What a surprise it was, being invited to be a part of the international beer jury of the 2015 Brussels Beer Challenge in Antwerp! One of the few most important international beer contests in Europe. Me? Damn! Proud...
For a ‘freshly baked’ Diplom Biersommelier, it is not common to enter this close circle of international beer experts. You have to be tipped and introduced, something that happened to me.
I was quite euphoric when I got the invitation mail and had to read it twice (or to be honest, a 100 times at least…). The euphoria was soon replaced by nervousness and tension when I had a look at the other judges that would participate. Names that I know for a long time, writers whose books are on my shelves and that have always been beer geniuses. Me, sitting beside them and judge the world’s best beers? Beep – fucking awesome – beep!
And then you arrive at the hotel and meet your fellow judges. Wow, this guy is much older that on the books (but sure, the books are meanwhile old as well), and this other beer celebrity over there, taller than I expected. Taller, smaller, older, younger, doesn’t matter, what surprised me most was that they were all very kind. And they did not (yet) give me the feeling of being the little newbie that I finally was. Pressure fell to a liveable level, especially after a couple of drinks in the town hall of Antwerp.
8:15am, gathering in the hotel lobby and walk to the contest location. A 20 minutes walk! Luckily! The fresh Antwerp morning air helps keeping the (again) rising pressure under control. 20 minutes to think about style guidelines, 20 minutes to test if my nose works correctly, 20 minutes to fear about total failure, 20 minutes to bet which styles I’ll have to judge. Damn short 20 minutes…
After being introduced to my table fellow judges, a short introduction about the rules and then: go!
Together with my table captain from Belgium, one female judge from the Netherlands, an Italian, a Suisse and myself as a German, we rinsed our palates with the calibration beer, getting ready to know our styles. One of the fundamental ideas of the BBC is to have internationally composed tables in order to obtain as objective results as possible.
The table captain reveals the categories we have to judge today. We will be starting with ‘Bitter Blond/Golden Ales” and finish with 7 “Chocolate Flavoured Beers”.
Hell, here’s the first brew… How will it be? 3 minutes in average to judge a beer. At home I take more time… But, wait, my nose, my tongue, my brain, my entire senses switch to alert mode, the system starts working:
Appearance – how does it look? Sediments? Haze? Colour? All in style? Yepp, check!
Aroma, Taste, Technical quality, compliance to the style… sniff, check, sniff, sip check again, sniff, evaluate, sip, evaluate, sniff, sip, sniff, note, count. This is work. This is pure concentration. This is absolutely fantastic! Time flies while sniffing, sipping, checking and noting down. Finally time turns out to be sufficient for each beer – the ones that are more difficult are supported by the ones that are easy to judge, mostly those that can directly classified due to brewing faults or being not in line with the style. I am surprised how good it works; still it’s difficult to control my nervousness. After every flight (yes the beer fly in…) our tasting and testing sheets are collected and directly typed into the computer. So it doesn’t take long after the last beer that the table captain gets the results, which are then commonly discussed, revised and if ever there is no consensus, beers can be recalled to re-evaluate.
Chocolate beers. No other similarity than the use of chocolate. ABV’s are ranging from 5 to 12%. Challenging. 7 of them! Hmmm, well, yes, no, shit. There are two that are worth being winners, but the rest? Nope. Not for me. And not to my table team members either. And then I learn about one of the differences between The BBC and most other international competitions. If there are only two beers worth being crowned with a medal, then there will only be two medals given! And it might as well be that there is no gold medal winner. To me, this sounds good. Other competitions work following the Olympic idea: If there are three participants, there will be three medals… No matter the quality of the beers. This might be friendly and kind, but it might mislead the consumer as a bad brew could proudly mark “Gold Medal Winner” on its label… a questionable practice.
Day ones tasting session is over. This was stress. All my senses were alert but still I doubt all my scores until the final result shows that I was in line with my fellow judges. Reason to be assured for day two? Not me…
The second tasting session is similar to the first – as far as I am concerned. Tension rises again. My wife always tells me that I work best under tension, and this is true. So I keep up the tension until the first of our 37 American IPA’s is served. Then systematics takes over again. Analytical thinking replaces nervousness and here we go.
My table neighbour brought a small torch, which he uses to evaluate better the appearance of a beer. I saw that the day before and loved the idea. Having no torch with me, I use the torch of my iPhone. The use of cell phones is forbidden during the tasting (which is more than a good thing) – but this uncommon use of my phone is tolerated.
You think that after 20 IPA’s your tongue will be saturated? So we did. But after recalling the favourite beers after the completed test round we all were quite surprised how good the senses still work and we do not have to adjust ratings.
Done! Pressure drops! Pulse is getting back to normal. I want a beer! Until now it was hard work. Now it’s time for pleasure. A pleasure that will culminate in the winner’s ceremony held at the De Koninck brewery in Antwerp the next day.
But now curiosity rises. Having tested around 80 beers in two days without knowing anything about the beers besides the style, it’s now time to get to know at least the winners (all others will be kept secret). Which beers will get the golden medal in the styles I participated in? Will I know them? (If you want to know them, here’s a link to the list of all winners of the 2015 Brussels Beer Challenge.)
Is it already over? I just started...? Time flew during these three days. I still can’t believe that I was a part of this fantastic contest. And besides this stunning experience, it also made me believe in this type of international beer contests. There is absolutely no possibility to influence the results, there is not one judge knowing anything about the beers he will test in advance, they are all beer experts on the highest level being able to judge the beers perfectly in accordance to their style and their quality. The winners of the BBC are true winners.
So am I. I had one of the best beer experiences in my life yet, I had an unbelievable adrenaline kick during two testing days and I really hope to get back on the table again with these great beer people! Thanks to the organisation!