Jocular isn’t a pretty word, which is too bad, because that was the vibe at this year’s homebrew judging session at Pemberton Park, during the Good Beer Festival. It was a filthy day and it was outrageously early, especially for being the second day of a beer festival, but the mood was light and engaged as well as serious. Everyone there was a volunteer because everyone there doesn’t just love beer, they love the idea of beer. That is, they like the fact that people want to make good beer, and want to help encourage that desire.
I once had a brewer tell me that if you want to get an honest impression from your friends, charge them for the beer. He was half-joking, but the point is that people are way more accepting of free beer than of a pint they’ve purchased. These competitions are as much to provide honest, professional feedback as they are to acknowledge superior homebrewed beers. The judges know this, as do the entrants. Some enter without a strong hope of winning so much as with the hope that they’ll learn something about their beer that has eluded them through the recipe development and brewing process.
There was some discussion at the start of the event to that effect, a gentle reminder that people want to learn from the process as well as be acknowledged. The tasters were a mix of professional brewers and accomplished homebrewers. Each of them knew their stuff and approached their tasks with a seriousness you don’t often get to see. The judges of each style of beer discussed the order in which they would taste each of the submissions, worked out any logistics and, most important, talked about their scores after issuing them.
This last part was fascinating. Each of the judges justified their marks aloud and to the other judges. This wasn’t done in a combative way, just matter-of-factly. I think the point is twofold. First, as you’re thinking about a beer and scoring it, you also are considering what you will say out loud about it. It makes you pay even closer attention to the subtleties both of the beer and of the language. Second, it provides the other judges with even a wider perspective on their fellow tasters, so if one person has a vastly different take on a beer, it can be noted and overcome.
The storm outside when from bad to worse and, as the wind kicked up, the organizers called off the Good Beer Festival for the day. They told the brewers that their tents were blowing around on the fairgrounds. As a group, the volunteers made their way outside to help take down and secure the tents. What could have been a massive inconvenience turned into an impromptu team sport. Brewers and regular volunteers alike made their way out into the storm and worked (played?) together in the rain before resuming their judging duties.
It’s rare that I’m given such a ham-fisted metaphor by fate, but watching the beer folks cooperating to secure and save the local beer tents, that is just what I got. This is what the beer community looks like, everyone working toward the purpose of protecting the way local beer looks as well as the way it tastes.