A Beer Judge’s Diary: Erie County Fair Home Brew Competition

This ABJD is even more “diary” in nature than some because the story behind the adventure is as interesting as the event itself, and admittedly I know less event specifics than I should. For a complete list of winners please keep checking Erie County Fair’s Facebook Page. According to a recent post the first in show was Kevin DiTondo of Cheektowaga, NY with his Vienna Lager. Part of his winnings are having his beer brewed at Flying Bison Brewery in Buffalo.

By Ken Carman
  It’s April and I have a situation. I have lots of situations: story of my life, but I’m already veering off course. It’s Ken writing this, right?
 Anywhosie, like some fool writer who makes up his own words, Ken tends to make his own “situations,” and is good one. We have a boat to tow up north and, this year, a car too. The somewhat obscene sounding two ball rule means I can’t do the more dangerous thing and tow both. And for many unmentioned reasons that would extend this tale towards tedious, some of a somewhat self sabotaging nature, I need to tow the boat first.
 On the bright side, with my increasingly buff 64 year old body I’ll be able to fulfill my not so wet dream fantasy of flipping the 90 horse Evinrude upside down, use it like a propeller, and slide across the ice of Stillwater ten miles to Beaver River.
 My companion, best-est friend and marriage appointed legal guardian (because I REALLY need one), Millie, agrees to go with me. Because she’s a beer judge too, we agree to judge at Erie Fair in Hamburg, NY. We’ve judged at Amber Waves of Grain several times in the past but it was earlier than we could do. Plus I, while I needed help, I really wasn’t planning on flipping a 90 upside down and using the prop as a propeller. And if you haven’t figured out that was a joke to begin with and were able to read this far, I am REALLY, REALLY proud of you!
  Besides, my fellow judge friend Tim Belczak was actually judging this year rather than running the affair so we’d have a better chance to talk. Last I knew Tim was a National BJCP judge who really deserves Grand Master: not because he’s a snob and thinks he’s better than the rest of us peons, but because he’s really, really good.
Paula Smith, courtesy Twitter
 The plan was to stay in a motel Friday, judge Saturday, then head for the Adirondacks with the boat. Then, like my fictional boat joke, a real situation “propped up” that could have left us mid travel with no money. Being late we decided to straighten it out the next morning, sleep on the Thruway at a rest area; then stay at Motel 6 Saturday night. Except for tiredness that day probably a better plan anyway.
 Like my own competition: Old Forge BIG Beer and Odd Ale, this is Erie County’s 5th year. 3 flights Thursday, 8 in the AM on Saturday, and 6 on Saturday afternoon, 160 entries, held in a spacious Ag center on the fairgrounds. We greeted early Saturday by Paula Smith as we were waiting in the lot for things to open up. Payson the collie actually greeted Paula first. I think he may have greeted most of the judges that day as we walked him frequently.
 A little later Sean Wall (below and to the right) with his jet black hair and almost classic suave TV show hero looks arrived. This time I am NOT kidding. I kept trying to figure what famous actor he looks like. Sean was the other half of the judge coordinator, competition organizer, pair.
 The honorable, talented, Thomas Barnes appeared on stage just before the first act began. We had some great conversations with him and other judges this day, and not just about judging.
 After breakfast of bagels, donuts I skipped (Overloading on carbs was already a problem, why add sugar to a sleepy judge’s menu?) I was off to porters, Millie off to IPAs. Dan Gestwick was my fellow judge. Oddity: at least two were fairly sour. Huh? As I said to Dan, “Do they check a bottle before they enter?” Of course THAT bottle may have been fine. One bottle missed during sanitation being one possible cause, I suppose. These seemed to be more move on to the next entry situations, rather than check a second bottle to be sure.
 The amount of room for judging here is a pleasure. Often we find judge after judge, elbow to elbow, and my stage voice alone could be a disturbance in the beer judging force. Feel the power of the malt, Luke. Millie, meanwhile was about to feel the power of the IPA hops.
 Before we started the next flights the quite tall Terry Felton told me he was taking my wife away from me that afternoon. That’s Terry: always willing to help, though all that night I kept wondering, why does Millie have that subtle smile,
Terry Felton courtesy Taste NY Governor’s Cup Craft Beer Competition
and Terry seemed a tad taller?
 As usual I was clueless. Why was it; being mostly Welsh, Scot and English, like my wife and her new judging companion I was more than a little Brit BITTER-ED???
 A joke. Just a tiny joke, with not a lot of bite to it, the British supposed having more bad teeth as the mostly unwarranted cliche’ goes. They were doing Brit Bitters.
  Lunch was subs and wraps. Once that was a… wrap… I judged with Alex Placito: newly freshly minted National, and Tom Piwtorak: Witbier, Belgian Pale and Saison. We read the guidelines for each before judging: quiet time and reminders are not a bad notion, especially when doing three distinct styles, IMO. There has been a rare occasion when I’ve said to myself, “No, no, no you’re on SAISONS now, fool!”
Alex Placito courtesy Twitter
  I was amazed at how fast they were. Usually I’m first done at a table, unless a judge does what thou shalt not do: one or two sentences each. Maybe I was tired? Gee, how did that happen??? They completed judging each so well, so effortlessly, I felt humbled. It’s been a while since I judged in western NYS. I had forgotten how well clubs train, and how dedicated judges are, here. Discussions were pretty nuanced, which means we were all judging well; me perhaps the lesser of the three.
Another picture, this one partial, of big BOS

  I’m blaming it on the lack of sleep. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Ewe!!!
  They asked me to be a judge for BOS. Praise the beer gods! I love big BOS because the process of elimination can become so animated, discussion-wise. Plus it’s a great way to study how other judges think, assess. I view it like different painters painting a portrait of how we feel about already honored entries, and I’m not sure any single assessment, either way, is “off.” Then there’s always that ah, ha, moment when one realizes, “That’s what I sensed in that entry!” And the, “Oh, I missed that.”
 At this point it’s usually a matter of perceived a little too much, or too little, of this or that. Especially “that.” Always too much “that.” Stop putting THAT in your brews!
 Yes, “that” was a joke.
Tim Beclzak courtesy LinkedIn
 Well, like the donuts in the morning, we were well fried. I felt bad that, unknowingly, I was the one who suggested kicking out Tim Belczaks’s Mild. Hey, Tim, what are friends for? This was a matter of borderline perception for sure, what some of us thought might be a little too little, even for a style not so aggressive.
 So will we judge this again? Yes, if we can. Being over 500 miles away it may depend on our other plans, as life tends to do. But, to be honest, more likely than some. I tend to prefer small competitions over big ones. They just seem to be less intense, more focused, yet with more time for new and old friends to talk and enjoy love an art form we love: beer.

KenA Beer Judge’s Diary is one of many columns by Ken Carman, Certified BJCP beer judge, homebrewer since 1979 and seeker of both simple and complex quaffs who once upon a time thought he didn’t care all that much for beer. Then he discovered brews beyond the standard fare’ available on the east coast in the early 70s. Thus the adventure began.

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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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