SIERRA VISTA — While attendees frolic and enjoy the many activities and events offered at Saturday’s first annual Roadrunner Brew Fest, a group of about 10 men and women will be taking their participation at the event very seriously.
Adults 21 years old and up will laugh their way through an obstacle course, their judgment hindered by “beer goggles,” which are really just goggles with various flashing lights that distract the wearers. People will vie to become the winner of the event’s 0K run/walk — yes, you read that correctly, it’s a 0, zero, kilometer race where the starting line is also the finish line.
Meanwhile, those 10 men and women did not travel from all corners of the state to partake in a goofy “race.” Rather, they are the judges for the beer competition.
And while some might wrongly think judging a beer competition is a simple matter — crack open a cold one, take a swig and decide if it suits your fancy — there is far more to the skill than meets the eye.
Judges at beer competitions like the one being held Saturday are highly educated in their craft, developing various required skills over years of study and training. Sure, they know what they like, but the judges must also be able to determine what makes a brew truly quality.
Their qualified palates detect even the slightest flaw in a beer’s flavor, examining such factors as bitterness, balance, fermentation, the amount of malt and hops and, of course, the finish or aftertaste of a beer.
In addition to the taste, beer judges must decide on other elements that play a role in consumers’ appreciation of beer: aroma; appearance — the color and clarity among those factors; mouthfeel, such as the body, carbonation and creaminess in your mouth; and just their overall sense of the brew. All are among the categories listed on the “Beer Judge Certification Program” score sheets that will be used at Saturday’s Roadrunner Brew Fest.
The judges at Saturday’s beer competition will have their work cut out for them, too, as the festival features 36 entries across approximately 14 categories. Bill Tucker, one of the owners of Tombstone Brewing Co., and the person who organized the judges for the event, said it could be worse, though, as there are 32 major beer categories the judges could have been evaluating. The 36 entries are being submitted by 11 breweries and brewers.
So why would someone choose to pass up a day of revelry in favor of evaluating beers, only taking a sip or two of a frothy brew every 10 minutes or so?
For many, it’s a labor of love — a love of beer. And, often, their own beer.
“I initially got into beer judging to make myself a better brewer,” said Jon Hasbrouck, a vice president for a landscaping company who lives in Tucson and is coming to Sierra Vista to judge on Saturday. “I wanted to get unbiased feedback … and give feedback.”
Hasbrouck said his desire to give brewers quality, useful feedback and advice on their creations was further cemented when he encountered a judge in Phoenix who did nothing but slam the beers he judged for their flaws and gave no constructive suggestions for them to work with.
“He was kind of a jerk,” Hasbrouck recalled. “He’d write like three words — ‘this beer stinks’ — and I remember looking at his scoresheet and thinking, ‘Someone paid money for this and wanted objective feedback and that’s not constructive at all.’
“So, I remember trying my damnedest to provide at least one good score sheet out of the two and trying to be super-constructive and super-helpful, but still giving critical feedback. So, for me, that exemplified why I wanted to kind of be a better beer judge.”
Mike Fry, a judge who will travel in from Vail, also said he became a judge in order to improve his own brewing skills.
“I became a beer judge to, one, identify faults in my own beer, and two, (figure out) how to fix those,” said Fry, who says he is not related to the Fry family that settled just east of Fort Huachuca in 1913 and is the namesake of Fry Townsite. “Whenever we judge, we not only point out, ‘Hey, you’ve got this butter flavor,’ but we later come back and say, ‘By the way, some fixes for that would be to look at this, this and this.’ ”
Beer competition judges, like those Tucker corralled for Saturday’s competition, go through rigorous training to become certified by organizations such as the BJCP. Some continue their training to reach higher levels and qualify to judge upper-level competitions or, as in Hasbrouck’s case, certify others as judges.
Both Fry and Hasbrouck listed some of the same things when asked about the more challenging aspects of judging a beer competition. For example, an obvious hurdle for most judges to overcome is what they called “palate fatigue,” where the sampling and examination of several different styles of beer can make it more difficult to discern the finer points of the brews.
Tucker hopes the judges will be able to avoid palate fatigue at this competition, with each of the 36 submissions being evaluated by two judges. The judges then compare score sheets and, if they are far apart in their scoring on any of the categories or subcategories, will compromise to reach consensus. If unable to come to agreement after discussion, a third judge, Tucker, is brought in to make a final determination.
In discussing his judging challenges, Hasbrouck named a surprising culprit among his judging obstacles.
“I’m just not used to writing by hand all that much anymore,” he said, chuckling. “Beer judging sounds like it’s really glamorous, but there’s A LOT of writing. And when your hand is really hurting at the end of the day, that’s when you know you’ve done a good job.”