CARRBORO — The first bottle opens with a hiss just before 9 a.m. A clear, soft golden Munich Helles pours into the cup.
It feels too early to drink craft beer. Not even the college football fans tailgating nearby in Chapel Hill are popping tops this early.
To drink at this hour requires a professional. And more than 20 of them are gathered Saturday at Steel String Brewery in Carrboro to judge the the N.C. Brewers Cup, the State Fairs homebrewing competition.
The majority of the judges are bona fide experts, having completed the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) administered by the American Homebrewers Association. Others are professional brewers or industry experts.
Im not sure where I fit, but I show up ready to learn.
Jim McNulty, a 33-year-old cytotechnologist from Whitsett who is an experienced judge, is serving as my partner and guide.
As he starts to explain how to properly judge a beer, it becomes overwhelming. Im no lightweight my beer palate is fairly refined from years of tasting and homebrewing. But I quickly learn that beer judging is a serious process, even painstaking.
The rules are rigorous. Before the competition starts, the judges must prep their palates, avoiding certain foods and toothpastes. No aftershave or perfumes nothing that could color the sensory glands.
Before I sit down, McNulty places a dozen plastic cups on the table to allow them to breathe, or off-gas the plastic phenolics that could affect the aroma and flavor of the beer. He inspects the bottle. Then he pours a 2-ounce sample into the cup. We sniff. Grainy. And we sniff again. Caramel. And again. Bready. My nose hits the foam rookie mistake. I delight in a beers aroma more than most enthusiasts, but five minutes later, I still havent tasted it.
What I learn is the score sheet gives about a third of the score based on aroma and appearance alone derived without taste. Another 10 points out of 50 are based on overall impression. Flavor and mouthfeel account for the remaining half the score. The Munich Helles (pronounced hell-us, I learned), is sweetly malty with limited to no hops.
The whole competition is about describing what youre experiencing, whether smell or taste.
And the vocabulary is both lyrical and amusing. A malt flavor can be grainy, dark fruit, toasty or burnt. Hops can be citrusy, floral, herbal, spicy or woody. Esters, or flavors from malt and yeast created during the fermentation process, are fruity, whether apple and pear, or berry and stone fruit. Other flavors include smoke, vinous (wine-like) or brett (described as horse-blanket), though these are sometimes flaws.
The score sheet includes this checklist of flavors to steer our feedback. We write down our scores. The first entry is decent, but not enough to win the category.
McNulty adds plenty of comments and suggestions. Im too shy to write much given my amateur status.
I judge to become a better homebrewer, he tells me at the lunch break. I think thats why a lot of us judge. I dont think anybody comes in wanting to tell people that their beer is good or their beer is bad.
As we finish the first beer, I look at the clock. Twenty minutes, start to finish.
McNulty compliments my palate, but his is better. He grabs the bottle opener. Ready for the next one? he asks.
I am. At this point, I need a beer.
What Im tasting
On the professional shelves, the fall season is well underway. It seems too early, but nevertheless, I bought a pumpkin beer. I found a new one with Anderson Valleys Fall Hornin Pumpkin Ale. Its deep mahogany in color, rich in aroma and flavor and well spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg one of the better ones in this seasons patch. A six-pack costs about $10.
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