What Separates The Best Homebrew From The Rest? (I: Intro)


The flight of hoppy beers I judged at the 2014 Austin ZEALOTS Inquisition.

On Saturday, I judged at the 2014 Austin ZEALOTS Homebrew Inquisition. This is the annual homebrew contest of the Austin ZEALOTS, the homebrew club in Austin, Texas. Our contest is a little different from most. Instead of following the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines, we divide beers into 10 broad categories — malty beers, hoppy beers, dark beers, etc. We also have a special category that changes every year. As this was our 11th annual contest, we went with a Spinal Tap theme for the special category (Category 11) — Smell the Glove. For this category, 80 points were awarded for aroma and 20 for flavor. (Our other idea for the category was None More Black, and we would have done serial dilutions to see which beer was actually the darkest. I think we made the right choice going with Smell the Glove.)

One thing I have been noticing in my recent years of beer judging is that, for the most part, terrible beers don’t get entered into homebrew contests anymore. In the “good old days,” there used to be a healthy amount of contaminated or otherwise flawed beers at most contests — a gusher or two, some (unintentionally) sour entries, beers with phenolic off flavors and aromas, diacetyl bombs, overly estery ales or beers with “hot” fusel oils, etc. Ten or 15 years ago, most flights at most homebrew contests contained at least one problematic beer. These days, it seems as if the bottom has come up. I didn’t taste one undrinakable beer this year, and none of the other judges reported encountering one either. (I did encounter a couple with oxidized hops, and I think that there was a slight uptick in the amount of astringency this year, but that could have been a fluke. On the other hand, as I’ll explain, there might be a reason.)

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