I was at Hradčanská on a cold Saturday morning, early enough to make me question some of my life's choices, waiting for the minibus that would take me and the other judges to Zichovecký pivovar, and I still wasn't sure what to expect from World Beer Idol, my first experience judging a beer competition. Would I be up to the task? Would it all be as serious as I feared?
The trip to Zichovec was pretty uneventful; I spent most of it talking to Chris Baerwaldt, from Pivovar Zhůřák, and we got to the brewery, the stage of the competition, at about 9.
It didn't take too long for the thing to get properly started. Jakub Veselý, the organiser, divided the judges in three groups. Mine was quite multinational: two Czechs, a French, an Australian, a Yank and me. We were given the score sheets and told how we should fill them in. We were to rate each beer according to appearance (15 points), aroma (30 points), flavour and mouthfeel (30 points) and brewing style (25 points).
I had never assigned a score to a beer, ever. I'd never seen the purpose of it. I was a bit wary at first as there's no tangible, objective benchmark to start from; what is the perfect [insert style/category]? We had the style guidelines, I would have to make do with them. I also knew the categories I signed up for well enough to be able to at least give a fair assessment.
It didn't take me long, however, to start feeling comfortable with assigning grades to the different aspects of each beer; it helped that the first category our group judged was German Pils. I quickly understood that I should not compare the beers with each other—as I would do in real life—but to evaluate them according to the required characteristics of the category. When in doubt, I would err on the side of generosity. But I would also be strict, and even ruthless, if a sample so deserved. The only thing that would not stop bothering me was to give a low score to an otherwise excellent beer because something in it was outside parameters of its category—it was not true to style—but so were the rules of the competition and I had to abide to them.
There would be three more rounds in the morning session, and by noon we had judged, in total, 20 samples of 10 categories: German Pils, Imperial Pilsner, Dopplebock/Eisbock, Smoked Lager, German Hefe-Weizen, Dunkelweizen, Weizenbock, Porter, Extra Stout, and Imperial Stout (there were some categories with only one sample, and I found them a lot easier to judge).
The afternoon session was three rounds. Our table judged APA and AIPA (which, to be honest, were overall quite poor; only two of the beers could be considered decent, at best). And third, Radler, was judged by all three groups (one of those Radlers was in fact an excellent drink).
I had feared that everything would be very serious and boring. It wasn't. Everybody took the job very seriously—at least I know I did—but it was not solemn, as you'd expect to see in a court. We talked quite a bit among ourselves, exchanging opinions about the samples—mostly between rounds—but we didn't discuss scores. Overall, it wasn't all that different to what you'd see in the earlier hours of a beer festival, when nobody is pissed yet. It was quite fun, actually.
The one thing that surprised me the most, and not pleasantly, was the appalling quality of some of the samples. I can't understand how a professional brewery with at least a hint of self-respect would voluntarily send to a competition a beer that is objective shit (but then, given that some professional breweries sell objective shit, I shouldn't be surprised).
But the party was not over yet. The the best beer of the competition, the World Beer Idol proper, still had to be chosen.
Seven judges were picked for the final. I was one of them, which was totally unexpected (but flattering, I must say).
The process here was different. We were brought one sample each from six different categories (presumably, the beers that had the best scores): Helles, Witbier, Dopplebock/Eisbock, Bière de Garde, Oud Bruin, and Smoked Lager. The winner would not be chosen based on score, but by elimination. After tasting the samples, we discussed which would be eliminated, one by one. It was all decided by consensus, until we reached the last two: Dopplebock and Bière de Garde. We couldn't agree here, so we voted and the latter won by one raised hand. I had voted for the Dopplebock—it had been my favourite beer of the morning session—but it was only a matter of personal taste; the Bière de Garde was a superb beer, and a worthy winner, no doubt.
We were not disclosed the identities of the breweries that took part in the competition, and the winners will be officially announced in a few days. I will post them here, for sure.
People with more experience in this kind of thing than me (which was pretty much everyone, I believe) praised the organisation. There were a few hiccups and there is room for improvement (as expected for a first edition), but nothing serious; everything worked out pretty well. Personally, I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. It has not changed my opinion on the relevance of competitions as a consumer—if anything, it has reinforced it—but I must confess I wouldn't mind do it again someday.
With the serious business of tasting and judging over, it was time for the serious business of drinking the house's beers.
I didn't have any references of Zichovecký pivovar (in fact, I didn't even know it existed until now), but I must say that their beers went from very good to superb (the IPA was perhaps the weakest one, but it was still very fine by Czech standards), as was the food, the service and the place overall. We can say it was a nice reward: getting to know a brewery I otherwise doubt I would have bothered with—it's a few blocks from the middle of nowhere, between Slaný and Žatec (FULL DISCLOSURE: we did not pay for the beers we had, nor for lunch).
The bus back to Prague picked us up at about 6. We were all in a very, very good mood. Most of the team went to BeerGeek to keep on drinking. I got off at Hradčanská and let Honza Šuráň and Pavel Borowiec talk me into going for a couple of pints with them, before getting on my way home.
I didn't choose the pivo life. The pivo life chose me.