DURHAM — Jimmy Vervaecke lifted the cup to his nose and stuck it close to the white foam. He pulled it away and eyed the color and clarity of the beer.
Another sniff. He wrote a few notes on a score sheet and took a small sip, swirling the beer in his mouth to gauge the flavor and feel.
I get a lot of caramel and molasses and that kind of thing, he said, finally.
And raisins, added Eric Knight, his beer-judging partner and a professional brewer. Lots of dark fruit.
One by one Saturday, judges painstakingly sniffed, sipped and swirled more than 170 amateur and professional entries in the N.C. State Fairs first beer competition. The vast majority of the bottles came from home brewers, the mad scientists who mix water, grain, hops and yeast to make beer in their own kitchens and garages.
Richard Mitchell organized the event this year after noticing the State Fair held a North Carolina wine competition but not a similar one for craft beer. More than a dozen states host beer competitions at annual fairs and it seemed like a natural fit in North Carolina, he said, given the states thriving craft beer industry and Ashevilles unofficial designation as Beer City, USA.
I really wasnt expecting this many entries, he said, saying it only will expand next year.
Its definitely a pleasant surprise.
At the State Fair next month, a booth will display the winning beers and help educate the public about craft beer and how it is made.
No samples available, unfortunately.
Were really trying to stress that its a local industry and the broader commerce in general, Mitchell said.
Like the artisanal craft beer industry, the home-brewing market has exploded in popularity in recent years.
This is as empowering as it is addictive, said Joshua M. Berstein, the author of Brewed Awakening, who recently visited Raleigh.
Armed with just four ingredients ... beer can spin in thousands of different flavorful directions.
The only limit is your imagination.
Nate Dizo, who runs Bull City Homebrew in Durham, sees those who like to keep it simple and grand wizards of wort who make complex concoctions.
He said the hobby appeals to do-it-yourselfers who want more control over the beer they drink.
Its like cooking at home, he said.
You dont have to be a professional chef to cook a good meal.
Even President Barack Obama is home brewing in the White House. His chefs recently released two beer recipes that use honey from the White House garden.
Dizo posted recipes for the presidential brews on the Bull City Homebrew website.
More and more people are trying the recipe now, he said.
The judging for the State Fair took place at Harris Inc., a beer distributor in Durham.
Four sets of two judges sat opposite across tables with bottles and little plastic cups scattered in front of them.
The laid-back mood belied the serious nature of beer judging. No football games on television or platters with chips and dip. The aroma of food can affect the experience.
Beer judging involves a complex score sheet that rates each on aroma, appearance, flavor and mouth-feel. Each style of beer must fit within unique rigid guidelines.
The whole thing is coded in a special vernacular. An India Pale Ale must be hoppingly bitter and an Imperial Stout should taste resinously roasty.
If you just say it smells like beer, thats not really helpful, explained Vervaecke, a 33-year-old certified beer judge and home brewer from Durham.
You have to use terms people can relate to.
Sipping a stout, he told his fellow judge he detected an interesting taste, kind of like when an 18-wheeler stops on the highway too fast.
Even if beer tasting seems fun, the competition started just after 9 a.m. and took most the day. Toward the end the judges found their palates wrecked.
After (tasting) 35 beers it gets tough, you just get kind of tired, Vervaecke said.
But as he told an organizer later, It could be worse, you could be head of the pig judging at the State Fair.