If you’re looking for action on a summer Sunday you’re probably not going to find it in downtown Michigan City, Indiana. The Sunday-afternoon streets are quiet and you’ll have no problem making every light as you roll past the dark glass of empty office buildings. However, just to the north, by the nearby shores of Lake Michigan things get much livelier. And on Sunday, July 27, what went down was a veritable hootenanny, also known as the second-annual Midwest Brewers Brawl, the area’s yearly beer-tasting event which includes a brewing contest. During the event Washington Park, which sits a few hundred feet from the lake, became abuzz with activity. A stone’s throw north you could hear unmistakable beach sounds – crashing waves, seagulls, children laughing as they ran in the thick sand. Just to the west, tall masts rose from the pretty marina. But main attraction this day was beer, and dozens of people gathered in and around a sizeable tent to sample regional brewers’ competitive offerings.
This was about to be my first-ever turn at beer judging and I didn’t know quite what to expect. But due to terrible interstate traffic, to construction that caused me to have to double back, and to a feisty thunderstorm which burst out of nowhere, my “68 minute” (yeah, right, Trip Advisor) trip took over two hours, and I had eons to contemplate how the judging would proceed. By the time I arrived, an hour late, blue skies had erased the storm clouds, and some guitarist on stage was singing bro country tunes. Thick odors of smoke, sauerkraut, and warm, sundry meats hovered in the air as I hurried to the judging station. Seemingly no more than a minute later someone plopped a tray of thirty stout beers in front of me. It was time for judging.
Three categories of beers were in the initial competitive field, which were stouts, wheat beers, and IPA’s. The other two judges and I were required to pick a winner from each category. By the end of the three rounds the event organizers had added a fourth category, session beers, which consisted of low-ABV beers of any variety.
By this point in my life I’ve probably tried well over a thousand beers and have reviewed hundreds. Sometimes the articles about them practically write themselves. However, when it comes to judging beers it is a whole different ballgame. Consider the challenge of having seven to ten different beers of the same variety right in front of you, and you have to try them in succession while distinguishing between them. By the time you get to your fifth stout, telling one from another is as stupefying as reading pharmacists’ prescription notes. Also, you develop some pretty serious palate fatigue rather quickly as your tongue gets overrun by repeatedly tasting nearly identical flavors.
We were expected to judge the beers based upon their appearance, aroma, mouthfeel, and taste. To keep this from becoming too maddening it proved best to identify one or two distinguishing characteristics for each beer. For example, if a stout was excessively smoky, that trait was noted. Writing down notes was critical. Also, a stout might, perhaps, be a bit creamier than the others. Such a trait became noteworthy, especially if the beer’s other flavors, such as roasted malts or chocolate, were not strong enough or unique enough to set it apart. It helped that one brewer made things easy by completely botching a stout to the point of it being genuine swill. We judges could not determine whether the concoction was an actual skunked beer or was an attempt at a Belgian stout, such as Lost Abbey’s Serpent’s Stout, gone off the rails. Either way the doomed stout’s sour-berry flavor was easily and unfortunately distinguishable from the others, and made it a cinch for elimination.
What also helped was that my co-judges were really cool and quite open minded. Simon Barrios, whom I believe was raised partially in Bolivia, and Tiffany Daugherty, both of whom work for Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan, were my partners in crime for this affair. We quickly worked out a rating method by which each of us would use our own point system to assess the quality of a beer, then we would take the average of our three scores and assign that as the brew’s overall score. Of course, the beer in each category with the highest-average score was presumably the winner. But even within that system the judges’ collaborative effort was needed, as there were ties and close calls requiring joint resolution. We generally decided upon each victor by a unanimous vote. What I also liked was that none of the judges spoke even remotely in an authoritative or condescending manner, and respect flowed evenly among us. Our respective scores often had some wide variances, but the fun was when our particular ratings happened to be identical.
As for the quality of the beers, I’d say there was substantial variance. The beers ranged from tasting like decent homebrews to tasting highly accomplished, as if they could be regularly served at Map Room. The only truly terrible beer was the aforementioned, hopeless stout. Overall the stouts probably had the highest percentage of higher-quality beers, followed by the IPA’s, then the sessions. Wheat beers were the weakest link, as it seemed that, across the board, achieving the fruity flavor characteristics of a well-executed wheat proved elusive.
Ironically, the beer of our mutually greatest enjoyment out of all categories was a disqualified wheat, which was Valparaiso Indiana’s Four Fathers Brewing’s 1776’er. We nixed it from contention because it was far too hop-dominant for the category. But in the end we acknowledged the entry with an honorable mention. In fact, after trying several of Four Fathers’ offerings, I sincerely hope to see them get tapped in Chicago someday soon. I’ll also add that, man, those Four Fathers guys are friendly. I mean really friendly. To the point of nearly fracturing my hand on a handshake. As my blog co-founder, Shaun, and I like to reiterate, sparing you the vulgarity, the craft-brewing industry is simply jerk-free.
Category winners were as follows. For stouts, Shoreline Brewing won for their Lost Sailor Imperial Stout. For wheats, Burn ‘Em Brewing won or their Krankerwagen, and the brewery also won for the best brewery at the festival. For IPA’s Round Barn’s Hop Dealer took top honors. (As a side note, when we began the IPA-judging round I wrote down a note expressing my love for the beer variety – I can’t tell you what it said but it got a few laughs. Okay, well Simon sort of chucked. Look, after sampling 25 beers you’re bound to think you’re funnier than you actually are, okay?) Anyway, rounding out the list, the session-beer winner was again Burn ‘Em, this time taking honors for The Fluffer.
Finally, I’d like to thank Tom Baumbach of the Northwest Indiana Leaders Young Professional Network, which was the event host, for inviting me to attend and for putting up with my threats to abort the journey due to an abundance of work, and with my tardiness. Tiffany gets a nod for providing the Wheat Thins which were an effective palate cleanser and a critical sobriety maintainer. Thanks also go to Simon for being our scorekeeper.
My buddy Matt, too, gets a thumbs up for joining me on the journey. Before we headed back to Chicago, we briefly walked over to the beach. It had really cleared out, and in the distance you could easily see the Chicago skyline rising above the lake’s huge, rippling waves. As the beer event proved, Indiana is not that far away.