high profile speakers like Gordon Strong, John Palmer and Dave Miller, there’s something special about a small competition where we really get to know each other, and the beer we judge.
The biggest competition I’ve judged at so far is Bluebonnet, in Dallas, a few years ago. At the Scottish and Irish Ale table we had a disagreement about a Strong. I felt it might be a grand 60 or 70, but not a Strong. Fellow judges tried to convince me to go in with them and make it number one because they were pretty sure they knew who brewed it and “they’re always ‘spot on.'” I stuck to my assessment and we agreed to make another beer #1. Of course, if they knew who brewed it, they’re not supposed to judge it. And another problem: the organizer kept insisting before we agreed to judge a category that we were sure we were the absolute best judge for that category. Talk about unnecessary pressure. Who is ever really the “best” for any category? Indeed I find I tend to be a better judge when I don’t like some category all that much, and have never brewed it. Clears my mind of preconceived notions, preferences and prejudices.
I heard nothing of the sort during this competition. In fact, despite being the ranking judge, I found them all professional and, in some cases, with an ability to taste what I could not. People naturally vary in what they can and cannot taste no matter how “educated” the palate. In fact sometimes such “education” can achieve less than desirable results, like when judges confuse caramelization/toffee and other flavors with diacetyl. There’s nothing worse than being across from a highly ranked judge who absolutely knows some beer has…whatever… and you know he’s most likely wrong.
Tact is a necessary part of any judge’s arsenal, no matter what the rank or lackthereof.
The organizing was wunderbar. Or “wonderful,” for those who don’t speak German, or follow the Gesundheitsgeboatgesneezen. (Yes, I know it’s actually the “Reinheitsgebot.”) And, yes, there were a few small, minor niches like a lack of mechanical pencils, but I have seen far worse at competitions that have been going on for a long, long time. I remember at one competition: no names mentioned, the head judge at the table next to mine got a pull sheet with the names of the brewers on it; and this was a competition that had been run for a long time.
In fact we avoided a glitch no where near as bad as this when Brad pre-sent me a list of the beers to be judged including what the brewers had called their brews. With me: no harm, I knew nobody there: doubtful I’d know any of the brewers who entered. But those more familiar with the clubs involved might know what others tended to call their beers. For example, one of the brewers who often submits for the competition run by Music City Brewers always calls his beers “My Second Best…” …whatever the style might be.
This is a compliment when it comes to how the Best of Mississippi was run: Brad did the most important footwork before the main event to make sure everything was right. That’s why the schwag table was so well endowed…
Though I enjoyed the smallness of the competition, if it grows bigger that will also add to the supportive nature of an event that glorifies the craft… especially in a state where homebrewing is, technically, a crime.
So after the Lovejoy-Thompson Tire Patch Company: hosts and beer competition organizers extraordinaire, finished with the Jeep, Brad, his wife Selena and J.L. waved goodbye. Then it was to the beautiful Natchez Trace, heading back to Nashville. But I’m sure the tread on the Jeep’s tires will grace that beatific highway again again.
Now there will be at least one real good reason to visit to Jackson, MS again next year: to judge and celebrate good beer with such grand brew-loving folks.
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.”