Volunteering at the National Homebrewers Competition, round 1

We didn’t quite have the guts to enter one of our own beers, but when the call went out for volunteers to help at the first round of the National Homebrewers Competition, we eagerly raised our hands!

Is NHC a big deal? Well, there were 12 judging centers all across the country this year, and each of those 12 centers accepted 750 entries. Do the math: that’s 9,000 homebrews! Registration was filled within hours. Yes, it’s that big.

As beginning homebrewers, we volunteered to be stewards. It’s the steward’s job to bring the right beer to each judging table at the right time, to keep the tables supplied with judging forms, pencils, glasses, water, crackers… and occasionally to gratefully accept a few sips of a beer that a judge might decide is worth sharing.

According to the official style guidelines, beers are classified into 20+ styles, each of which has several sub-styles. For this competition each style had its own “queue” (or several queues for popular styles like IPA). Each steward was responsible for coordinating all the beers within his or her queue.

We volunteered for the Saturday afternoon session, which was the third of three judging sessions in Seattle. The event was held at the Pyramid Brewery in downtown Seattle, within walking distance of the ferry. We walked there in a gentle spring PNW downpour.

Once we’d checked in, the head steward gave us a quick briefing and then instructed us to wander through the tables and ask who needed a steward.

So we wandered. We stopped a likely looking table and asked. We got an unexpected response: “We need a steward. But what we REALLY need is someone who is willing to sit in as a novice judge.”

It took me (LKS) a couple of nanoseconds to respond: “I would LOVE to! Which style are you judging?”

The answer: strong ales — a style I have actually BREWED! Strong ales are amped-up English-style ales. The three sub-styles are Old Ale (of which Slow Happy Brewing’s “Grand Festivus XII” is an example), English Barleywine (our “Ides of Festivus XIII”) and American Barleywine (like the English version but with American hops).

So I found myself sitting down with two very experienced beer judges who walked me through each step of the process, asked me what I was smelling and tasting, validated my perceptions, and encouraged me to put them in writing on the judging form.

We judged eight Old Ales. Two were excellent, one was pretty good, three were okay and two had obviously gone bad somewhere during the process of shipping and storing.

Almost three hours passed while I experienced utter tunnel vision. I was oblivious to everything in the world but the feeling of being completely immersed in those beers. It is an amazing experience of concentration and flow.

The pours are only about three ounces, and I was probably only drinking half of each pour. It was absolutely not about consuming alcohol; rather it was completely about absorbing and seeking to understand the subtleties and intricacies of each beer.

I think I was on the fifth beer before it occurred to me to share a bit of my glass with our loyal and patient steward, my very dear CFL!

When we finished our queue of eight beers, I was elated and exhausted, but not too sated to go downstairs and enjoy a couple of pints of Pyramid’s Outburst Imperial IPA along with an excellent margarita pizza.

It was a good day!

I’ve been seriously working at cultivating my nose and my taste buds for a while now. I’ve been thinking about attempting the judge qualifying exam, but I’ve been reluctant to commit that much time to actually studying for something. By offering me a chance to try judging and coaching me through it, those two judges from the American Homebrewers Association opened a door that I could not otherwise have dreamed of going through. I’m very grateful.

I will never taste beer in quite the same way again.

And yes, I’m going to take that judge qualifying exam and make it official!

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