People often speak of the best beers that they have ever had, but few discuss the worst ones that they have ever had nearly as often. I am often one to play the devil’s advocate and speak the unpopular ideas. So here it goes.
the best beer I have ever had was made by a hombrewer
I can recall that beer clearly. The beer was one that was served during a BJCP sanctioned beer competition. We had finished our judging session and were waiting around for the more experienced judges to finish deciding which beers from the session would move on to the final round.
I was curious to hear the discussion, so I hung around in earshot but kept my mouth shut. The head judge for the competition assembled his co-judges and he had an even number. To my surprise, I was invited to participate. I was surprised, and felt totally underqualified to be in their midst, but also felt quite honored to be asked.
We quickly got down to work. We quickly sampled all of the beer (there were seven or so) wordlessly so as not to influence each other and then we began. This part in the tasting process is not about scoresheets or feedback for the brewers. The job in this type of session is simply to select the best beers to move on to the best of show round.
After the sampling of all the beer, we quickly got to the business of sorting the wheat from the chaff. The process is to select the beer that is the best representative of its style. Of the beer that makes it to this selection process, each represented the best beers in their style or sub-style. This does not mean that all are equal, as some styles may not have been as well represented as others. This is a common phenomena as certain styles are simply more popular in competitions than others, and with more beer in a style you can expect to see a higher level of competitions.
With this knowledge in hand it is easy to understand how this step in the process goes. Of the seven or so beer that we had, we were able to eliminate a couple of beer rather quickly. It should be said that the beers that were eliminated quickly were not bad beers. They had no obvious faults, they just were not as good ambassadors for their style. Very little discussion was needed as the judges were unanimous on their choices.
Beers five through three were fairly easily selected as well, as there was no need to rank them in order. All were good examples that anyone would gladly drink, probably even more than one of.
That left the last two beer at the table. Only one could move on, and everyone there knew it. The two beers were complete opposites and this certainly polarized the judges, albeit in a friendly manner. If my memory serves correctly, one beer was a stout, and one an American style IPA.
The merits of each were discussed, as were the stylistic preferences of the judges. I thought that this was quite interesting. One judge was a clear fan of stouts, one of IPAs and both declared that before giving their opinions. I kept quiet, taking small samples of each repeatedly trying to determine which was the better beer.
I felt a fair bit of stress knowing that the two were great examples of their diametrically opposed styles. One would move on to the final round, and one would not, so I felt it important to get the decision right.
My comments were left to last as the judges began their narrowing down process. The votes were not officially cast yet, but it was apparent that the four other judges were pretty much split down the middle. The head judge, a fantastic guy, then turned to me and asked that I thought about the two remaining beers. After my intial panic subsided, knowing that my opinion on this might actually matter, I gave them my thoughts.
I started by explaining that first of all, I much prefer stouts over American IPAs for the most part. I thought that the stout was a great example of one. It was rich, slightly thick, with coffee and pleasant burnt/acrid notes. On the other hand, I thought that the IPA was also a great beer. It was an IPA that was non-standard, and it used a special ingredient that was matched to perfection.
That IPA was brewed with spruce tips (the new growth from spruce trees) and was so expertly done that, as I explained, you couldn’t tell where the hops ended and the spruce began. The Simcoe hops and spruce were so well matched that the beer had a magical quality. It was quite bitter, but pleasantly so. What appealed to me the most though, was that it was so well made that even I would have had several of them. Indeed, when the judging ended I told all the stewards and other judges to find the rest of the bottle and to try it. It was so good I can still remember it today.
After my opinion was given, the discussion did not go on much longer (not that my opinion was important, but merely that the process was nearing its end) as others discussed the merits of the beer. Eventually the IPA was pushed through to the finals.
For the record, the IPA went on to take best in show. In less than a month from now it will be brewed commercially as well. I will be looking to get my hands on a pile of it, because if it holds up to being brewed on a larger scale then it will be excellent.
Unfortunately, so was the worst
The worst beer that I ever had was absolutely awful. It tasted of acrid smoke, bandages left in the warm sun, nail polish remover and it had an oddly burnt clove-like spiciness as well. It turned the stomach to smell it, and tasting it was an effort of will that was certainly not for the faint of heart. The beer was served at a flavour training course (where tasting skills are developed by tasting and identifying the flavours of beer that has been adulterated with a variety of chemicals designed to replicate the taste and aroma of common “off flavours” found in flawed beers).
There were about 20 people trying this awful beer. Each was given a sample of about an ounce or two to sample and told what the style of the beer was. The session presenter gave the tasters a few minutes to smell, taste and think about the beer before opening the floor to comments. Everyone in the session was in agreement that the beer was terrible and then the characteristics of the beer was discussed. Many of the tasters successfully identified the problems in the beer (but some listed flavours/aromas that were not correct). As the session ended I was asked to speak on the beer and I did so rather matter-of-factly. The beer was mine, and I knew the flavours well.
Looking back, it is easy to diagnose the issues of the beer just with the descriptors used. All point to a beer that had yeast that was stressed. Moreover, any brewer of even moderate skill should be able to identify that those specific flaws are due to temperature control issues during fermentation. The beer had been fermented far too warm and the yeast exhibited their displeasure with the situation by leaving some not-too-subtle reminders for the consumer and producer.
The mistakes I made were great learning tools, and have never been repeated. At least this is one mistake that I learned from.
Some may have noticed that both beers mentioned here were homebrewed and that was for a reason.
So where is all this headed? In my next post I plan to discuss the idea of homebrewing, how it compares to commercial beer, and why.