Behind the Scenes of a Brew Off

When I told a friend a couple of weeks ago that the Blue Ridge Brew Off was coming up, he said, “Oh yeah, I’ve been to a homebrew competition before. Just Brew It was fun.”

I had to agree with him there. Just Brew It, an annual homebrew competition put on by Just Economics, is a ton of fun. About 50 homebrewers pack the outdoor area of the Wedge and serve up to 100 homebrews to those who pay to attend. It’s a great fundraiser. It educates folks about the quality of area homebrew. But it is not the same as a sanctioned homebrew competition.

The “real” homebrew competitions look nothing like the big day at Wedge. OK, there is a ton of homebrewed beer at both. However, to be a Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) certified homebrew event, you have to meet some very strict guidelines from the way entries are processed to the way beers are judged. For the 14th annual Blue Ridge Brew Off, which received close to 700 entries this year, the hosting club had to put in a lot of work.

“Homebrew competitions like this happen because of the volunteers,” says Adam Reinke, this year’s judge coordinator. A whole team — including a registrar, event organizer, cellar master and more — start putting the event together about six months in advance.

In the days leading up to the competition, the pace picks up as entries are processed, both on the paperwork side and in bottles. Everything has to be unpacked and repacked into categories. “Also, about a week before the competition, members of our club, the Mountain Ale and Lager Tasters (MALT) offer pick-up service to other area homebrew clubs in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee,” says Reinke.

The day of

The big day starts like any good Saturday, with coffee and bagels. Except these bagels are on a table in the brewery side of Highland Brewing. Some folks mill around and catch up with friends by the bottling line. Others sit quietly at the tables that have already been set up and equipped with everything needed for judging beer: fresh water, saltines, flashlights, bottle openers, score sheets and pitchers for dumping. Even the best beers don’t get finished so that senses stay sharp.

The rest of the day is tightly scripted. The morning session starts bright and early at 9 a.m. Judges are paired by experience level and assigned to types of beer. That means if you’re judging Pilsner, you will only try German Pilsner, Bohemian Pilsener (which is truly spelled that way) and Classic American Pilsner in a flight. You’ll never jump around from Pilsner to, say, IPA. Every pair of judges takes between two and three hours to taste and judge about 10 beers. Since judges only take small sips, this might seem like too much time, but the sensory analysis and detailed notes take every last minute.

After the morning session wraps up, there’s an hour break for lunch. This year there was an entire roast pig to feed the 100 or so folks in attendance. The lunch break only lasts about an hour, and then it’s back to work. Judges are again paired and assigned a new category.

After the scores are tallied, most of the judges are done for the day. However, a few higher-ranking judges break off and sample the best of the best. Pale Ales and Saisons compete against Russian Imperial Stouts and Belgian Golden Strongs.

Only three beers will make it to the Best of Show, but nobody leaves empty-handed. There’s still the ribbons to award and raffle prizes to be had. And many judges are very interested in something else: the first pint after a day of small sips. For more information on the local homebrew club, MALT, visit: http://maltsters.org. For more on the Beer Judge Certification Program, visit: http://www.bjcp.org.

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