There’s no homebrew competition quite like BeerHoptacular’s homebrew competition. In just a few short weeks, 20 homebrew clubs will battle to the death (well, no one will die) to see who has what it takes to be crowned champion of BeerHoptacular. Every year, our competition is made possible by none other than beer author and judge, Marty Nachel.
Nachel was the first in Illinois to take and pass the Beer Judge Certification Program Test (BJCP). His publications include Beer Across America, Beer For Dummies, and Homebrewing for Dummies, along with numerous articles and columns. We’d say he’s pretty darn qualified to run the show. However, in a time when he was a faithful Old Style drinker, a time before “craft beer” was even a term, he took a fateful trip to Toronto and the Molson Brewery. He took just one taste of the freshest porter – the only porter – he had ever had, and was hooked. In 1982, Nachel knew that there must be better beer out there. And he was going to do everything in his power to find it and bring it to the people of Chicago.
Nachel earnestly began developing his palate and refining his skill for appreciating and evaluating craft beers. Each Friday, he would take home a six-pack of something really awesome that he’d never had before. He’d chill it, sit with his pen and paper, and taste it while taking notes on his impressions. But, that wasn’t enough for Nachel. He wanted to learn about beer from the inside out. He began homebrewing. His brew was pretty darn good, so he began submitting it to competitions. Through competing, he developed an interest in judging – so he became one. And, by gaining expertise in all these arenas, he was able to become an accomplished beer writer as well.
We recently caught up with Nachel to learn more about the art of judging a beer, the BeerHoptacular homebrew competition, and homebrewing in general.
BeerHoptacular: What was your original involvement with BeerHoptacular and the homebrew competition?
Marty Nachel: When the first BeerHoptacular together ran back in 2010, they wanted to get home brewers involved, so they contacted me. We decided to make it into a homebrew club competition. We contacted about 20-25 local clubs in the tri-state area. At that time, I was working for Country Malt Group, the guys who supply the malt for the industry. We arranged through CMG to get the grains donated. Basically, I took the grains home and I weighed them all out, packaged them for twenty clubs, put them in boxes and shipped them.
BH: What sort of rules do they have in terms of recipe development from there?
MN: The idea is to showcase the grain. The homebrewers can toast it, smoke it, or roast it. They can add any hops, yeast, and fermentable sugar they want. They can make it an ale or a lager. They can ferment it however they want. They can add any herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables. They can even try barrel aging. With the creativity of these brewers, I’m looking forward to seeing a very wide variety of beers based on that single bag of 12 pounds of malt.
BH: What were the results of that first homebrew competition?
MN: It was definitely a success. The homebrew clubs enjoyed it and they were ecstatic to be included. Every year so far has been an overwhelming success. The only times that we’ve been tripped up is when clubs messed up whatever beer they made, or in the case of one year, a couple of clubs just said, “Oops, sorry, we missed the deadline.”
BH: Can you tell us about the steps involved in tasting and evaluating a beer?
MN: My background is BJCP but I also judge at Great American Beer Fest (GABF). The process is really the same for both. The first step is tasting the beer and looking for defects. Meaning, did the brewer do something wrong? Am I tasting off-flavors, like diacetyl, dimethyl sulfide, or acetaldehyde? The second step is judging the beers according to their style – did they nail the color? Is the bitterness within range? Is it within the alcohol level that it should be?
BH: Are there any special challenges when you are judging a homebrew competition versus a beer at an event like GABF?
MN: The challenge for judging the BeerHoptacular is that none of the beers will be representing a particular style, because technically there is no style. Instead, we will ask ourselves, “Which one is devoid of defects?” “Which one is the most hedonically pleasing?” “Which as the highest drinkability?” “Which has perfect balance between the hops the malts and the other flavors that might be in there?” The judges will have their work cut out for them, but that is what makes it fun.
BH: So when you’re in a room with other judges, what are the best practices?
MN: We encourage isolating opinions first so that everyone has the opportunity to taste all 20 beers and form objective opinions. Afterwards, we open it up to conversation. When you have seven to eight judges, the conversations can be very interesting because one might pick up on something that the others didn’t and so on. Certain judges might have what you’d call a blindspot. My personal blindspot is oxidation. On the opposite side of the coin, I can pick up on diacetyl or phenolic. When you have several judges, they can achieve a balanced consensus through discussion. Little by little, they will agree over time.
BH: When you taste a lot of beers at a competition, are you actually drinking the whole beer? Are you spitting it out? How do you not get absolutely tanked when you’re doing these things?
MN: Yes, we do swallow the beer. There are “dump buckets,” but nobody uses them. The samples are 3 to 4 ounces, and nobody finishes that. Nobody. They say that an accomplished judge should be able to judge a beer in about 3 to 4 sips. That’s my goal. “Getting absolutely tanked” is really only a pitfall for amateurs, professional judges never even get close to inebriation. The idea is to take very small sips, and take as few sips as possible. Always wash your palate with water. Take advantage of the palate cleaners on the table – crackers, matzo bread, cubed French bread. Get up and use the washroom as often as needed. Make sure you don’t become inebriated, because if you are obviously inebriated, you will be kicked out.
BH: What would you say makes a good homebrew?
MN: A good homebrew is no different than a good commercial beer. It has to be quality. It has to have balance. It needs to have drinkability. It has to be devoid of obvious flaws. It has to be made well on a technical level. Our judges are trained to pick up on things like that. I’m happy to say that in the years past we’ve had very high quality beers submitted to BeerHoptacular. We’ve had a couple of croakers but those are few and far between.
BH: What advice would you give to this year’s homebrew hopefuls?
MN: Once you get on the roster and you get the grain package, totally think outside the box. Just be daring, be different, be unique and be unusual. Even if you don’t win it, that creativity catches our eye.
BH: For people who are not homebrewing and are thinking of getting into it, what kind of advice would you give them?
MN: The number one piece of advice I can give is don’t waste your time making unnecessary mistakes. Get involved. Join a club, whether that means a local homebrew club, a physical club, or an online club. There’s no excuse for making crappy beer since there’s too much good information out there. Learn from those who have done it before. Having said that, there’s also a lot of crappy information out there. That’s why it’s always good to talk to somebody face to face. Get involved with a club. They can steer you around the good and bad advice.
BH: Does your job kill your innate enjoyment for beer?
MN: When I get home after judging a homebrew competition that goes from 9am to 5pm, I’m pretty beer-d out. If I want to drink at all, I drink something else, like water. Drinking beer can also be more of a work task for me due to the fact that it is pretty hard for me to “turn the judge off.” I’m always picking beers apart. I’m always paying attention.
Saturday, November 05, 2016
BeerHoptacular takes place over two sessions on Saturday, November 5, 2016 at the awe-inspiring Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. For the sixth time, Chicago craft beer fans will come together to celebrate their love of American beer culture and sample from an enormous selection of beer.
Join us and 4,000 of our closest friends. If you don’t, you’ll probably regret it. Tickets>>