Rowdy public beer festivals, with their noisy toasts and clinking steins, can be great fun for casual drinkers hoping to try a few new brands. Sanctioned beer competitions, on the other hand, are serious affairs held in quiet rooms with judges hunched over sampling glasses at white tablecloth tables, piles of paper and pencils at their sides.
These events — and the carefully judged results — verify the brewers' efforts and add validity to the craft of homebrewing.
Longtime local homebrewing club Lowcountry Libations — presided over by Brent Brewer — will host the Charles Town Homebrew Competition on Sat. March 7. Sanctioned by the Charleston American Homebrewers Association (www.beertown.org) and the Beer Judge Certification Program (www.bjcp.org), it's the first "official" brewing contest to be held in Charleston. Like other competitions around the country, this one will be conducted using AHA's official beer score guidelines. The contest follows the club's participation in the "Good West Ashley Beer Festival," held in December at D.D. Peckers in West Ashley.
"Were trying to do what the Palmetto State Brewers in Columbia, the Savannah Brewers League in Savannah, and the Carolina Brewmasters in Charlotte are all doing," says Brewer. "We anticipate this competition to be a small competition starting out — maybe 50 entries or so. If we end up with over 200, we may have to judge over a couple of days. This is our first shot at it."
Brewer loves beer. An Air Force brat born in Germany, he lived in and traveled through many of the traditional brewing regions of northern Europe and the U.K. He first became involved with Lowcountry Libations in 1998. The head brewers from Southend Brewery invited local homebrewers to the second-floor dining room overlooking East Bay Street for monthly meetings.
"It was quite informal," he remembers. "We had a long table, and we'd bring our homebrewed beers and pass them around. It was very grassroots and kicked-back. As time went by, we had meetings at Palmetto Brewery and other spots. We just recently decided to turn things into a more formal club."
The competition on March 7 is open to all homebrewers. Each entry must include two full, capped bottles of beer, submitted with a completed entry form (the forms are available online at www.lowcountrylibations.com). Although 12-ounce amber bottles are preferred, other sizes and colors of glass will be permitted. Flip-top bottles aren't allowed. They require the brewer's contact information, recipe information, and an indication of the category and subcategory in which the beer is to be judged. Each entrant will receive the judge's score sheets. Prizes and ribbon will be awarded to the top scorers in each category.
The final scores, on a scale from one to 50, will reflect proximity to classic styles, technical merit, and significant flaws in five main categories: aroma, appearance, flavor, mouth feel, and overall impression. The total score on each judge sheet reflects all five categories. An "Outstanding" score is 45-50. "Excellent" is 38-44. "Very Good" is 30-37, and "Good" is 21-29.
"Home brews will have to score high enough in order to qualify for ribbons," says Brewer. "For example, if only one person was to enter a Rauchbier in the smoked beer category, they may win by default, but they'd have to score at least 21 points to win a bronze medal ribbon. They would still get the score sheets with the judge's comments as feedback, though."
Sponsors for this competition include Briess Malt & Ingredients, Hop Union hop company, 5 Star Chemical Company, Charleston Beer Exchange, Coast Brewing Co., D.D. Peckers Wing Shack, and Avondale Wine & Cheese — all of whom will provide prizes for the top winners.
"Beyond the recognition of placing third or first in a style category, the biggest thing is that it gives you actual feedback from people who care enough about beer to take an actual exam to be certified," says Coast's David Merritt, who's judged at several sanctioned events himself. "It's not a public event. It'll be judges, stewards, and a handful of volunteers. The judges will be blind to the brewer; they won't know who it is. The feedback is serious. A brewer might learn about a slight off-flavor and target what it is and where it's coming from."
With such support from the local microbrewers, the regional homebrewing community, and the national companies and beer organizations, this thing could become a regular highlight of the winter brewing season.
All entries for the Charles Town Homebrew Competition are due at Coast Brewing Company (1250 2nd St. N. in North Charleston) by Fri. Feb. 27 at 5 p.m. Lowcountry Libations will conduct the contest at a private venue (not open to the public) on Sat. March 7. Visit www.lowcountrylibations.com and www.coastbrewing.com for more info.