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Stewarding a Homebrew Competition in America’s Finest City (Drinking and paperwork make quite the pair)

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

If this past Saturday morning was a reliable indicator, homebrew competitions are the following three things:

  1. Lively, at times bordering on raucous.
  2. Educational
  3. A fantastic way to spend a weekend.

I have to admit that I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into when I rolled up to St. Dunstan’s last Saturday at 9AM for the America’s Finest City Homebrew Competition.  As I approached the building I was stopped by a fellow QUAFF member who inquired about the tricky, google-inspired back road route he had seen me use just moments earlier.  We chatted for a few moments and I learned that he was Jim Crute, owner of Lightning Brewery.  I still react to meeting brewers as normal folks would when meeting rockstars, so this impromptu meeting bolstered my confidence that it would be a wonderful day.  I strode into the main hall to find a small crowd of somewhat familiar faces and a pleasant breakfast spread.

This was my first experience with a homebrew competition.  I hadn’t entered any beers, but I was there to volunteer as a steward in order to better understand the judging process.  Stewarding, it turns out, isn’t particularly difficult.  At the onset of the judging you pair up with a single category of judges.  In this case I got to choose, so I picked the Scottish and Irish Ale table.   You proceed to bring out the beers, one by one, until they’ve tried the whole flight.  After each beer you check the judge’s math — which gets pretty hairy as the day progresses — and fill out some last remaining paperwork.  Along the way you sequester the beers that have a chance of placing and remove those that obviously won’t make the cut.

The main take-away I got from the AFC is that stewarding is a fantastic way to train your palate.  I was hoping this would be the case, as my abilities to both discern and describe flavors need significant strengthening.  As judges make their way through their flight they are more than happy to let stewards in on their discussions.  I found that they are willing to answer questions if asked and will often encourage you to taste the beers after they’ve sipped enough to form their opinion.  As a steward you can read their scoresheets, which include separate commentary for aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression.  This is made particularly useful because you can often peruse the comments while sampling the beer in question.  I personally think that it’s the notably bad beers which are most interesting to taste.  They often serve as examples for various off-flavors, which are hard to find commercially and even harder to identify if you don’t have a BJCP judge sitting by your side.  Early in the day I had a good example of an infected beer that betrayed both acetic acid bacteria along with a possible Brettanomyces infection (For the uninitiated, the former instills a vinegar-like quality, while the latter is a wild yeast intentionally used in sours; neither should be present in any Scottish or Irish Ale).   When I brought it over to the “dumped” beer area the other stewards were eager to sample the infected brew.  This culture of beer nerdiness and serious study pervades the competition and makes the day fun for everyone involved.

Experiencing the judging process has me pumped for the first round of the National Homebrew Competition coming up in April.  I’m eagerly anticipating the feedback I’ll get for my submissions, which will hopefully include a Scottish Ale.  I’m also looking forward to stewarding once again.  If you’re looking for ways to expand your palate, learn off-flavors, or nail a certain style of beer, I can’t stress enough how great of a resource competitions can be.

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Volunteering at a Brewery

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

One of my aspirations for this blog is to help others become professional brewers. Sometimes I’ll be posting information about specific techniques or equipment, but I think it’s equally important to supplement that with tips on how to make yourself a more attractive candidate for breweries to hire. To that end, one of the best ways to increase your chances is to volunteer at an up and coming brewery.

If you’re like me you might have assumed that, with the industry’s ever-increasing profile and size, the days of breweries opening their doors to volunteers were long gone. While that’s true for larger outfits, newer breweries are often in need of help and short on cash. Perfect volunteering opportunity. In general, the best way to find out if a brewery needs an extra set of hands is to go ask in person — try a flight while you’re at it!

Volunteering is the single best way to experience the realities of professional brewing. You’ll likely cover yourself in beer, hot water and grain dust. You’ll understand the physicality of brewing on a larger-scale. At the end of the day you’ll either be tired and joyful or tired and irritable. That may lead you to realize that you don’t actually want to do this every day, but even if that’s the case you’ll have an enduring, informed appreciation for the work of craft brewers. Or you’ll love every second of it, in which case you’ll learn some invaluable information on the job.

There are the little things: how to handle chemicals or flip and tighten a tri-clamp with one hand. Then there are fundamentals of brewing theory: what different mash temperatures are trying to achieve or goals for cleaning and sanitizing. Most important of all is that you’ll learn to think like a brewer. You need to hone your abilities to multi-task and organize logistics of space and time. If you’re already an all-grain homebrewer you’ll recognize procedural similarities, though some of the techniques and technologies used will be new to you. You’ll learn vocabulary of the trade that will translate no matter what brewery you end up working for.

Brewery owners will respect volunteer experience if for no other reason than that it demonstrates real interest in the craft. They know that you’ve traded time in order to learn: if you’ll do it for free, you must truly enjoy brewing. They can also be certain that your experience elsewhere will make it easier to teach you their operating procedures and, who knows, maybe you’ll be able to teach them a trick or two that they didn’t know.

If you’re going to volunteer, it’s up to you to ensure that you’re getting a good deal out of the exchange. I hate to see members of my generation working for nothing. As long as you’re enjoying yourself, learning everyday and building your resume it’s probably a fair deal. In the end you have to decide if you’re getting enough out of it. Sure, they’ll likely give you beer and merchandise, which is always fun, but you need to be proactive about your education. Get them to train you in all aspects of their process from milling to packaging. Learn everything you can and don’t be afraid to move on if your arrangement ever becomes uneven. As long as you’re driven to learn I’m sure you’ll find it was worth the time you invested.

That said, it’s time for me to go work at Manzanita in exchange for beer and an education.