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Judging at the GABF

There is no better way to appraise a beer than to sample it "blindfold" (ie from numbered glasses, with no other identification). This is the way beers are judged in competitions. In my view, the best such competitions are the World Beer Cup and the Professional Panel Tasting at the Great American Beer Festival.

Tasting at GABF
After the results of judging were announced, brewer Darron Welch of the Pelican Pub & Brewery in Pacific City, Ore., brought Michael Jackson two award-winning beers to sample.

Both are especially well organised, no other competitions have judging panels so well acquainted with a diversity of beer styles. There were 55 style categories at this year's GABF. I judged the first or second rounds in some categories and the medal round in others. Here are my personal reflections on the medal-winners I helped to choose. In each of these medal rounds there was a different panel of judges. Each panel comprised at least six judges.

The first two categories mentioned were very hard to appraise. The category Experimental Beers is, by nature, extraordinarily diverse. Nor is there a classic way to make a Honey Beer.

Experimental beers
Gold medal: Juniper Stone Beer. A wonderfully elegant, complex, brew. Cedary and citrussy in aroma and palate. Beautifully combined flavors. Oily, dry, gin-like. Dull gold color. I later learned that juniper boughs were used in lautering, as in some Nordic farmhouse beers. The brew was partially heated with hot stones. Boscos, which has brewpubs in Germantown, Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, pioneered the latter technique in the United States with its Flaming Stone Beer. This very old method had earlier been revived by Rauchenfels, of Bavaria, Germany. The combination of the special ingredients and the unusual technique made this new beer from Boscos the most experimental entrant, but it was also the one I most enjoyed and admired as a beer in its own right.

Silver: Cuvée de Tomme. A Burgundy-colored brew with a hint of burlap or oak in the aroma; a palate developing from cherryish sweetness to woody stalkiness, pepperiness and winey, tart dryness. Very good interplay and balance In the flavors, especially the restrained, tannic, acidity in the finish. This beer was made with cherries and yeasts that included the semi-wild strain Brettanomyces. It was matured in a wine cask. From the Pizza Port Brewery, Solana Beach, California.

Bronze: Juniper Rye. A second appearance in this category from the mountain berry widely used in the kitchen and the gin distillery. Juniper and rye are the classic ingredients of the Finnish farmhouse beer-style Sahti. This brew was entered as a Sahti, but only partially resembled that style. It lacked the alcoholic attack and the eccentric, estery, flavors (sometimes "wild", often Madeira-like) that arise from the typical use of baker's yeast in the Finnish farmhouse breweries (which also tend to have very rudimentary temperature control). It would be difficult for a modern brewery even to attempt that. Nonetheless, this entry was a very interesting brew: with an attractive, purply, color; soothing, syrupy, palate; and restrained flavors of both juniper and rye. From B.J.'s Pizza Grill and Brewery, of Brea, California.

Among others products I judged in this category was Rising Sun Soy Beer, from Court Avenue Brewing in Des Moines, Iowa, I admired the brewery's adventurousness in using soy, but question the point of he exercise. This hazy, pale gold, beer had an oily dryness and a touch of wintergreen. I enjoyed sampling it, but its novelty seemed to be its greatest appeal.

Several entries had been matured in wine or whiskey casks. Whether this, in the U.S., any longer qualifies as "experimental", is open to debate. That question aside, some were excellent beers, but none quite as enjoyable as the medal-winners.

Honey Beers
Gold: Bumble Beer. From Rock Bottom Brewery, La Jolla, California. Did Cascade hops impart that piney, resiny, note? Or did the honey-bees "graze" somewhere piney? Perhaps it was more of an orange-skin character, which could have arisen from similar influences. I even found some pepper. A beer to serve with roast duck and orange sauce? Certainly complex, with a dryness that made it more appetising that some of the sweeter, more cloying, honey beers I have tasted over the years. The color is full gold.

Silver: Bee Damned Ale. A witty name, but no one damned this brew. Another orangey-tasting beer, More of an orange-cream flavor, developing to a cookie-like character and finally a balancing, spicy, dryness. A slightly duller golden color. From P.H. Woods, Moreno Valley, Cal.

Bronze: Countdown Honey Brown. Dark brown, with a good head and treacle toffee flavors as well as honey. A touch of fruity, woodiness, too. Mesquite? A delicious beer. A brown ale is an unusual approach to a honey beer. From Thunder Canyon Brewery, Tucson, Arizona.

Old Ales
Gold: Old Charleywine. So not a barleywine, then? The fine line between the two was hard to find in this judging. This entrant was deemed "incredibly complex" by another judge. It had a dark brown, rosewood, color; the aroma of toasted oak; and profound, earthy, flavors. From Mammoth Brewing, in the California ski resort of the same name.

Silver: Powerhouse Ale, from a brewery of the same name in Sebastapol, California. This brew was paler in color - a bright, deep, orange - but well within the style. It had a fragrant fruitiness of aroma; a firm, chewy, malty, dryness; and a touch of wineyness. I found it very distinctive and liked it very much.

Bronze: Old Hand. Cherry to mahogany color. Good lacework. Firm and malty, with a peppery, very dry, finish. Colorado Brewery and Trading Company, Danbury, Connecticut.

Strong Scottish Ales
Gold: Winter Ale. Almost black. Rich and velvety. Maple syrup? Buttery, though this flavor was by no means salient, among a lively interplay of other elements. A little "butter" (deriving from a naturally-occurring compound called diacetyl) was traditionally a characteristic of this style. I also found currants and brown sugar. From Buckhead Brewery and Grill, Stockbridge, Georgia.

Silver: Prescott's Wee Heavy. Russet color, with a good head. Slight apple aroma. Cookie-like malt character, developing to a nutty dryness. Lots of texture. From the Bitter End Brewery and Bistro, Austin, Texas.

Bronze: McGilligan's Scotch Ale. A lighter-bodied interpretation, but well within the style. Slatey black color. Cinnamon aroma that seemed like an ester formed in fermentation, rather than an added spice. Creamy malt emphasis. Warming finish. From Steelhead brewpub, Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, California.

Gold: Hog Back. Poured with a good head and distinctive mahogany color. Clotted cream in the aroma, vanilla in the palate, developing to nutty, toasty, dryness. Clean, smooth and beautifully balanced. From Mountain Sun brewpub, Boulder, Colorado, which has won this category three years running.

Silver: Symposium Eisbock. Distinctive deep ruby color. Slightly medicinal aroma. Oily but dry. Black chocolate with parma violets. Perfumy. Very sophisticated. From the renowned New Glarus micro, in the Wisconsin town of the same name.

Bronze: Mueller Doppelbock. Poured with a good head. Ruby to dark brown in color. Excellent soft, deep, malt background. Developed flavors reminiscent of prunes or figs. Was this a malt characteristic, or was an ale yeast used? Despite that question, this was definitely one of my top three in the category. From Springfield Brewing, in the Missouri town of the same name.

Complete GABF results.

Published: OCT 10, 2000
In: Beer Hunter Online

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