Local homebrew club suds it up at annual competition
It is 9:30 in the morning, and the 30 or so people gathered in the Big Room at the Sierra Nevada Brewery are ready to drink some beer.
Seated at tables in groups of two to five, they wait patiently for their stewards to bring in the brew. But when it comes, they don’t just gulp it down. They sniff it, inspect it, swirl it around in plastic glasses. Shining miniature flashlights through their cups, they check for color and clarity, then jot down their findings and call for another bottle.
Obviously, this isn’t your average early morning beer bust. The beer swillers here aren’t out to get drunk—they’re judges in the 7th Annual Silver Dollar Fair Homebrew Competition.
Sponsored this year by the Chico Homebrew Club and sanctioned by the American Homebrew Association, the contest pits beer-making hobbyists from across the country against one another in the pursuit of the perfect homemade beer. Out of 100 entries representing 50 distinct styles of beer, only a few will make the cut, and only one will receive the coveted Best in Show award.
Home brewing may be a fun and low-key hobby, but appraising the product is a very serious endeavor for the judges, many of them fellow brewers.
“I judge [the entries] like I would like to have them judge me,” explained Kevin Tokunaga between sips of porter. (He wasn’t to be disappointed. Tokunaga had entries placed first and third in the English and Scottish Strong Ale category.) The group of three judges he is with takes its time in selecting a winner, sampling 10 beers among them in three hours and discussing each score before submitting it.
“I thought this one was kind of sweet,” Tokunaga says about one entry, a robust porter, which is a dark, flavorful beer not quite as heavy as a stout. “I like the roasted grains.”
John Abbot, a master brewer and part owner of Chico Brew House, offers a different opinion.
“The grains show up in the flavor, but I would have liked to see more in the nose,” he says. “I also got a little vegetable [flavor] in there.”
The judges discuss every score because they have to fall within seven points of each other to be valid. That way, a consensus is assured and every entry is given a fair chance.
Tokunaga and Reed Roberts, the other judge at our table, are hobby brewers. Abbot, on the other hand, is a certified master brewer, a distinction reserved for those who have studied—and been tested on—the science and history of beer making. Abbot is also certified to judge homebrew on the basis of a test given by the Beer Judges Certification Program.
“It’s a brutal test, too,” Abbot says. “You get questions like ‘Compare and contrast the beers of Düsseldorf to the beers of Bonn.’ Different regions produce different kinds of beers.”
So do different home brewers. While Reed, Tokunaga and Abbott were limited to judging porters, other judges were busy sampling ales, stouts, meads, lagers and even “experimental” brews. Back in the kitchen, the guys rinsing the returned bottles were doing a little judging of their own. They had good things to say about a chocolate porter, a pumpkin ale, an apricot mead and even a Rauch, which is a dark, smoky beer that one judge likened to “drinking a campfire.”
Homebrew folks are often known for being beer snobs. With so many craft beers on the market these days, many opine that life is simply too short to drink cheap beer. When some of the judges were asked what they would do if they showed up at a party and the only beer available were Hamm’s, their answer was unequivocal.
“Drink water,” they all said. One added, “It’s about the same thing anyway.”
The ironic thing about such a statement is that lighter beers are trickier for home brewers to make, partly because the balance of flavors is more delicate. Although it’s pretty hard to imagine any sane home brewer trying to reproduce something as trashy as, say, a Lucky Lager, Larry Rauen, the event’s organizer, said it is technically possible, just not really a good idea.
Rauen should know, as he has won the Best in Show category three years in a row now. Partly to razz him but mostly to pay him a tribute, some of the homebrew club members created a special award for Rauen this year. At a special awards ceremony held at Chico Brew House, they presented him with a miniature statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of strong drink, depicted as a fat, drunken dwarf riding a turtle.
“I was totally flabbergasted,” Rauen said. “I knew if I won three years in a row, they were going to do something, some kind of gag. I was really surprised, but it went really well that night.”
With the spirit of Bacchus presiding over the festivities, the home brewers partied into the night, making sure the pagan gods of beer making would smile on next year’s competition.
And the winner is…
Homebrew Competition 2003
First Place Winners
Classic American Pilsner • Larry Rauen
Northern German Pilsner • Bill Fosnot
American Wheat • Gary Wallace
Ordinary Bitter • John & Richard Schlieper
Export 800 • Lee Theuriet
California Common Beer • John & Richard Schlieper
India Pale Ale • Rafael Ortiz
Koelsch-Style Ale • Larry Rauen
Vienna Lager • Larry Rauen
Old Ale • Kevin Tokunaga
English-Style Barleywine • Larry Rauen
Schwarzbier (Black Beer) • Jim Livingston
Helles Bock/Maibock • Larry Rauen
Brown Porter • John & Richard Schlieper
Dry Stout • Patrick Thalken
Belgian Pale Ale • Doug McLendon
Honey, Raspberry Porter • Tony Garcia
Pumpkin Ale • Rich Milliron
Classic Rauchbier • Jim & Bill Livingston
Chocolate Porter • John & David Maretti