Sep 10 2009

The Dominion Cup 2009 Homebrew Competition

I went down to the Dominion Cup BJCP competition on August 29th with a few of my fellow homebrewers from the CAMRA club in Charlottesville, Va.  The Dominion Cup is the largest homebrew competition in Virginia, and it is run by the James River Homebrewers, which is the Richmond homebrew club.  The three of us were going to help out during the competition in three different roles, and it was my first real chance to see a BJCP judging in person.

The Cup happened at the Capital Ale House Downtown and took place in the Music Hall room behind beside the restaurant and bar.  It was intimate place to see a band, but it was big and roomy venue for a beer judging to go down.  It was a long and dark room with exposed brick walls and dark wood, but the judges were ready with flash lights in hand.

Dominion Cup - Morning Session Judging

I was assigned to be a steward which basically entails making sure that the judges have everything they need to score and judge their assigned beers.  That means getting the table ready with a pitcher of water, crackers, cups, pens, a dump bucket, the appropriate forms, and any other items they might need.  That’s the easy part.  The interesting, and more challenging part, is keeping the paperwork orderly.  The judges are filling out Beer Scoresheets, and you are trying to keep those straight while juggling the Cover Sheets (to organize all the related papers with each entry) and the flight sheets which track the individual and agreed upon scores for each beer in that category.

The great thing about these competitions is that the beers are judged without knowing the brewer for each beer.  That’s important if you want real and honest feedback from the judges.  Now none of the judges that I met would have been anything less than honest in their reviews of the beers, but it really is hard to say that any among us wouldn’t be unconsciously influenced by knowing the brewer and our perceived notion of their brewing skills and reputation.  To avoid that, beers are separated into the appropriate BJCP guidelines, and they were all in 12 ounce, brown bottles without labels or marks on their caps.  Each bottle then gets a competition label conveying which style of beer it has been submitted to and its cryptic number, which is only linked back to the brewer info’s on a computer held by organizer of the competition.

So part job of the steward job is keeping all of the information together and organized so the right scores and feedback get to back the organizer and the homebrewer who made it.  That is the real bottom line in these competitions: getting quality feedback from experienced judges so you can make better beer and hone your craft.

Of course, the cool part for a steward is being able to listen in to the judges as they talk about each beer after they have thoughtfully filled out their sheets.  It is beer geeking at its best.  You can also taste along with them and compare your mental notes with the experts.  I worked the morning and afternoon sessions, and in the first I was assigned to one of the American Pale Ale tables and, being a popular category, that is all that those judges scored.  For the afternoon, I was assigned to the Porters table and that encompassed Brown Porters, Robust Porters and Baltic Porters, which can vary from each other in significant ways, but they are all still competing against each other in the Porter category.

Dominion Cup 2009 - Afternoon Session Judging

I was very impressed by palates on the judges and their ability to pick out nuances out of the beers.  One of the huge obstacles in judging can just be taste fatigue.  Realistically, they are only having a few ounces of each beer, but after having a few ounces of 9 beers, my mouth started to get a little tired.  I could certainly drink more than that, and did afterwards, but it a challenge to keep your taste buds focused after wave after wave of beer.  I respect their ability to do so, because I don’t think I’m there yet.

Dominion Cup 2009 - My Only Look is Confused

Yeah, this is pretty much my only look.  It is all I have to work with.

Dominion Cup 2009 - Greg Doing Some Judging

Greg did some judging, so he got to see the competition from the other side of the table. 

Dominion Cup 2009 - Tom and *** as the Cellarmen

Tom was a cellarman with Mark from the James River Club.  They had a good but, probably, an occasionally frantic time.   

After the second session was over, it was time for the Best of Show judging.  That was composed of the best beers from each category.  I’m not quite sure how the BOS judging works because it must be hard to compare a Flanders Red with an Oatmeal Stout with a Bohemian Pilsner, etc.  It must just be one of those blink moments where the heavens open up and a few beers just shine through.  

Dominion Cup 2009 - Best of Show Judging

As you can tell from the picture above, it was show of colors and flavors.

In the end, it was a very successful trip for the CAMRA guys.  We got to see how a BJCP competition works, and the club walked away with 15 medals in the competition.  I was very happy to receive the inaugural Plato award, which is a “Brewer of the Year” award, for the most 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place finishes.

Final results from the 2009 Dominion Cup:

Some takeaways:

It looks like putting on a competition of this size is a ton of work.  The Dominion Cup had 366 entries which is very impressive and a big jump from the previous year.  One of the things my club wanted to check out was the feasibility of putting on a competition of our own in the coming years.  We now know that it will be just as difficult as we had imagined.  I have to give lots of credit to the James River Homebrewers for making it all look so seemless and easy.  We know it couldn’t have been, but they did a great job.

The feedback  sheets were good, illuminating and I’m honestly still plowing through those.  Often, the hardest part about feedback is deciphering the handwriting of the judges. (Hint: Cursive = bad.)  Overall, the beers I thought would do well did, and the beers I thought were average, or off style, did just ok.  My highest scores were for my “Fritz the Cat” (Gumballhead clone) American Wheat beer, which scored a 43, and my “Cleopatra Jones” American Brown Ale, which scored a 39.  My lowest were my 27 for “Up on Cripple Kriek” (Kriek Fruit Lambic) which was one of my first sour beers and it really didn’t get sour enough, and my Cherry Waterloo, which scored a 28.5 and it was the subpar side of a split batch of Berliner Weisse.

And it was interesting to see how my younger beers fared.  I submitted an American Barleywine that was only 9 months old, and it took 3rd place.  And that same 9-month old barleywine, that I aged a little longer on bourbon and oak cubes, took 2nd place.  Also, my Flanders Red, which is a beer that often doesn’t find its stride until about 18 months, got a 2nd place medal and it was only about 4 months old.  I’m pretty geeked to see how these beers will taste when they start to hit their peak.

The big surprise, for me, was seeing my entries in the Spice/Herb/Vegetable Beer category do so well.  My Chai Milk Stout (no clever name) got a 1st place medal, and my Bombay the Hard Way Coconut Curry Hefeweizen got 3rd place.  (Which is very surprising because I thought that was a failed experiment, but it just need time to age and mellow.) That was very cool, and further fuels my mad scientist method to brewing.  (I should be posting something soon about my Sweet Potato Ale brew day, too.)

Once again, it was a great time, and we look forward to competing again next year.  The club is now more determined than ever to get some of our members BJCP certified.