The first Ratebeer Homebrew Competition wasn’t actually the first Ratebeer homebrew competition, of course. I ran an informal one last year after the Chicago summer party. There were a lot of fine beers there, and I figured since a lot of Ratebeerians were homebrewers, a more formal version thereof was required.
<P>So I set one up. Because the entries were probably going to come largely from the US, I decided I needed an American venue. I could easily have run one here in Toronto, but I didn’t want anyone’s beer consumed by thirsty customs agents.
<P>I was able to secure the Flying Bison Brewery in Buffalo as host. I tasted at a homebrew competition there last May, so I knew they had some experience in running things, which was a good back-up in case I made a catastrophic error or two. I also enlisted the help and palate of BJCP Master Judge and President of the Canadian Amateur Brewer’s Association, Mr. Paul Dickey. With him and Bison head Tim Herzog on board, the odds of staging a successful competition increased significantly.
<P>I decided to run with AHA scoresheets and BJCP guidelines for the fest. I don’t agree with all of their ideas, but at the end of the day, these guys know homebrew better than I do, and it would be silly to reinvent the wheel. This also meant that the competition would be evaluated on a “to style” basis.
<P>The entries all arrived at the last minute save one, which was a little disconcerting. But arrive they did and we loaded up jercraigs’ Ferrari to cruise down to Buffalo in the finest of style.
<P>We almost didn’t make it. Some decrepit troll of a border guard, a withered hag with the charm of a rotting corpse and the face to match, decided to take issue with us. We told her why we were coming down and she stared blankly into God knows what. We explained to her what beer was, and she still seemed mystified. She pressed us for our work papers, as though judging a homebrew competition was a paying job (I wish!). She wanted a letter of invitation from our “employer” to “work” in the US. Now, if such a letter did exist, it would be written by me, so I’m not sure what she thought that would accomplish. I didn’t bother to elaborate that one, since she was still trying to figure out what language we were speaking when we said “Internet”.
<P>So inside we went, where at least the people didn’t have the glazed crackhead eyes of the border guard outside. They actually got quite a kick out of it, and spent some time surfing the site, checking out all the local places on the Places page. I thought maybe they’d visit the Events page to check on whether there was a homebrew competition that day, but I didn’t see this happen. Anyway, they rightly deemed that this was hardly paying employment and thus we were free to go.
<P>After a little bit of set-up, we were almost ready to go with the tasting. Originally, we had six qualified judges lined up. Paul, myself, dhurtubise, Lyle “Smoked Hops” Ostrow from Premier Gourmet and a couple of other Buffalonian judges. Hurtubise dropped out a couple days before the competition, Lyle had a situation that prevented him from joining us, and I still don’t know what happened to the other judges. So we went from being well-stocked with judges, to having just two. So we enlisted all the Ratebeerians who were gathered for the event.
<P>I was a little apprehensive at first, because none had experience with judging homebrew. They all of course know how to evaluate beer, and that saved us from disaster. After Paul went over the sheet, we had a practice round with Flying Bison’s Dawn Patrol Gold. We were ready.
<P>We went with three judges for each beer instead of the usual two. This is largely because I wanted to have a senior judge on every beer, but also because it would help mitigate the impact of each individual judge, a good idea when one is using rookies. As it turns out, the judges acquitted themselves just fine when it came to evaluating the beers. In Paul’s group, the scores were almost always very close to one another. In my group, this was less in evidence, but since I was the guy who was out of line just as much as anyone else, that’s not inexperience so much as just differing palates. So the judging was totally cool, although lacking perhaps in the brewing advice aspect (I’m not exactly proficient in that regard myself).
<P>The lager category was won by a standout Doppelbock from Springslicker. This was very well made and I reckoned it would do some damage in the Best of Show round. The Belgian category I must admit was a little disappointing. I did a Belgian category last May and found much the same thing – homebrewers seem to have trouble with the Belgian stuff. There was one that I thought was quite good, but I was outvoted by the other two judges.
<P>The barley wines started off with a real winner from hey_kevin. Though he says it’s 9.5%, this was actually quite light-tasting. All the same, the balance was perfect.
<P>The British ales were declared a weak category by Paul’s team, though when I look at the scoresheets, there was an Old Ale in there that looks pretty good, and scored quite well also. The judges found the IPAs to largely be hop juice, but sent dirtymike’s very well-balanced Imperial IPA on to the next round. Rockinout’s Stout (see Recipe Page of the Magazine) took the stout category hands down.
<P>Paul and I judged the Best of Show. Two things of note here. One was that the doppelbock I loved so much in round one was not the same doppelbock we had in the BOS round. That was kind of oxidized and lifeless. I felt pretty bad about that. Quickly it was evident that Springslicker’s dunkelweizen was battling hey_kevin’s barley wine for third. The dunkelweizen smelled great, but I thought that if a blind man tasted it, it would be declared a hefeweizen. I also was heavily in favour of the barley wine simply because it tasted so good, light or not. It ended up taking third.
<P>The top two were that stout from Rockinout, and the Imperial IPA from dirtymike. We went back and forth on these two for about twenty minutes, until finally the stout took it all and Rockinout became the first ever Ratebeer Homebrew Champion.
<P>Because this inaugural event was small, we went with prizes for the Best of Show winners only (though Joe should have something for the category winners, too). First place was worth $100 at Marietta Homebrew Supply. Second place was worth $100 at Liquid Solutions. Third place was worth an obscure malt & hop package from Niagara Tradition, a Buffalo homebrew shop.
<P>Afterwards, we all went out to Premier Gourmet to do a little shopping, then for dinner at the Buffalo Tap Room. I’ve said before, one of the things about Buffalo is that is doesn’t have a dominant beer bar, but several places that are pretty good. I’d put the Tap Room a level below many of those, but they had a few decent options available. Their house beers are made by Custom Brewcrafters. Those guys have the world’s best flocculating yeast, I swear. I ordered up Unfiltered Rye and it was crystal clear.
<P>Bellies full, we headed back to frielock’s for some supplementary tasting. Of special note were the Fantôme Gourmande, Avec les Bons Voeux, and Achel Extra. IPFreely invited everyone to see his Magic Chouffe, but we declined. It was a long day, and soon it was over.
<P>But the fun wasn’t over! Whereas the day before we had an officious border guard conspiring against us, the return home we conspired against ourselves. It seems nobody was paying attention to how we got to frielock’s place. Moreover, nobody bothered to bring a map. Adding to the fun was our early morning exit, before anybody with knowledge of local geography was awake.
<P>So we took the scenic route back to the border, taking in Lockport and many pleasant country roads. Of course we did make it home, noting that as anal-retentive as American border guards can be, Canadian are screwed up in the other direction, so passive as to not even check ID. Hey, I don’t mind getting my beer sans-duty, but at least make sure I’m not a criminal. I live here, and it does worry me how lax we can be with border security.
<P>Anyway, that was my unedited take on the homebrew competition. All the comment sheets will be returned to the brewers shortly. I expect we’ll run another one of these things in late summer (but I won’t be around to run it so someone else will have to step up). Tuesdays are homebrew nights in the chat room, and there was an idea raised on the competition chat session that should be explored in detail.
<P>Extra special thanks go to those who made the homebrew competition a success – Paul Dickey; Tim Herzog and Flying Bison Brewery; Chris Foster and Marietta Homebrew Supply; Matt Maples at Liquid Solutions; Niagara Tradition; and all the Ratebeerians who sent in brews and judged the event.