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Judging the National Homebrew Competition takes stout effort

July 11-17, 2007

John Fogarty of Creedence Clearwater Revival had a bad time in Lodi. The local bar crowd didn't care for his songs, and the poor guy couldn't even afford a train ticket out of town. But me, well, I felt very appreciated the last time I visited Lodi. In fact, a crowd of spirited folks at the Lodi Beer Company, a pub and brewery, was practically begging me to stay and have another drink with them. And another. And another. And another. And another.

That's the burden one must bear when signed up to be a judge in round one of the annual National Homebrew Competition (NHC), even if it's past 3pm and we've been sipping beer since 10am and it's starting to rain and I'm on a bike and my train is pulling out of Stockton in just two hours.

The NHC consists of nine regions and two rounds of judging, and is the largest event of its sort in the world. This year, a total of nearly 5,000 beers brewed in kitchens across America and Canada were entered to win, and the Regional West event in Lodi this April saw 572 first-round entries in 26 categories. These homebrews were submitted by 96 hopeful amateurs from Hawaii, Nevada and California, including a dozen or so wine country locals. They sent in a sample bottle of each home-fermentation project, to be tasted, scrutinized and judged by the likes of me. Seventy-eight beers went to round two, held two weeks ago in Colorado, and Sonoma's own Carlo Camarda took a bronze medal for his IPA, while Byron Burch of Santa Rosa won a silver in the "Other Mead" category.

At the Lodi first round, I judged two flights of beer with a hundred or so other judges in the private-events room of the Lodi Beer Company. A flight of beer in the NHC consists of a half-dozen to a dozen brews, all of the same style. The beers are graded by a panel of two or three people sitting across from each other, looking for all the world like friends sharing a beer--except for their stern faces, the grading sheets and their blazing pens.

The rating system works on a scale of zero to 50, although competition organizers asked us before we started that we not stray below the "courtesy minimum" score of 13, even if a beer really sucks. Tasters within a single panel are also required to remain within a seven-point spread of each other. In other words, if you think a beer is wonderful and your partner thinks the same brew is fit for the nearest stream, you must reconsider your evaluation.

Experienced beer taster and homebrewer Beth Zangari sat as my judging partner and mentor for the stouts. She and I worked fairly efficiently as a panel, each beer requiring about 10 minutes of ponderous sipping and swirling, and we usually wound up with similar impressions of the stout we tasted. The stouts were divided into six sub-categories: dry, sweet, oatmeal, foreign extra, American and Russian imperial. I tasted some fine, creamy, sweet specimens and concluded that he who knows only Guinness is a deprived man.

Oh, the flavors of homemade stouts! Grain, malt, honey, butterscotch, cream, dried fruit, brandy and a plethora more of delicious elements may dominate a beer's profile. For a beer taster and judge, a knowledge of chemistry is helpful, as is the ability to interweave the aromas and smells detected by the palate and the brain with one's vocabulary. Not every judge can do it, and even after a sip of the most beautiful, creamy beer, I would sit and watch, amazed and slightly appalled, as Zangari fired off paragraph after paragraph of commentary, while I floundered.

At last she clued me in on a trick: "You've got to realize that probably no one is going to read more than two or three reviews by you, and if you use the same phrases again and again, it's fine. Copy and paste."

On my second round at the NHC, I joined a pair of Lodi locals, Bert and Roger, for a flight of eight Belgian ales. Together, we sipped from a fine Witbier that carried a wonderful overtone of rich butterscotch--they call that quality "diacetyl"--and a creamy grain profile. I gave it a 38.

"I gave it 16," Bert said. "It's a great beer, and the butterscotch is very nice and the sweetness is good, but if you read the guidelines for this style, it shouldn't have any of those flavors. It should have citrus and a sharp crispiness."

"Brewing to style" is a very basic skill for an ambitious beer maker to have, and this brewer had goofed up. Sadly, I had to shave 15 points off my score to make our panel's ratings align a little better, and with that the beer was sent off to the sink for dumping.

There are no monetary prizes in the NHC. Instead, winning beers and their masters receive ribbons, certificates and nominations, such as "Best of Show," "Meadmaker of the Year," "Homebrewer of the Year" and several more. Kim Bishop, a mechanical engineer in Santa Rosa, won second place for Fruit Beers in the first round with a raspberry-chocolate porter.

"I'm not so concerned with winning," she said. "I mainly appreciate the feedback on my beer, though having another ribbon for the wall is nice, too."

In a day and age so saturated with wine, wine literature, wine sections, wine countries, wine roads, wine bars and wine lists of 400 labels or more, we should commend brewers for imparting new flavors to the diet of America, as well as for their level of craftsmanship. After all, it is the whim and creativity of the brewer that ultimately drives every aspect of a beer: its aroma, flavor, strength, bitterness, sweetness, mouth-feel and body.

"Beer tends to attract people who are a little bit more on the techie side, because with beer you have almost complete control over what you make," said Byron Burch, an accomplished fermenter of many things and part owner of Santa Rosa's Beverage People, a homebrewing and home-winemaking supplies shop. "Wine is different, though. It's a celebration of the seasons. You do need good grapes, but with winemaking an awful lot is done for you."

Carlo Camarda of Sonoma won first-round first place for his IPA. A homebrewer with 12 years' experience, Camarda has refined his skills to the point where beer-making is not a game of chance but one of control, and by paying close attention to boiling duration, fermentation temperature, his blend of hops, time in the barrel and many other factors, he can replicate a favorite beer time and again.

"The greatest part of making a beer," he said, "is after six hours of starting the brewing and a month of fermenting and months more in the bottle, opening it up with some friends and finding that it's come out exactly how you planned for it to be."

But sometimes things go wrong. In Lodi, I sipped a Belgian ale that tasted marvelously of activated bread yeast, which is a good thing for bread yeast but a bad thing for beer. The most likely explanation is that some small microbe had colonized the bottle after the cap was sealed.

Other homebrews are remarkably nice, like that amazing oatmeal stout I tasted that carried thick and delicious notes of grain, malt, cream and dried figs, but which we had to sink because it was entered as an American stout. So it goes.

Among other things, a homebrew contest will demonstrate that amateurs can make darn good beer--almost good enough to convince a man to stay, have more and miss his train out of town, but not quite. Not in Lodi, anyway. We all know the Creedence song, and I didn't want to be singing a similar tune. So I left at just past 3pm, a little bit drunk, while the pens still blazed and the tasters still toiled.

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