Bridgeport Connecticut — You’d think that in the course of covering the 21st Annual Great International Beer, Cider, Mead and Sake Competition here, somebody would have offered me a drink. But aside from a sip of a decidedly anemic warm beer, nobody did. So this is an altogether dry review.
The location was Brewport, a relatively new and cavernous brew pub on a frontage road by Interstate-95 that makes great thin-crust pizza. At least I didn’t go hungry. But all is forgiven, because the event is so interesting. It’s the largest professional brewing competition on the East Coast, and quite wide-ranging. Some 725 brews were sampled in the course of a day, with 125 judges — some of them professionally accredited through the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), but others are just gifted amateur brewers.
The spirits come from all over the U.S., and overseas, too. Some shipments, including some cider from Canada, got turned away at the border. The stuff that does make it through is brought to a storeroom where it's numbered. Volunteer stewards (who are warned not to sample their wares) pour the stuff into red Solo cups and hand-carry it to the two-judge teams — who have to judge a first, second and third place.
Judges from all walks of life
Let’s start at the beginning. The extremely genial Gregg Glaser owns the competition, having started it in 1996 as an adjunct to a beer festival in Rhode Island. He took over ownership when the festival owner retired, and it’s been growing ever since. Glaser lives in Connecticut, so that’s why the event moved here.
Glaser has been a beer writer since 1994, and now edits Yankee Brew News and contributes to Modern Distillery Age. "This is my baby," he said of the competition, which has grown hugely with the big upsweep in interest in artisanal liquor — making it and drinking it.
Home brewer Andy Tipler (who didn’t see the irony of his name, pointing out it has only one "t") says the U.S. is "far in advance" of his native Britain in home brewing. Tipler, a retired chemist who was judging ciders, said he got started in earnest after moving to the U.S. and failing to locate the kind of English ales he enjoyed in his hometown pub. The equipment he needed for quality brewing was readily available, and there was even a local beer and winemaking store, Maltose Express.
Rushing around at the competition was Tipler’s fellow Brit, Gerry Nichols, who was wearing a clown hat with a sign that said "Ask Gerry." The former emergency room nurse was the ninth nationally certified beer judge. He runs the competition with Glaser. Nichols said, "This event is a way for professional brewers to get recognition from their peers. There aren’t a lot of avenues for that."
That’s particularly true as brew pubs and local bottlers proliferate. According to the Brewers Association, there are 3,812 microbreweries and 2,252 brew pubs in the U.S. That’s up from 192 and 329 respectively in 1994.
What do judges look for in a drink?
A few nights before the competition, I’d had Nichols on my WPKN radio show, and he gave me four "common household liquids" and asked me to identify them. I got one, a mix of lemon juice and wine vinegar. "No high-powered wine sommeliers got it," Nichols said. "I think you are only the second taster to manage it."
Nichols, who also judges coffees and even honey, is an expert on flavor perception. He thinks some liquor judges go overboard in saying what they identify – hints of chocolate, or licorice, for instance. The tastes he gave me were of liquid blends, and I found the mix produced a third thing that was not easily sorted into its constituent parts. Nichols said, "I tested a bunch of beer judges recently with a thirds mix of pomegranate, apple juice and raspberry. Some got just one. None got apples, and some got things that weren’t in there. Humans are really bad at correctly identifying items in a mixture."
Do you think you could detect all these things in a cider? "Medium-bodied and perfectly balanced with prominent notes of rain-soaked tart cherries; cinnamon and all-spice notes throughout with hints of watermelon and strawberries on the finish." Me neither.
The tables were equipped with saltine crackers for the judges to "clear their palates." But Michael Mordechai — a beer judge who doubles as an artisanal bread maker — was passing around samples of his multigrain country loaf for the same purpose.
"When you think about it, beer and bread have the same ingredients: wheat, barley and rye," Mordechai told me. That Fairfield Bread Company multigrain goes through a slow fermentation process.
I got talking to judge Mike Roy, who runs Franklin’s Brewery in Hyattsville, Maryland (near D.C.). He offers 18 beers, ciders and root beer made on the premises. "It used to be that beer could only travel as far as a horse could walk in a day," he said. "Then trains, followed by refrigerated trucks, meant it could travel much further. The result is that got nationally distributed brands of beer, and local brewing began to disappear." And now localized beer and wine — not to mention mead and sake — have come roaring back.
The mention of soda was interesting, because years ago I did an article for the New York Times about local soda makers. It was before the word "artisanal" was widespread — these were old-line businesses using equipment made in the 1940s, and bottling in seven-ounce bottles (the only ones that fit the machines). Now soda, too, has been gentrified. But my old seltzer supplier — Castle Beverages — is still in business.
Judging by appearances, if you want to be a beer judge it helps to be a white guy with a beard. But food critic and playwright Elizabeth Keyser was also sampling the spirits, and so was Katie Radawich of North Haven, Connecticut. The national beer judge likes cider, especially the Belgian styles, which she said were "good for people who are gluten free." She calls the competition "a showcase of the best in the industry."
The judging of this year’s competition will take a couple of weeks, not because the judges are hung over but because Glaser was going on vacation to Tahiti and wouldn’t be able to finish things up ahead of time. So check www.gibcc.com for results. And if you’re a professional brewer, think about entering next year.