I flew from my bed just after six to silence the music blaring out of my alarm and I now regret jacking up the volume to ensure I didn’t sleep through its call to consciousness. Sitting back down I groaned recalling my previous morning’s complaint that “This will be the earliest I have been awake in at least six months… until tomorrow… ” That ungodly hour of rising was prompted by the unfortunate task of picking up my car with its newly replaced alternator. The only real bright side to this expensive infringement on my beer budget being that the car troubles happened close to home. Having the car choose to die on the way across the border to Buffalo for the Ratebeer Homebrew Competition - the reason for this morning’s early departure – would have been significantly more inconvenient. .
<P>After collecting Josh Oakes and brewer Paul Dickey at the subway station in Toronto, we were on our way. Blessed with light traffic we arrived in Buffalo with enough time to line our bellies with a hearty breakfast. We picked up some additional prizes from Niagara Tradition homebrew supplies before heading to Flying Bison for the Homebrew Competition. The selection of ingredients and gear there was inspiring and got me daydreaming about getting back into brewing myself.
<P>Many of use were not expecting to be judges when we got there, but we were all eager to try the beers submitted. The judging was split into two panels led by Paul and Josh and rounded out with the Ratebeerians present acting as novice judges. Panel 1 consisted of Paul Dickey, IPfreely, and Rudolf judging English Styles, Stouts, and IPA. Panel 2 consisted of Oakes, DYCsoccer17, frielock, and me judging Lagers, Belgians, and Barleywines.
<P>In addition to being the head brewer at Pepperwood Bistro in Burlington, Ontario, Paul Dickey is also a Master Judge in the BJCP and previously achieved Grand Master Brewer status in the Canadian Amateur Brewers Association. Paul mentioned afterwards that the novice judges did an excellent job and noted that “discussing what to expect from each style before tasting the beer helped to ensure that everyone was on the same page.” Having someone with Paul’s experience there was definitely educational for those of us new to homebrew judging. “I learned a great deal about how certain off aromas and flavors are indicative of something wrong in a certain aspect of the brew. Also, Paul was a tremendous help. “I feel like his knowledge rubbed off onto me a bit.” said IPFreely.
<P>As a novice to judging homebrew I found the process to be quite interesting. Especially interesting is how the framework provided by the judging sheets helps focus the judge’s attention on particular aspects of each beer. Rudolf agreed, saying that “the forms we used helped me verbalize a lot of things that I had previously recognized, but not understood how to express.”
<P>The novice judges agreed that judging was a comparable experience to rating beers for Ratebeer, with an added emphasis on technical merit and rating ‘to style.’ DYCSoccer17 found it “a little more analytical [than Ratebeer] though. It seemed more important to put my best effort forward for each beer, seeing that the homebrewers spent postage and time with these beers and they were definitely owed as best feedback as I could give them.” I think this reflects the attitude of all the judges, who demonstrated a concerted effort to ensure that feedback was constructive and helpful to the brewers. Overall, the only real disappointment for us novice judges was the unanimous complaint of not getting to taste all of the beers!
<P>The few batches of homebrew I had under my belt were not exceptionally good, so I was impressed by the overall quality of the beers submitted, a sentiment echoed by Paul and the other judges. My personal favorites from our panel were the three sent on to the best of show round: a pleasantly sweet doppelbock, a refreshing dunkleweizen, and a deliciously restrained but flavorful barley wine. Frielock agreed saying “I really liked the dopplebock and it is unfortunate that the second bottle was off because I think that might have won otherwise.”
<P>While Paul and Oakes judged the Best of Show round, the rest of us adjourned to sample Flying Bison’s well-made brews. I can see polishing off a pint or three of these beers in an evening. I don’t think that the rating numbers - including mine - necessarily do justice to these very drinkable beers. If nothing else, the near constant flow of people coming in to fill up growlers over the course of the day is a testament to their support from the local beer scene.
<P>After enjoying some wings and a beer at the Buffalo Taproom (where I was shocked to see half the people drinking bottled Labatt Blue) we retired to Frielock’s for tastings of some interesting beers picked up from Premier Gourmet, and the locals pulled out some of their own stash to share. World Wide Stout 2003, Bos Keun, and Victory Old Horizontal were among my own purchases and Alpha Klaus, Achel Extra, and Founder’s Imperial Stout made an appearance as well. Premier was a treat for me since it has been some time since I’ve been somewhere with the degree of quality and selection available there. I left a lot of my first choices such as Olde School Barleywine, Westy 8, and Cantillon on the shelf because I didn’t want my credit card to melt like my mouth did after an ill-advised sampling of habañero cheese from the deli. A good half hour later the fire of the cheese still lingered.
<P>All in all it was great trip, even with an unfortunate detour through Lockport on the drive home. Taking the scenic route did however give me the opportunity to ponder the merits of a gas station offering a 30 pack of Keystone Light for about the same price as I paid for my bottle of World Wide Stout. Many thanks go out to Tim and the guys at Flying Bison for all of their work, the people who submitted beers for the competition, and the local Ratebeerians who joined us for the weekend!
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Taking the scenic route did however give me the opportunity to ponder the merits of a gas station offering a 30 pack of Keystone Light for about the same price as I paid for my bottle of World Wide Stout.