What do you call a Saturday with 750 beers? Some might think it has the making of quite a beer bash. However, last Saturday at Capital Brewery in Middleton was a far more serious affair with the regional qualifying round of the National Homebrew Competition.
The annual contest evaluates thousands of homemade beers across 28 categories, from homebrewers in nine regions of the United States and one region representing Canada. The top three beers in each category move on to the national round of judging this summer. This was the first time the regional event has been hosted in the Madison area.
Along with Wisconsin, the Midwest region includes beers from Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. National event manager Janis Gross said that not only did the Midwest region set a record with the maximum number of entries allowed at 750, the overall national numbers will set a record of more than 6,000 beers being judged across all of the regions. That makes this the largest event of its kind in the world.
"This year convinced me that homebrewing is definitely on the rise nationally," Gross said. The Midwest region in particular has a very strong reputation and homebrewing culture. The Northeast also reached the 750 participant cap, after the Midwest region maxed out.
Local site coordinator Keith Symonds, of Madison, was responsible for coordinating the all-volunteer event at Capital Brewery. Symonds pulled together nearly 60 judges and 30 beer stewards. It took weeks of work to prepare for the day, which included storing the contestants' brews in coolers in advance of the judging.
Judges for the event must have successfully complete the Beer Judge Certification Program that includes a written exam, peer tasting and previous experience as a judge. There's a lot more to it than just drinking, says Steve Klafka of Madison, who's been a certified judge for over 25 years. "Those who enter this competition are really looking for feedback so they can become a better brewer," he explained. By the end of the day Klafka had personally sampled and provided written evaluations on about 40 different beers.
His tips for a day of beer judging? "Have a good breakfast before you start, and drink lots of water and [chew] a little bread to clean the taste buds."
Each beer that is entered gets evaluations from at least two judges who offer written comments and numerical scores about its aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and their overall impression. Within each style category, scores are used to identify the top three finishers, and of those, judges resample to select a "best of" in each style.
Eric Schoville, a judge from Middleton, said he had tasted a range of beers, most of which were good and very drinkable. Reflecting on the day, he said that a Munich Dunkel (a German dark lager) really made a lasting impression on him: "It was a religious experience. It has a complex maltiness with a grape jam flavor that wasn't sweet, but more like toast and jam." The technical term for this is Melanoidin; Schoville considers it a quality that's difficult for a homebrewer to replicate using typical equipment.
The local event drew not just homebrewers but also professional brewers, as judges. David Anderson of Dave's BrewFarm in Wilson, Wisconsin has been a homebrew competition judge for over 14 years. He said it's the surprises that make the judging particularly fun. "Every once in a while you get a beer description that looks like a train wreck," he says, "but turns into a 'wow' exceptional experience." Anderson notes that finding memorable flavors while judging can even inspire him in his commercial recipes at the BrewFarm.
Winners of the Midwest Regional event will be notified by email this week, and will also be listed online. Regional winners then move on to the national competition, which will be held June 17-19 in Minneapolis.