The verdict is in: Judging area beers is a tasty endeavor


Judges, as we all know, are somber sorts. So recently, when I was called upon to be a beer judge, I did my best to behave in the appropriate manner.

The occasion was a contest among area microbrewers. The contest was part of a benefit for the Lupus Foundation of Maryland, held at Bohager's restaurant in Fells Point.

In one part of the restaurant, patrons drank cups of locally made beers, some on draft, some in bottles. In another room folks tried samples of unusual bottled beers, like Perry's Majestic, an "organic beer" brewed in Michigan.

I was on a panel of three beer jurists who rated 10 beers made by area microbrewers. Before the contest began, I talked with the other judges and was impressed by their backgrounds. The head judge, John Houseman, was master brewer at the G. Heileman Brewing Company's plant in Halethorpe, south of Baltimore. Houseman has beer in his blood. His father and two of his uncles were brewers at the old Ortlieb's, Schmidt's and Esslinger breweries in the Philadelphia area. The other judge was George Stewart, president of the Maryland Wine and Food Society. Stewart and his wife had recently returned from a trip to Oregon, Washington state and northern California, a region that seems to have a microbrewery on every other street corner.

I sat in a corner of the restaurant trying to look judicial. A good crowd filtered in, among them some pretty serious beer drinkers from my office. Just my luck. Here I was trying to impress beer connoisseurs, and who should show up but guys who might mention the evening in Hampden when our softball team sat under a tree and sucked down six-packs.

I pretended I didn't see my friends. Once the judging began, I was a model of decorum. I put my nose to the beer mug. I sniffed the beers. I scribbled notes. Then I rated them on a scoring sheet that was so intricate it could have done double duty as an Internal Revenue Service form. Houseman, the brewmaster, had brought along the sheet.

He said it was a simplified version of the beer-tasting sheets big brewers like Heileman use when they send their beers to a professional tasting operation in Chicago.

Our tasting was very professional. There was no shouting. No burping. But there was one major problem. We were drinking the wrong beer.

We were supposed to be judging the ales from category No. 1. But somehow we ended up drinking a wheat beer from category No. 4. Mixing your categories is serious judicial misconduct. Beer judges who can't keep their categories straight sometimes suffer severe consequences, namely, they aren't invited to judge (drink free beer) again.

When my fellow judges and I discovered the mistake, we agreed that it wasn't our fault. Somebody else in the system, probably the person serving the beers, had given us the wrong sample.

To our credit, we did discover and correct our mistake. That meant we got to drink a replacement beer. Moreover, we became skilled at detecting a beer that had strayed from its correct category. So a few minutes later when once again we drank the wrong beer, we had corrective procedure down pat. First we blamed somebody else. Then we drank the replacement.

We were appropriately judicial when the awards were passed out to microbrewers. In ales, first place went to Stockade Amber Ale brewed by Sisson's South Baltimore brewery. Oxford Class made by Oxford Brewing Co of Linthicum was second, and third place was the Blue Ridge Golden Ale made by the Frederick Brewing Company.

In amber beers, first place went to the Pilsner made by Baltimore Brewing Company, which also won second place for its Marzen. Wild Goose Amber from the Wild Goose brewery in Cambridge came in third, and Sisson's Marble Pilsner Lager rounded out the field.

Wild Goose Porter won the dark beer category. And in the specialty beers, the choice was between two wheat beers -- Oxford Raspberry Wheat, a fruity, almost sweet beer, and a Weizenbock from Baltimore Brewing which was big and almost overpowering.

The judges preferred the Weizenbock. But the crowd, including the characters from my office, loved the Raspberry Wheat. Later they let me know that when it comes to tastes in beer, they make their own rulings.

(P.S.: In last Wednesday's column, I misspelled the name of Robert L. Millhauser, president of the Southern Seafood Company.)

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