Tag Archives: IPA

How a beer geek becomes a BJCP judge

It starts out innocently enough. A new home-brew supplies store opens up in your town. You stroll in there a few times. You think about how you used to home brew, long ago, in the late ’70s. That was right after home brewing became legal, when the easiest way to enjoy the hard-to-find English-style ales that you’d come to love while living in Europe was to brew your own. So you buy some equipment and you start to brew again…

Home brewing has come a long way since those early days. Back then I brewed with liquid extract that came in a can. I did use whole hops; I can’t recall which variety but there was probably only one choice, and it was probably Cascade. The beer I brewed was very drinkable, but I’d only brewed a few batches before good imported beers became easier to find and brewing no longer seemed worth my time. I gave away my equipment and didn’t think about it again for many years.

But then the home brew store opened, and CFL and I were intrigued. We joined the local home brew club, but it took us a couple more months to plunge in, buy the equipment, and actually brew. That was a little more than two years ago. From that point it was another ten months (and 20 batches) before we plunged again, bought some more equipment, and became all-grain brewers.

At first all I wanted to brew was English ales (mostly ESBs and porters) and all CFL wanted to brew was American Amber Ales. Neither of us cared for IPAs — they were just too bitter! But then the club decided to have a competition, and we were all asked to brew an IPA.

We tasted a few IPAs to try and get an idea of what they were supposed to taste like and why anyone would want to drink anything so bitter. We learned that they do have a refreshing “zing” that began to grow on us. We brewed an IPA, but it didn’t come out hoppy enough. So we brewed another. And another. Then Stone came out with their “Enjoy By” series and then somebody told us about an amazing beer called Pliny the Elder. Then we brewed a rye IPA and an imperial IPA and a black IPA. And then some more IPAs. Dang, these IPAs are addictive!

I found myself critically evaluating beers, discussing their relative merits with other home brewers, small craft brewers, and anyone else who would listen. Gradually I crossed the invisible line between beer drinker and beer enthusiast, and then I embraced my new identity as beer geek. PhD-holding, marathon-running, left-handed, vegetarian beer geek. Yeah, that’s me.

We heard about Hop and Brew School put on by Hop Union, the hop-processing cooperative that is the primary hop supplier to the craft brewing industry. We went to hop school in Yakima where we saw mountains of hops and our senses were overwhelmed by lupulins.

We came home with fresh Citra hops and we brewed a fresh-hop IPA.

Throughout this process I was using an app called Untappd to record, rate, and comment on every commercial beer I drank (you can find me on Untappd — I’m Slow Happy, of course). After a few hundred checkins I couldn’t help but develop a vocabulary to describe what I was tasting. CFL started to say that I had a great palate and I really should think about becoming a beer judge.

The American Homebrewers Association has a formal judge certification program called, you guessed it, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). I first learned about the BJCP because, in addition to certifying judges, they maintain the style guide which describes over 70 distinct styles of beer (not to mention a bunch of meads and ciders). Each beer style description specifies a given beer’s aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, history, ingredients, and “vital statistics” (ABV, gravity, and so on). As a home brewer, I prefer to brew specific styles and try to produce authentic, recognizable beers — as opposed to just tossing whatever I want into the kettle and calling it “beer.”

So CFL was urging me to become a judge, and I was reading and learning and thinking about all aspects of beer anyway. I’m always up for a challenge — why not study for the BJCP exam?

The BJCP program is structured and rigorous — it is NOT just about drinking lots of beer for fun! First I had to secure a seat in a judging exam. I sent some emails to exam administrators and was told, several times, that seats were usually reserved for the local club. Months went by before an administrator replied that he could fit me into an exam this past July. But I was getting ready for a three-week vacation in June and I knew I wouldn’t have time to study. So I asked to be wait-listed for a future exam.

I was offered another seat for October 25. I grabbed it! But to be eligible for the judging exam, I first had to pass the online entrance exam. This is a test of beer style knowledge. I spent weeks reading and rereading and rereading the BJCP style guide. The exam consists of 200 true/false, multiple-choice, and multi-choice-multi-answer questions that must be completed in 60 minutes. It was an intense, humbling 60 minutes, but on September 23 I passed it on my first attempt.

That left me a month to prepare for the judging exam. I got my hands on as many commercial beers representing as many styles as possible. This included styles I don’t enjoy like hefeweizens, Belgian ales, and (ugh!!) smoked beers. To find the more obscure styles, we made a few 150-mile round trips to a nearby city with a large bottle shop. CFL and I would come home with our goodies, sit down together, and open a bottle of beer. He’d happily quaff his half while I swirled, sniffed, sipped, savored, and filled out the judging sheet on my half.

Well, sometimes I just drank beer out of my shoe. We were camping and my hands got cold! Yes, that’s Fremont Interurban IPA — yum!

But mostly I was a serious student.

On October 25 we departed very early to drive 125 miles to the exam location for the 9:00 AM exam. I tasted six beers representing six styles and scribbled frantically for the 90-minute duration. I think I did fine for the first four beers, but my taste buds got a bit confused for the last two.

I won’t know whether I passed for three months or more! Because judging is, in some respects, a subjective exercise, the exams go through a rigorous review process by a panel of nationally-ranked judges to ensure that all judges nationally are doing things as similarly as possible.  This process takes time.

I seized an opportunity to sit again for the next exam, on January 25. Most people actually do pass, but this way if I didn’t pass I’ll have another chance. If I did pass and I can improve my score in January, that will help me advance more quickly up the beer judging hierarchy.

As a new “rank pending” BJCP judge, I was encouraged to volunteer to judge at an upcoming local competition. I did just that this past Saturday! I judged stouts and strong ales — and had fun and learned a lot. There were 29 judges, most of whom were bearded males, many no more than half my age. Yeah, these are my people. CFL came along and worked as a steward, bringing fresh glasses and crackers, and whisking away our discarded bottles. He enjoyed it too.

So that’s how a home brewer becomes a beer geek and then somehow goes all the way down the rabbit hole and becomes a judge. Or so I hope. I’ll let you know as soon as I get the email that says I passed!

P.S. While I was writing this today, I received the email giving me my official BJCP judge ID. I haven’t yet passed the exam, but I’m officially a member of the organization. Say hello to BJCP member D1404!

 

A week of beer tourism (part 2)

I left off my tale of our week of beer tourism with a big sigh, sadly bidding farewell to Russian River Brewery. It seemed that the rest of our trip would be anticlimactic, but there were still more treats in store!

Our next day’s travel took us 62 miles from Santa Rosa to Ukiah. We got a late, lazy start, which allowed us to have lunch just a few miles up the road at Bear Republic in Healdsburg. We ate on the shady patio, from which we could see the river-side trail that we would walk after lunch. Bear Republic is a large craft brewery with wide distribution, so we mostly tasted beers that we couldn’t get easily elsewhere. The standout beers for me were the Hallertau Blanc Rebellion (an IPA) and Cafe Racer 15 (a double IPA). Are you noticing a pattern here? I did actually quite enjoy their Maibock as well — it was delicate and not overly malty with a crisp peppery finish.

After our walk we continued north to Ukiah. We checked into our motel we set off on foot to Mendocino Brewing. The brewery has a great history, having first opened in 1983 as the Hopland Brewery. It was the first brewpub opened in California (second in the US) after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The original brewing equipment (and the brewers themselves) came from the then-recently closed New Albion Brewery. New Albion was a craft beer beacon in the darkness when the rest of the country was drinking nothing but light lagers.

Hopland Brewery’s name was soon changed to Mendocino Brewing. Their flagship Red Tail Ale brought them fame and attention from investors. In 1997 they were 75% bought out by United Breweries Group, a global brewery holding company. While they continue to brew Mendocino’s original recipes in Ukiah, they have essentially become a “crafty” brewery — one that is corporate-owned while masquerading as a genuine craft brewery.

Crafty or not, we wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt so we stopped by their taproom. Well, I wasn’t impressed. We and the lone bartender were the only people in the place. Their beers were all too malty, too bland, or in one case inappropriately sour. I have to say that the lack of passion and personal attention to their products definitely showed.

The bartender was kind enough to tell us about the other local brewery, so we tipped her well and moved on to Ukiah Brewing Company. What a difference! The place was busy and lively, and the beer and food were generally good. My favorite among the beers was the Coops Stout, which tasted appropriately of coffee and dark chocolate. The Pilsner Ukiah was another winner: unfiltered yet very pretty, crisp, and clean. Their IPA had a hint of sourness, but overall our experience at this brewpub was positive.

Our next day was another short driving day, which took us over some beautiful roads. We first went over the hills from Ukiah to Boonville for a stop at Anderson Valley Brewery. This is another well-known brewery with readily-available beers. They pride themselves on being located in a quaint small town (with its own alleged dialect!) in the middle of nowhere.

We were put off immediately by the brewery buildings, which were winery-cute. As an architect, CFL was offended by their unnecessary and too-fussy design details. We walked into the taproom, which wasn’t very busy, and it took us nearly five minutes to get the attention of the three sullen-looking employees behind the bar. Then while we were tasting we were bothered by a couple of ill-behaved dogs. When we complained, we were rather haughtily informed that this was a “dog-friendly” establishment. I guess we were supposed to enjoy our dog encounters there.

We took the brewery tour, but it was very brief and the tour guide was neither well-informed nor enthusiastic. However, we did appreciate the retro good looks of their copper equipment.

As for the Anderson Valley beers, we did enjoy all three of their IPAs (Hop Ottin IPA, Nettied Madge Black IPA, and Heelch o’ Hops), and their Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout is justly famous. But we couldn’t wait to get our of there, as our next stop was the seaside village of Mendocino.

CFL actually lived in Mendocino for a couple of years, almost 30 years ago. There are no breweries in Mendocino, but we spent the afternoon there walking along the headlands. My words can’t do it justice, so I’ll show you some photos.

Wasn’t that a nice break from drinking beer? We thought so.

Still, the road ahead promised more beer, so we carried on!

North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg is famous for Old Rasputin, a Russian Imperial Stout. I knew from my vast internet research that their brewpub menu was almost exclusively steak and seafood, so we chose to eat dinner beforehand at a Mexican restaurant across the street. With our tummies well-primed we then settled down to our evening’s tasting.

We sat in the bar, which was very busy but well-attended by a couple of entertaining bartenders. It was a Friday night and the mostly-local crowd was lively and friendly. The beers started out so-so with a couple of mild and unassertive beers. Things got a whole lot better with Old Stock Ale, which tasted of port, vanilla beans, berries, and saddle leather. Really nice. The star of the show was absolutely the Old Rasputin. I got a bit rhapsodic over the idea of drinking it there at the source, on nitro, most expertly served by the bartender who explained to me exactly how the nitro serving process works. A world-class tasting experience at a small but world-class brewery. Well done you guys — cheers!

Our motel in Fort Bragg was directly across from the beach, with a view that was so fetching I got up early the next morning to go for a run.

Once in the car we continued northward through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We took our time, driving along the Avenue of the Giants and stopping several times for short hikes through the trees. We have big trees where we live, but we still think the coast redwoods are very special.

Now back to the beer! We greatly enjoyed Eel River Brewing in Fortuna. Perhaps we enjoyed their beers so much because by this time we’d pretty much decided to limit our tasting to IPAs, double IPAs, and Imperial Stouts. “Amber? Meh. Blonde? Forget it.” Eel River’s Organic IPA, Citra IPA, and Emerald Triangle were all rather wonderful.

After a post-beer walk we moved on to our night’s destination in Eureka. We’d been to Lost Coast Brewery on a previous trip and eagerly anticipated a return visit. The brewpub is in a funky old downtown building. It was very busy on this Saturday night — we had to wait for a table. We tried their 20th Anniversary Ale, which utterly did not work for us. It tasted of bubblegum and watermelon — yuck! Fortunately their Double Trouble (a double IPA) was wonderful. Great big piny bitterness, resiny mouthfeel, assertive bitter orange finish. Mighty fine!

We did a lot of driving the next day, all the way back to Portland for our final night on the road. We were delayed nearly two hours by miles of road  construction. As a result, we had no time for pub crawling. We took the light rail into downtown and headed straight to the Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House for dinner and beer.

The date was June 29. I was tingly with anticipation because I knew that Black Butte XXVI had been released only two days prior. Deschutes does an annual release of a barrel-aged, augmented version of its famous Black Butte Porter, and it’s always well worth the hype.

We ordered a flight with our meal and I teased myself with Inversion IPA, Fresh Squeezed IPA and Hop in the Dark CDA (a black IPA), all of which were perfectly wonderful,  before moving on to the star of the evening.

I have to tell you that Black Butte XXVI brought tears — literally it brought tears! — to my eyes. It’s barrel-aged with added Theo Chocolate cocoa nibs, pomegranate molasses, and cranberries. I usually turn up my nose at added ingredients in beer, but Deschutes does it with perfect restraint. It’s lovely, both to drink and to look at.

I intended to leave the restaurant with several bottles of it, but alas, they had already sold out of bottles and were awaiting a delivery from the brewery in Bend two days later.

Three weeks later I still haven’t found it around home, but I’m hopeful that I’ll still be able to obtain some when we go to Bend later this summer.

We came home with a few remaining bottles of Pliny the Elder, a couple of  other  lesser beers, and some great memories. We visited 18 breweries and tasted (or in some cases drank a few pints of) something in the neighborhood of 130 to 140 distinct beers. We only had a few really bad ones.

There were three clear standouts, highlights of the whole trip: Pliny the Elder (because it’s Pliny!), Old Rasputin (perfect at the source) and Black Butte XXVI.

We’re already planning our next beer trip (did I say something about… BEND???). But for the time being, it’s good to be home.

Cheers!

 

A week of beer tourism (part 1)

When I last left off the tale, we were leaving Monterey after a week’s worth of car-club activities. We could have taken two days to drive home, but we opted instead for a slow, steady week’s worth of short drives, long walks, and serious beer tourism.

Central and northern California are home to some world-class craft breweries, and we made it our mission to visit as many of them as possible.

When we visit a brewery, we usually share a flight. This gives each of us about a 2-ounce taste of several beers. That way we get to sample lots of beers without actually drinking all that much. Then we always follow a tasting with a walk. In an hour or so we can tour a downtown and see it in a way that most tourists don’t, while adding up our daily mileage as well.

We’d actually incorporated beer tourism throughout our trip, beginning with a tour of the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles. They did a nice tour, almost 40 minutes worth of walking around the brewery before returning to the taproom for tastes. The guide was both knowledgeable and passionate; he enjoyed our nerdy nit-picky home brewer questions about the details of their brewing process. I bought a bottle of Parabola, a barrel-aged imperial stout, to take home.

In Santa Cruz we visited Seabright Brewery. We enjoyed the beachy vibe on their pink and turquoise patio. Their beers were all good but there were no standouts.

During our week in Monterey we made a few visits to Peter B’s brewpub in the Portola Hotel. Their Legend of Laguna IPA was quite nice. We also tasted several good beers from English Ales Brewery in nearby Marina, although we never made it to their taproom. We dashed into Alvarado Street Brewery just before closing time one night for a quick half pint of Duane’s World IPA.

Upon leaving Monterey we stayed a couple of nights with a niece of Chuck’s in the bay area. This allowed us to spend several hours in San Francisco walking to breweries. We couldn’t get into Anchor (their tours are booked six months in advance, and there is no other way to taste at the brewery), but we visited 21st Amendment (home of Brew Free! or Die IPA), Thirsty Bear, and Cellarmaker. The beers at Thirsty Bear were pretty good, but the food was awesome — it was an outstanding choice for our late lunch. Then at tiny Cellarmaker we encountered a beer called Coffee and Cigarettes. I don’t care for smoked beers, but this smoked porter was rather wonderful, and very aptly named.

The next day we began ever-so-slowly making our way northward. On a friend’s recommendation, we stopped in Fairfax to visit Iron Springs Brewery. Their Sless’ Stimulating Stout won a gold medal in the Oatmeal Stout category at the 2104 World Beer Cup. It was very nice, but my favorite was the Casey Jones Imperial IPA. We had to take an extra long walk after that one, but downtown Fairfax was absolutely charming.

From there  we drove just a few miles north to Petaluma, for Lagunitas Brewing. This is one of the big ones, with national distribution of their core beers. We sat in their shady patio enjoying laid-back live music and limited our tasting to small-batch beers that we can’t get at home. Night Time (a black IPA) and Fusion 22 (an IPA) were the standouts for me. It’s pretty clear that hops are an acquired taste, and we’ve turned into major hopheads. We love IPAs! Unfortunately Lagunitas is in the middle of an industrial park so we didn’t much enjoy our walk afterwards, but we soldiered on and got it done.

Then it was on to beer Mecca! We spent a night in Santa Rosa with a college friend of Chuck’s, which allowed us to visit a small local brewpub called Russian River Brewery. Their Pliny the Elder (a double IPA, natch!) has been voted the best beer in America by the members of the American Homebrewing Association for the last six years in a row. Their Pliny the Younger (a triple IPA), released each year in February, provokes 12-hour lines at the brewery and sells out in days. We’ve never tasted the Younger. We’d only had the Elder once before, in San Diego. Russian River’s distribution is extremely limited — it goes to select counties in California, a few places in Oregon and Colorado, and oddly to Philadelphia. For us, drinking Pliny at the source was a huge thrill that we believe every craft drinker must experience!

Russian River served up the largest flight I have ever seen. Despite their fame in the IPA realm, most of their beers are Belgian style (not our favorite) but it was Russian River so we had to sample everything. In this photo, however, you’ll notice that I’m hoisting a pint glass. I was taking microscopic sips of the Belgians but devoting most of my attention to that pint of Pliny.

Russian River was the one stop on our brewery tour where we actually bought beer apparel. We also bought a treasured six-pack of Pliny to go. A few of the bottles actually made it all the way home with us.

Gosh, I’ve only got partway through the week and I’m pushing 900 words already. I have more wonderful breweries to tell you about, but after Russian River I need to exhale!

Why am I still inside on this perfect summer day, anyway? I think I’ll stop writing for today and go for a bike ride.

Cheers!