Trained judges determine best home brews at fair
Jim Koebel lifted a slim, brown beer bottle from a cold six-pack that was unmarked, except for a few crucial details written on tags hanging from the bottles' necks.
The entry number (93280) and the type of Belgian Ale (Witbier) introduced Koebel to the first of 10 Belgian Ales he and Dave Justice would swish, swirl and taste Sunday at the Great Frederick Fair grounds.
Using an opener attached to his car keys, Koebel, a volunteer beer judge for the fair, pried the metal cap from the bottle and turned to Justice, seated across the table inside the 4-H building.
"I guess for consistency's sake I'll pour straight down the glass?" Koebel asked Justice, a home brewer and president of Frederick's Original Ale Makers (FOAM), a home brewing club. The name of the home brewer was taped over so Koebel and Justice remained impartial.
Justice agreed and the two men set to work to determine which of the 10 entries in the Belgian Ale category were worthy of first, second and third places at The Great Frederick Fair. Justice, a Knoxville resident, had won first place in the Belgian Ale category last year and prefers to drink Belgian Ales, which he described as "assertive," flavorful beers.
Around the room, 24 experienced judges popped open bottles in the other 10 home brew categories — various lager, stout, wheat and amber beers — and filled clear plastic cups with a couple swallows of beer.
With looks of concentration and serious thought etched on their faces, the all-male panel of judges, clustered in groups of two and four, held the samples at eye-level, tilting and angling the brews, swirling, smelling and taking sips.
Pencils in hand, Justice and Koebel dutifully detailed and gave points for the Witbier's golden yellow appearance, flavor and overall impression on score sheets until the sample was gone.
Next to their paperwork, a Styrofoam bowl of saltine crackers and bottles of water waited to cleanse their palates before the next beer was opened and the judging process resumed.
Mike Lamb, a volunteer and home brewer, checked periodically on each table's progress. He stopped when he got to Justice and Koebel, putting his hand on the six-pack of entries.
"I guess you wanted these out to get them a little warmer?" he asked.
Beers are best judged when at "cellar temperature," Koebel had noted earlier, and the chilled six-pack was slightly colder than he and Justice preferred.
"Yeah," Justice said, pausing briefly from his Beer Judge Certification Program score sheet to look up at Lamb.
Minutes later, the men put down their pencils and empty cups. Behind their table, other judges' quiet chatter, spurts of laughter and comments swirled around them in the beer-scented air.
"It's alright," Justice said of the Witbier.
"I give it a 33," Koebel noted of the score.
The Witbier's flavor was fruity, citrus-like and spicy — all good flavors — but the strong presence of hops blocked some of this good taste, they said.
Taking a combined average of their scores, Justice and Koebel gave the Witbier a 31.5 score or a rating of "very good," which according to the Beer Judge Certification Program — a national organization that certifies and ranks beer judges — means the beer was generally within that style, though it had some minor flaws.
Justice said he had not brewed Belgian Ales for the fair this year and requested to judge this category.
He noted that since Belgians have held on to their unique brewing traditions, the country's beers are more varied and different from Germany's, for example.
The varied styles sometimes make it easier to judge, Justice said, though Koebel added that it can be an intimidating category to learn.
The Great Frederick Fair's home brew contest has 11 general categories of beer, but the Beer Judge Certification Program breaks them down into specific types of beer for a total of 82 different styles.
Home brewers can stick to the fair's broad categories or brew more specific types of beer — such as a Witbier, Saison, Weissbier or Oktoberfest — and submit them for judging.
Justice said The Great Frederick Fair's home brew contest is a BJCP-sanctioned event with judges evaluating the beers according to the program's guidelines and scoring.
Some beer judges at the fair have taken the certification exam proctored by the Beer Judge Certification Program, while others are simply seasoned judges, Justice said.
Koebel of Berwyn Heights said he has worked his way up to "apprentice," the beginning rank for judges in the program and has been judging for nearly five months. A judge's exam score and experience points determine his or her rank.
"This is how we get experience points by doing things like [The Great Frederick Fair]," Justice noted.