We’ve got a great World Beer Festival coming up in January here in Columbia, South Carolina, and we’re working again with the Palmetto State Homebrew Club. So, I was happy to drive down in order to spend last Saturday  judging entries for the annual Palmetto Open homebrew competition.

Homebrewers personify the leading edge of the revolution in beer enjoyment in the United States. And at the Open, I tasted numerous examples that show why this is still the case.

I spent the morning with the Belgian Specialty category, which included a drop-dead gorgeous bière de garde, which was itself trumped in the mini-best of show by a Belgian ale ale with Brett.

Can you believe it? Third place was a clone of Biere de Miele and I have a new appreciation for honey in beer. This one was a gem, a rare treat.

I was paired with Todd Bowman of the Carolina Brewmasters homebrew club in Charlotte, and organizer of their Charlotte Oktoberfest. I have to say the conversations back and forth with Todd simply made the day. It was great fun talking beer with such a great palate. We did the saisons, bières de garde, and a couple of specialty Belgian styles.  Although the saisons were generally close, missing often because of an absence of spiciness, our sole bière de garde was just short of spectacular.

The afternoon had me in a more difficult setting: golden ales including blonde ales and kölsch. Here the Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines were indispensible.  The blondes were tough because of a tendency to overdo some aspect or another.  The kölsch generally had trouble achieving that signature “soft” flavor, although one knocked it out of the park.

The day showed me a couple of things. First, homebrewers are really nailing the classic beer styles. While we talk about the crazies–Belgian double Brett wheat blueberry bock barley wines–a lot of time and energy is still being spent on the classics.  Furthermore, the differences between medaling and not medaling are generally rather slim. Sure, there are a few toss-them-away-at-first-whiff beers, but a majority are solid examples with need of some fine tuning.

For me and my efforts to learn beer in depth, much delayed with the press of work and family, strides apparently have been made just because the goals of my project are always in the back of my mind. I found myself stepping up with descriptive language quite eagerly.  However, I did find a new barrier, which is my understanding of causes of the defects. Fortunately ,I was teamed with people like Todd, and later Ryan, who could fill in the blanks of possible issues with process or ingredients.

I’m looking forward to continuing to refine my chops as a judge.  Great fun in Columbia.