"It's like judging a dog show. You may not like poodles, but if it's the perfect example of a poodle, you have to recognize that."
That's the first piece of advice on beer judging offered to me by Paul Shick, a professor, longtime member of the Society of Northeast Ohio Brewers (yes, SNOB), and a certified beer judge who is as unfailingly nice as he is knowledgeable about beer.
He's volunteered to meet at Market Garden Brewery to serve as my informal zymurgy Sherpa, after my plans to take the official Beer Judge Certification Program test went to hell. The BJCP is a national organization of folks with finely tuned palates who qualify to judge beer competitions because they, unlike you, do not believe that Budweiser tastes like "Amurrica."
(As it turned out, all the exam spots were booked — news that was less disheartening when I learned the test lasts three hours and features 10 essay questions, including prompts like: "Identify three top-fermenting beer styles where the minimum original gravity is 1.070 or higher." Um, C?)
So Shick's offered to run me through the other half of the BJCP gamut — the fun part. The sampling.
Joining us is Andy Tveekrem, head brewer at Market Garden, fellow SNOB member, and like Shick, a master beer judge, who graciously offered to have one of his own beers graded. Tall and bearded, he's sporting a Stroh's belt buckle, which is all the certification I need to trust his opinion.
"Beer judging helps you taste in a better way, the small details," Tveekrem explains when asked why he does it. "The goal is to help you make better beer, analyze what works and what doesn't. If you never taste anyone else's beer or study it, you become susceptible to tunnel vision. You might think that's how a style is supposed to taste when it's not."
Shick lays out a grading sheet and suggests we sample the scotch ale. We all take swigs, Tveekrem drinking only after using his hands to cup the pint glass to warm up the brew.
"You want it at around 50 degrees," he says. "It releases the aroma, and there's better clarity."
"Yeah, it's a little too cold," says Shick.
To me, it tastes delicious, to borrow a technical term. Shick has a little more nuance to offer as we work our way through the categories: aroma, appearance, flavor, mouth feel, and overall impression.
"It's clean, no apple esters," he mutters in between sips. "Malty without being caramel. Toasty. I would say that for a scotch ale — the nickname for this style is "wee heavy" because it packs a punch — I don't get a strong alcohol taste. It's a little small. That'd be my complaint, but it's a very good beer."
Tveekrum nods in agreement, offering up his own grades along the way. His brew's final score: 39 out of a possible 50 points, good enough for an "Excellent" rating on the scoring guide.
Pilsners and porters and stouts follow in much the same way, the technical delineations of each one fizzling away with each successive pour. After a while, I feel less out of sorts, less like a rube who doesn't know the gravity of top-fermenting beers.
And that's when a comforting realization sets in: There's a limit to the clinical nature of expert drinking, even for experts. Sometimes, the answer is blunt and from the gut. Sometimes, you just pick something yummy and drink it. Beer snobs may be beer snobs, but they're just like us.
Which brings us to Tveekrem's final selection of the night, a wheat beer he's particularly fond of.
Why that one, Andy?
"It's rippin' good," he says.