Written by Ken Carman for professorgoodales.net
Often the first, and the last, contact a traveling: out of town, beer judge has for a competition is the judge coordinator, or “director” as they’re sometimes referred to. Last year my work schedule took me close to New York State, and I wondered, “Wouldn’t it be a hoot to judge beer in my native New York again?” Previous to that I had judged in Albany, NY at a competition known as the Knickerbocker.
So that’s how I wound up at Amber Waves of Grain, or AWOG: Buffalo area. Held at a Knights of Columbus in Niagara Falls, New York.
This year my schedule seemed cooperative, so I offered my Certified judge services up to Mr. Terry Felton again: beer judge director at AWOG. Yes, I’m “Certified,” but my readers already knew that: even those who read my other, non-beer related, columns, right?
Millie, my wife and also a beer judge, decided to go with, so we towed my work truck up to a client’s parking lot in Cortland, Ohio, looked at the snow surrounding my ancient tour bus in the storage area about 5 miles away, and decided to crash at a service area on the New York State Thruway instead of possibly getting stuck in a lot in Ohio.
Late March, snow, Ohio? Yup, and we could hear Phil from Punxsutawney laughing just across the border, while Bill Murray was muttering about an “over sized rat.” And, yes, I wrote that before all those Facebook Phil jokes.
So two semi-rested beer judges registered and headed off to see what we were judging after a very brief talk with Terry Felton. Actually: correction. No need to “head off.” Terry already had our assignments up on a big white board that latter he erased and reused for the second sessions. I took a picture of the board, but it didn’t come out, but you can see part of it to the right in the picture of Terry.
That was grand: usually I find a lot of confusion surrounds trying to find out what I’m judging at some competitions. The big board was perfect.
Last year I wrote about this affair in one of my other columns: Brew Biz: Werts and All. This year I decided to try something different and interview Terry Felton, judge coordinator. He has also been the competition organizer, but he prefers working with the judges.
I have found Terry professional and focused on putting beer judges together in perfect combinations. When I first contacted Terry about judging again, I mentioned Millie was thinking of judging too, and said if it was more convenient for them we could judge together. It wasn’t a request in any sense. He immediately responded he wouldn’t do that…
“I don’t put judges together from the same family, I even try to put judges together from different regions: there are regional preferences when it comes to beer.”
That’s wise, in my opinion. I have noticed that score sheets can start to look a bit too much alike when I judge with someone I know too well, and even look alike when judging with fellow club members. Indeed, at AWOG, I have noticed judging teams often have varied opinions and palates, and that’s a good thing.
From our conversations and personal observation I would say that Terry arrived at this preference for being the judge director from not only finding satisfaction working with judges, but enjoying judging himself. But I think my interest in doing a Diary column featuring Terry started last year as a judge at AWOG. I have found judging at AWOG a bit more contentious than some competitions: but in a good way. The scores seem to reflect variations in palates, which is important. And the quality of judges better than many competitions I have judged at: more Nationals, more Certified judges and more folks like Tom Barnes.
Teams of two. Two teams at the table. While Millie, my wife, judged at the same table as Tina Weymann and her fellow judge in the afternoon, I judged beside Tom Barnes with his fellow judge, for the afternoon session, after subs for lunch: provided by the club via Wegmans. (Niagara Association of Homebrewers) I was very impressed. Yes, the subs were good, but I was talking about Tom: one of the judges Terry signs up for AWOG. Between the entries my fellow judge and I were assessing, I could hear snatches of conversations between the other two judges. Tom was, essentially, training the judge across the table from him, and training him well. Tom would explain why that judge would sense something he didn’t and vice versa. Not one comment was condescending, and most were very complimentary, encouraging.
After the two judging teams finished, Tom and I, along with another judge, did a mini-BOS.
There was one beer before mini-BOS that I had felt should have been scored higher earlier, but ended up with a lower score. One of us came in high, obviously, another significantly lower: so we adjusted scores to come within 5 points. That’s all part of good judging, in my opinion. But later on that beer wound up being placed first, as Tom said, “That’s perfect for the style.” Then, without recrimination, he added, “I have a feeling your side fell down on the job a bit on this one.” I couldn’t disagree, so I commented back, “Yes, I agree: but such are the hazards of adjusting scores due to different palates.”
This is an important component of judging, since we all sense things a bit differently. It’s also a sign that judging has double checks that work well, especially with really good judges. Don’t get me wrong: everyone at the table did a good job, it just takes different palates to do the best job possible, and Terry’s method of pairing judges seems to accentuate that. Mini-BOS, in my opinion, can be a great palate check. Sometimes a great entry can be your first beer and wind up with a lower score, perhaps, than it should. Sometimes an entry is at the end of the flight, and palates are a bit over used, or even hoping too much for a really great entry. Mini-BOS, in my opinion, helps correct that with the best and most accurate to the style entries on the table.
AWOG had a lot of Mini-BOS’, from what I observed. Indeed, we seemed to be paired up that way so there would be a Mini. For me that’s the best scenario: more palates can translate into better judging.
I found Tom’s approach to judging incredibly insightful. I wish I had taken a picture of Tom, but all I can say is, “Oops.” But I have used Tom as an example to show you that this is the quality of the judges AWOG attracts. And Terry, in large part, is one of the biggest reasons, I believe.
I felt lucky to be among so many good judges. Quite a few of local club members just took the online test and passed: some scoring quite high.
So what do we have? Judges paired together with different perspectives, and a competition that attracts not just well qualified judges, but very talented judges whose focus on beer, like Tom’s, is intense.
What’s this magic Terry has? To me, I think in part, it’s his personal philosophy. Here’s how Terry explained it to me…
1. The entrants deserve the best evaluations possible for their beer. The feedback should be relevant and helpful. Praise them when they do a really good job, and encourage them to improve when necessary.
2. Recruiting and training new judges happens at competitions. Get new brewers and beer geeks to come steward and see what judging is all about. Try to let stewards have small samples so they can listen and learn when the judges discuss the entries. This is where new judges first learn what DMS and diacetyl are. It may be where they first learn to distinguish Pilsner from Munich from Pale Ale. Our three local clubs have produced about a dozen new judges in the last three years just from people who stewarded in our 2011 competition 2 years ago.
3. Diversity is important at the judging tables. I never let buddies or spouses judge together if I can avoid it. People who drink together every day develop many of the same prejudices and blind spots. People who hang out at the same one or two bars or breweries can get inured to certain flaws. And besides, if you just want to hang with your bud, why bother going to a competition? Meeting new judges and learning from them is one of the best reasons to attend a homebrew competition.
4. Try to push judges out of their comfort zones when they are ready. This doesn’t work for all of them, but many will be glad you gave them a nudge. Several of our judges have been at it for 15 years, yet still refuse to judge Belgian and French Ales, or Smoked Beers. Others have grudgingly agreed to help out when I needed a judge for Sour Ales or Light Hybrids, and came back and thanked me for exposing them to something new.
May I also add that, while it may be tough to do because competitions are often run by just one homebrew club, I would think pairing members of different clubs, as much as possible, in judging teams would be wise. Not only does Terry’s comment about regional differences apply on a smaller scale here, but I think club dynamics can be problematic: either too much “buds,” or internal conflicts within a club. As a member of three clubs: they happen, trust me, dear reader… as they do in all organizations. I have seen it too many times: unknown, perhaps, but to the two of them, tension that’s been barely under the surface, that really has nothing to do with beer, bubbles up during judging. For various reasons they just don’t like, or respect, each other. Then, while it may sound like they’re arguing about beer or protocol, the focus is really off the beer and more onto what becomes a testosterone contest.
And, of course, similarities in taste in one region can be offset by judging with someone from somewhere else, as Terry suggested to me.
Here are some more questions I asked. By the way: love the humor…
What do you like the most about working with judges?
Very little. They’re uncooperative, unreliable, and most have terrible hygiene. Actually – I find all of them fairly altruistic, as none seem to approach judging as a way of showing off or lording it over lesser brewers. All the judges I’ve met do it to help brewers improve their skills.
How long have you been coordinator?
I think this was my third or fourth time, not all consecutively.
You told me what other positions you’ve had in the competition, what were those?
I organized the competition in 2007, and was just a general hand two or three years before that. I stewarded in 2004, and then judged every year after I became a judge in 2005.
You told me you were retired. What did you do before retiring?
I’m retired from Motorola as a software engineer.
If you were to buy a neon flashing welcome mat to encourage great judges to AWOG, what kind of judges would you like to attract?
The same kind we’ve been attracting. With few exceptions, we have really good judges already. More than once I’ve been told by entrants that the sheets they get back from Amber Waves of Grain are better and more helpful than any they’ve got from other competitions.
If you could use a catapult on your least fav type of judges what kind would you like to send as far away from AWOG as possible?
I won’t tolerate judges who feel they must abuse and insult entrants for entering less than perfect beer. If someone sends in a total train wreck, they most likely are looking for help in figuring out how to avoid repeating it. They most likely already know it’s bad. Beating them up about it is just rude. I’m not sure there are many trained judges who operate like this however.
Other competition personnel included Todd Snyder as Competition Organizer, Tim Collins as Registrar, Erik Stelrect as Head Steward, Jim Gorman, Adam Deso dealing with prizes, Peter Marra who worked with most of the data a competition has, Sue Snyder: Site Coordinator and Keith Curtachio for the banquet and handling the media. It takes a lot of folks to do this kind of event right, and AWOG does.
According to Tim Collins this year’s competition had 521 entries, their second highest number of entries, and about 55 judges, 22 stewards spread over Friday and Saturday. Entries arrived from all across the country. It started about 17 years ago “at the Buffalo Beer Festival.” They outgrew that venue, moved on to Pearl Street Grill & Brewery: a Buffalo brewpub then, as it grew bigger, was moved to Flying Bison Brewery: a local micro, and finally became an event unto its own at the present location: Knights of Columbus in Niagara Falls, NY. They added Friday judging sessions about 12 years ago, and as the competition got even bigger: two full days of judging for about 8 years.
To give further credit, this competition was started by several clubs according to Tim Collins…
“AWOG was originally started by a combination of Tim Herzog of Flying Bison Brewing (& Sultans of Swig), Paul & Becky Dyster of Niagara Traditions Homebrew Supplies (& Niagara Association of Homebrewers), Gordon Diffenderfer of the ALERS from Ellicottville, Thomas Heftka of LAMBIC, Ed D’ Anna from Niagara Association of Homebrewers and myself from Brewbonic Plague & Niagara Association of Homebrewers. There are several clubs in Western New York. Niagara Association of Homebrewers, Sultans of Swig and Junkshow are the three most prevalent at the moment. There are also Brewbonic Plague, LAMBIC, and a couple of other small organizations, or non AHA clubs. The people who love to compete from each club seem to all know each other well, and we have had several cross club brews or collaborations with local breweries. I fact I will be brewing with Kyle Costello of Junkshow later this month. We all just love the hobby, regardless of the club we started with.”
Clubs sometimes slow down: becoming less active overall or “otherwise involved,” or even die, unfortunately, so AWOG is run mostly these days by Buffalo’s Niagara Association of Homebrewers and Sultans of Swig. Terry is a member of both.
Just before we headed off to the awards dinner I heard a judge commenting to Terry, “A very well run competition.” I would have to agree, so before I left I told Terry that too.