On Tap: Judging Beer Is Nice Work, If You Can Get It

The defense attorney preferred hoppy IPAs. The doctor from Massachusetts liked malty lagers. Lately, I’d been into pilsners and kolsch.

Unfortunately, none of those were on the list of beers that the three of us were about to judge. The lineup began with a cream ale made with wildflower honey and lemons and ended with jalapeno pepper beers. Plural.

“Can I get some water, please?” the doctor kept asking. “And some bread?”

Indeed, we were going to need some palate cleansers. We all — more than three dozen judges in total — were spending the day in a swank hotel conference room in Nashua to help the nation’s largest craft brewer decide which three homebrewers would have their beers made commercially and sold as part of the annual “Longshot” six-pack.

Boston Beer Co., maker of Samuel Adams, has been running this competition annually since 2006 and it is a favorite among beer judges. It has a reputation as a well-organized event and it’s also fun to help the brewery decide which beers it will produce and put on shelves.

The contest I attended in Nashua was one of several across the country, the other two in Chicago and California. Each site would send its top choices to Boston Beer, which would then decide the winners.

Among the things I love about beer judging are characters I meet, which on this Saturday two weeks ago ranged from bearded hipsters to pot-bellied guys wearing gray ponytails and very specific beer-themed apparel. I met a plumber, an artisan cheese maker, several people in the medical field and a few aspiring pro brewers with vague current occupations. The common denominator was that we get really nerdy about what we put in our mouths.

It was our sense of purpose that allowed this motley crew to share the hotel with fancier guests without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. I saw guys striding through the lobby in T-shirts that said “Hop Devil” or “In Dog Beers, I Have Had Only One,” some with unkempt beards and dirty toes wrapped around the thongs of old flip-flop sandals, as multiple wedding parties dressed in tuxedos and gowns waited for their limousines.

To us, this wasn’t just some casual, all-expenses-paid weekend getaway, though. It was a business trip. To think of drinking beer as work just seems silly. But sometimes it feels that way. I’ve seen heated arguments between the most highly qualified judges, those of the Grand Master ranks — beer ninjas, if you like — over whether what they were tasting was worthy of a certain score.

Working in teams of two or three and using a 50-point rubric, judges are supposed to come to some consensus on the quality of a beer. They rarely have the same score, but they have to come close, within a few points of each other. Judges rate how they perceive the aroma, appearance, flavor and mouthfeel of a beer. There are style guidelines to which they can refer. Judges taste, they make notes, they discuss.

There are lots of rules that I won’t go into, but they are all aimed at coming as near as possible to achieving the impossible — standardizing how we taste.

Speaking as a person with a deep connection to his Teutonic heritage, I welcome rules like a warm blanket. I was happy for them on my eighth beer of the afternoon, a Belgian IPA made with saison yeast and a hop variety known as “Citra,” an aromatic hop that evokes melon and citrus fruit. I love Belgian saisons and I equally love IPAs, but not together. To my palate, the fruity and funky Belgian yeast pairs with hops about as well as orange juice and toothpaste, and I’ve had several Belgian IPAs that tasted like I’d thrown up a little in my mouth.

Yet, this beer turned out to be my table’s favorite. When I put my score next to my attorney and surgeon friends, they were remarkably similar — 35, 36, 37, qualifying it as a “very good” beer. There were other beers I preferred. But it was this one that, when measured against certain standards, demonstrated the most skill. In fact, it went on to be one of the top beers of the competition.

It took a full morning and the better part of an afternoon before the judges had worked their way through the submissions and decided which beers would go on to the final round. Even after we were done, nobody left. We wanted to watch the highest -ranked judges sit at a table and determine which three entries would have a chance at the brass ring.

The judges sat there, swirling and sipping as the rest of us lined the room drinking complementary beer. I chose a Strawberry Lager that had been one of the Longshot winners from last year.

The atmosphere was not unlike a Fantasy Football draft, anxious and intense because the stakes were so low. We all watched the “action” as the judges rejected one beer after another until there were only a few left. Lots of side commentary was going around the room. At one point, we were warned to use “our golf voices.”

I stayed by the door next to a guy I’d met earlier that day. And as the judges debated things like alcohol warmth and appropriate bitterness levels, I joked with my new pal and drank my fruity beer.

I don’t know how the Strawberry Lager scored when it was chosen last year to be part of the Longshot six-pack. Obviously, somebody liked it. The beer passed through intense scrutiny and beat out hundreds of competitors before it was brewed, bottled and made its way to my hand.

If I’d judged the Strawberry Lager, I’d have given it a fair shake like anything else. But here’s the thing — I wasn’t judging it. This time, I was just drinking it the way most of us drink beer, straight from the bottle and relying on my immediate impression when the liquid splashed onto my tongue. No overthinking. Thumbs up or thumbs down.

Setting aside the objectivity of the 50-point rubric and the checks-and-balances of other judges’ critiques, I’ve got to admit — I thought the beer kinda sucked.

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Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.