I was excited to help judge the Maine Homebrewers Competition this year, The Greater Bangor area has produced some solid professional brewers over the past couple of years – Joel and John of Foundation, Clay at Marsh Island, basically everybody working in the Geaghan Brothers Brewhouse to name a few – so judging this competition is possibly a chance to try an up and coming Brewer’s beer before they go pro, of course not every homebrewer is going to go pro and they may never win a competition but it is within their grasp to brew a flavorful, quality beer at home. Over the course of the judging two things stood out to me as trends.
I didn’t taste every beer in the competition, we were broken into two groups with a goal of narrowing the field from 41 beers (20 each group) to 10 finalists. In my grouping of beers I can gladly say nothing was infected but there were a variety of technical flaws and the most prominent flaw that kept showing up was phenols.
Phenols in beer can go both ways. Those clove and spicy phenols in your hefeweizen or saison are meant to be there and that barnyard funk in your favorite Brett beer is a good phenol. Then there is the off flavors and aromas, the medicinal and band-aid, let me tell you, there is a reason nobody is producing a commercial beer that tastes like Band-aids.
It’s hard to pinpoint why so many of the entries had similar off flavors – troubleshooting phenols comes down to water, sanitizer, sanitizing, yeast or mash/sparge problems.
My guess would generally be water, homebrewers should know their water source and avoid using water that has been chlorine treated or let the water rest open to the air overnight to allow chlorine to dissipate naturally, if they are using a chlorine based cleaning agent on their equipment they may want to consider switching to something else.
Improperly sanitized equipment could be hiding spoilage bacteria that create off flavored phenols, this is always a possibility, tubes and valves should be cleaned thoroughly or replaced.
It is always a possibility that incorrect yeast was chosen but this would likely produce phenols that are not appropriate for style versus band-aid flavors which are usually caused by chlorine reacting to phenols produced by yeast.
Mash and Sparge troubleshooting gets a little more technical – basically if the homebrewer is mashing or sparging with water that is too hot they will extract unwanted phenols, increased mash PH will also extract unwanted phenols – I’m no expert here, go pick up How to Brew by John Palmer to help troubleshoot the process.
The last line of defense for off flavors of course is tasting, as the brewer it can be tough to be impartial, let’s face it you spent your money on ingredients and your time to make it. Your friends will be happy to try your beer and unless they are a beer judge, beer geek or honest fellow homebrewer (a person could be any of or all of those things) they will probably happily blow smoke up your ass to keep getting free beer. Find someone who will tell you when your beer is great, when your beer sucks, if you are lucky they’ll be able to help you troubleshoot it, if not you at least know you still have work to do before you enter a homebrew competition.
I’ve homebrewed, I understand that you can only brew so many times before you have to throw something crazy in it. I think that’s human nature. I brewed a pale ale one time that had pomegranate juice in it, it went a little wild on me and wasn’t what I was aiming for but it was very good and didn’t stick around long, another time I brewed a stout with espresso beans in the boil, added more in primary fermentation and then floated the rest of the bag as whole beans in the secondary, I don’t know what I was thinking it didn’t taste like beer and only a handful of my coffee loving friends could handle the flavor or the caffeine buzz it produced. The point isn’t that I’ve put stuff in my homebrew it’s that I understand why people do, but I’ve never entered those beers in a homebrew competition and I never would.
Judging a homebrew competition isn’t easy, you need to sample multiple beers, in a small competition you are probably sampling from a variety of styles, you have to keep your palate fresh and senses sharp, which is really fucking hard when every other beer is oak or coffee or fruit. The beer is announced “next up is a Porter” and you perk up ready to try this porter and you hear “aged on” or even just “with” and it kills it, because adding flavor to beer is hard, it takes a lot of practice and control. It’s also hard to judge, you might be tasting the winning beer except for the flavor or the base beer isn’t technically sound but it’s hard to say why because it’s muted by flavoring. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’ve had wonderful homebrew with flavors added but I am saying it’s not necessary. Unless you have the perfect recipe that your hard ass, beer geek friend has approved (and you should still take their word with a grain of salt) then just don’t and follow the KISS method, Keep it Simple Stupid, you only need four ingredients to make beer – Malt, Water, Hops and Yeast – so get extremely good with those four ingredients and enter that beer in a competition, you’d be surprised at how far you’ll go without all the bells and whistles. Look at the 10 finalist beers in this year’s competition, aside from the Cucumber Pilsner they are all straightforward beers with no crazy ingredients.
I don’t in any way mean to discourage anyone from homebrewing, it’s a wonderful and rewarding hobby that is as easy or hard as you make it. It can become a profession for those willing to put in the time to educate themselves about the science of brewing, the ingredients, the process and of course the quality aspect. As far as homebrew competitions, it takes some guts to take a beer you brewed and submit it to be judged, I’ve done it, I entered the Maine Homebrew Competition in its first year with a Belgian Dubbel that I was proud of and it didn’t advance to the finals, so I understand how it works from both sides and I would say if you are truly passionate about your homebrew to keep doing, keep learning and keep entering competitions and if you are like me, keep drinking, keep learning and start judging.
I wasn’t able to make the final round of judging for the competition but I’d like to congratulate the finalist and encourage people to head to Geaghan Brothers Brewing on Friday, March 25th at 7pm for the winner announcement, it’s a good chance to chat with real live homebrewers if you are interested in trying it yourself or just want to chat about beer.