Behind the Scenes at Indiana Brewers Cup

For the 2013 version of the ever-popular Indiana Brewers Cup, a collection of brave souls came together to tackle the challenge of judging nearly 1300 homebrewed and professional beers in a span of 24 hours. As we adjust to steady growth in popularity, a few new changes were in effect this year. This was the first year an entry cap was in place with a limit of 900 homebrews and 400 commercial entries. While we did not actually hit the cap (despite what the registration system apparently told people at times), I believe the final tally brought us to around 880 homebrew and 370 professional entries. This still made it easily the largest Brewers Cup field yet with about 120 more homebrew entries. Second, there was a change in the way Brewery of the Year was determined on the professional side. Similar to the GABF competition, breweries were still free to enter as many beers as they wished but only 12 entries (of the brewery’s choice in advance) counted toward the points for Brewery of the Year. I thought this was a very positive change and ensured that everyone was on a level playing field regardless of brewery size, business model, etc. I serve as the Chief Steward for this event, which basically involves a lot of bottle wrangling and checking paperwork since we attract so many repeat stewards who do an excellent job of working independently. There were a few hiccups along the way that test your ability to adjust on the fly. You don’t expect printer incompatibility issues in 2013. You don’t expect a last minute trailer cooler replacement that doesn’t have any source of light (see pic of Dave Lemen below). But once things were off the ground, everything went fairly smooth. I can’t say thank you enough to the community of organizers, judges, and stewards who pull this off every year. You don’t want to hear me whine about how much work is involved, but those who have been involved in the process understand that it’s no small task. So without further adieu, here are some highlights (or lowlights) captured in photos from Saturday followed by observations and insights on beer competitions and judging.

Upland Brewing is already well known for their sours which have earned Best in Show professional the past two years. So while it wasn’t a major surprise to see Caleb accept the award for the third straight year, it might be considered a bit of an upset that the winning beer was Helios Pale Ale. Sun King took home their first Brewery of the Year award in a very competitive race thanks to the new format. We had some unexpected national entries from breweries I’d never heard of including Blackberry Farm (Tennessee), Galveston Island (Texas), and Pateros Creek (Colorado). Besides strong performances from Sun King and Upland; perennial contenders Bier Brewery, Crown Brewing, and Oaken Barrel had another good year. Side note: If you’re in central Indiana and have never had a chance to try Crown’s beer, make it a point to do so at the Microbrewers Festival. You won’t be sorry. On the homebrew side we had winners from brewers in states including Colorado, Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia (let’s just call them interlopers); but the Indiana brewers scored well again with a lot of different winners. Strong performances were turned in by consistently good brewers like Tom Wallbank, Chris Ingermann, and Brian Spaulding; while a few newcomers scored multiple wins as well. And some hack managed to work the name Poppi Rocketts into the list….which is awesome. While I should check my biases at the door, it was great to see my friend and occasional brewing collaborator Tim Palmer take this year’s Best in Show and Homebrewer of the Year awards. Make a big deal out of it if you see Tim, it will embarrass the hell out of him! If you have not checked out the full results yet, they are now available here.

A few comments on the future of Indiana Brewers Cup and other homebrew competitions. The hobby of homebrewing has exploded in popularity and the number of brewers interested in entering competitions has followed suit. This creates a dilemma for competition organizers when the number of certified judges does not keep pace. This was particularly exemplified in this year’s National Homebrew Competition (NHC), the classic example of a no-win situation for the American Homebrewers Association. Despite taking the unprecedented step of limiting individual entries for the first time in history, demand for this competition created an insane rush of entries when registration opened. Aided by some system issues, this created a very frustrating experience for many would-be entrants. I’ve heard a variety of solutions for this, and none of them are perfect (before guaranteeing one entry per AHA member, consider there are still 40,000 members). Some of the more popular competitions are going to have to decide how to balance allowing the maximum number of entries/participants with the quality of judging entrants will (and should) expect. NHC Regional sites cannot just accept an unlimited number of entries and ensure they will be judged by BJCP judges, nor can additional sites just be thrown together and staffed entirely by volunteers within a month. To handle the record number of entries, the Brewers Cup had to accept novice judges this year. Don’t take that the wrong way, our novice judges did a great job. But I know you homebrewers (I am you). If you get an unfavorable scoresheet from a novice judge, what’s your first thought going to be? What the heck is my point? Good question. 1) Expect to see more caps and various entry restrictions at larger competitions in the future. Try to understand that it just comes with the explosive growth of this hobby, and nobody intends it as a personal affront to you or your sure-fire winners. 2) If you want to help out, please consider working on your BJCP judge certification. You can find some info about exams here and Ron Smith’s Beer MBA class is a great place to start your studies if you’re local to central Indiana. 3) The good news is you can find a growing number of smaller competitions springing up in our region. These comps are often staffed by a large proportion of BJCP judges and you can receive excellent feedback if that is your main objective. You can find a list of upcoming competitions on the AHA calendar. Cheers, Nathan The following is commentary on beer judging from IB’s Greg Kitzmiller who served as a judge at the Indiana Brewers Cup…….. The Brewer’s Cup, of the Indiana State Fair, has not only grown bigger each year but also grown better each year. Despite minor flaws, of the competitions I do or have judged this is truly one of the best organized and professional. What makes it solid? Judges are lined up well in advance; judges’ expertise are carefully considered. And if you are a home brewer (me too) you will be glad to know that while Nathan correctly reports novice judges had to be recruited still all beers are judged by judging teams and novices are paired with experienced judges. Another plus is that judges know in advance what styles they will be judging. While I often suspect what styles I will judge, knowing a couple of days in advance gives me a chance to pull some of the best examples of those beers, find some on draught, and read the style guidelines as I drink these examples. Yes, this year I literally opened more than one bottle, drank about 5 oz. and then eventually poured that out so I could focus my palate on another example — all in the pursuit of giving that brewer the best advantage or the best attempt at judging their beer against some of the best. The Brewer’s Cup also draws some of the best judging talent in the Midwest. The top judges for the Kentucky State Fair or the Ohio State Fair and other major contests are here judging this one. I know judges come from all over the Midwest and I have judged with or enjoyed the company of many from Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and more. Beyond just judges many of the stewards handling the beer, checking the temperature, pulling the bottles, pouring the beer into pitchers for professional categories are brewers and/or have done this many times before. Anita Johnson did an excellent job of inspiring so many for this competition and Mike Freeman, Nathan Compton, Tom Stilabower, and many others have done a great job of making this professional.

Many of you know what it is like to judge. But yesterday I was asked, "how you judge beer without being biased by what you like." There are two forms of answer. First, all BJCP trained judges are taught to carefully evaluate a beer. We don’t have to love a particular attribute of a beer, but we should be able to recognize the attribute. Judges should recognize how the tongue perceives sweet, salty, sour, umami, and bitter. (In 2012 researchers at Washington University identified that the tongue also perceives fat, but that does not add to beer judging!) Thus, following carefully constructed guidelines for each style of beer, a judge can recognize and comment on distinct aspect of aroma, appearance, flavor and mouthfeel of a beer as well as general characteristics. The second aspect is that most of us volunteer to judge beers that we do appreciate often – although many experienced judges can and will judge any style and have learned to appreciate (perhaps not ‘love’) every style. For example, I am somewhat of a self described ‘nerd’ so when I am drinking a beer socially there are times that I pull out the style guidelines (or just remember them) and mentally judge that beer against those — a bit like ‘training’ in any other setting. For the brewer entering his or her beer it means someone has gone to great extent to evaluate that beer carefully against a strict set of guidelines and with an experienced beer palate and beer knowledge. What are some other downsides to beer competitions? First, on the plus side many if not most of the professional beers winning medals this year appear to be beers that you or I could actually have purchased from the brewery or at the brewpub. Yet, that is not always so. Commercial brewers are allowed to brew small batches for entry which means (and seems to happen with GABF) the beer that wins is not necessarily consumed by the masses drinking that brewers beers. Kudos to Indiana Breweries that received Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals for beers that we can find on the shelves or at their tapping room! Reviewing the list of winners it is clear if most, maybe all, were commercially available. Yet there is one other ‘wrinkle.’ Obviously if you were entering a car competition you would polish your car and if you drove to the competition you might spruce up that car a lot before judging. Likewise, brewers certainly bottle the beers at what they believe will be the ideal condition for judging in July. So I have actually judged beer where certainly I did not know what brewery it was from, but the score was so high (and I was judging with one of the top judges in the U.S.) that it became clear the beer I judged was a medal winner in that category. Some weeks later I happened to visit that brewery’s retail facility (I am masking this to hide the brewery and will only reveal that it was in Indiana but not my hometown). It was clear to me, as well as to my table of experienced beer lovers, that the beer we were drinking that particular day was not the best that brewery had put out. Since then I’ve had many fine beers from that brewery. But a medal does not completely guarantee that the beer in your glass later is the same beer the judge tasted. Just as true of homebrewers of course. So take heart, if your score was low remember if the first line judges got a bottle that was not the best example for you, that score reflects that bottle. Even then, I have asked to pull and have often seen this when there is oxidation perceived, the 2nd bottle just to give that brewer a chance in case the one bottle suffered. So for my friends that think beer judging must be the BEST possible hobby, I’d like to share with them some beers I’ve judged for which I really wished I did not have to take another swallow! On the other hand, given a choice I think I am very glad I get to judge beer and my hat is off to the swine judges! I’ll stick with beer.