Brewing and judging better beer at State Fair Pro-Am and beyond

Posted: September 15, 2015 by Luke in Events, Homebrewing Competition, Interviews, News
Tags: , ,
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The Award Ceremony took place at Tractor Brewing this year. I was there! (Photo courtesy of the Dukes of Ale.)

The annual State Fair Pro-Am has come and gone for the year, and no doubt you’ve seen the RESULTS, but from competitions like these we get to see some great brewers, both pro and amateur, show off their talents as part of our New Mexico brewing scene. I spoke with John Rowley, very near-future head brewer of Sub Rosa Cellars (the newest brewery in Santa Fe), and a man who is no stranger to entering and judging in these many brewing competitions. He was nice enough to take the time out of his busy schedule to talk about his experience with the State Fair Pro-Am, the judging process, what competitions, like this, mean to brewers in the state, and about some future events that are coming up for all of those who aim to brew better beer.

DSBC: How long have you been entering the State Fair Pro-Am as a homebrewer?

Rowley: I started competing in 2010. I didn’t win much, but I was mainly looking for feedback at that point. We didn’t have the infrastructure in our club in place at that time so we had to send beers to competitions to help us understand what we were doing wrong (or right). Back then the Sangres (Sangre De Cristo Craft Brewers homebrew club of Santa Fe) were more of a drinking club that brewed. We’ve come a long way since then.

DSBC: How does it feel to three-peat as Best of Show?

Rowley: I’m really humbled by this result. There are really a lot of great brewers in the homebrewing scene here in New Mexico. People like Jim the Elder, Ben Miller, Tim Lambert, Paul McQuaid, Jason Kirkman, Jim Steinbach, Kevin Fleming, Lyna Wagonner, Jeff Jantz, Laki Gletsos, Mark Westbrook, Scott Carpenter, and Jerome with his meads. I’m probably missing a bunch of folks as well.

There are really some standout people fermenting here. Even Warren from our club makes beer that could be considered better than some pro-level beers. I judged an IPA from Ben Miller last week that could have easily been in the top three beers if it were a pro entry in the IPA Challenge. He’s so solid with his hop-forward beers. Homebrewers here are that good. It means a lot to me that the judges respected my beer that much. I really didn’t think I was going to win as the beers I expected to do well, only made it to the silver or bronze medals. I’m glad that beer won, though, as that was the first time I entered that beer in any competition.

DSBC: Which beer was that?

Rowley: The beer that won Best Specialty and went on to win Best of Show is called Unshiu, which in Mandarin means mandarin (as in orange). That beer was a sour blonde that I mashed with a bag of Clementines, primary fermented with a two-liter starter of L. Brevis from White Labs, then finished with the Brett-like Sacch “Brux” Trois, Chinese red rice yeast, and a liter of fresh-squeezed tangerine juice. It was firmly lactic sour, but the citrus came through nicely.

DSBC: What do you feel this particular win, with a sour, means about the competition, the judges, styles in general?

Rowley: I’m excited to see sours, both American wild ones and traditional Belgian ones, seeing love in competitions. This was not always the case. And with Sub Rosa Cellars coming online soon, I think we are in the curve with respect to brewing sour and wild ales, especially in New Mexico. Your buddy Stoutmeister may not be fond of the funk, but many, many other people are. He may come around eventually, though. I know I have. Funk was not always something I craved. (Don’t hold your breath, John. — S)

DSBC: To get Stoutmeister’s attention it might take a sour as black as night, aged in an iron maiden, and soured by the souls of a thousand bad referees. Or maybe just a really balanced kriek. Speaking of which, it’ll sound biased now, working for SFBC, but last year’s Kriek was the sour that got my attention, and that was after my venture into sours in Portland, Oregon. Obviously I wasn’t working for SFBC then, but that beer spoke, and I listened. Anyway, let’s talk a little about the judging process. Tell us about it, for those who aren’t familiar.

Rowley: Judging is something that either you love, or you hate. Ask Dark Side contributor Brews Banner about this. I judged with him once and even though he did well, he saw first-hand how much work it is. It’s not for everyone. Personally, I enjoy it tremendously. It has taken me a few years to get to where I am now with my palate, but I’m very solid on diacetyl and fusels. I can pick those up at very small concentrations. But, I’m getting off topic a bit. In terms of judging, we usually pair up a less experienced judge with a more experienced one and let them individually judge a beer. Once they are done, they come to a consensus and award a score based on the aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. It’s a developed format that the BJCP has been developing for a long time. A beer that scores a 13 is basically undrinkable and one that scores a 46 is just about perfect. A lot of beers we judged were in the 20’s and 30’s, which is pretty common. It’s rare to see a bunch of 40’s in any given flight, unless you’re at Nationals, where there are a lot of great brewers competing. A judge never judges his own beer, and must recuse themselves if they mistakenly get placed on a flight they have been in. The registration software prevents this from happening, however.

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Judging at the State Fair Pro-Am. (Photo courtesy of the Dukes of Ale.)

We didn’t have a great turnout of judges this year, but we were lucky in that we did have two high-level judges come down from Colorado to help us out. They did a fantastic job. We also had a lot of judges working overtime. I think Kevin is talking about moving it later in the year for next year, which might help with turnout a bit. If you have judging the same weekend as Hopfest, it’s obviously going to be difficult to get people to come out.

DSBC: How many people were involved? How many days did this go on? What were some of the challenges you guys faced?

Rowley: We judged from Friday, Aug. 28, through Tuesday, Sept. 1. Usually we can get everything done in a three-day period, but some sessions this time around had as little as six judges, whereas we would normally have 15 or more. People were leaving during a flight, which was difficult as you need to find another judge to help finish up when that happens, or judge the rest at a later time. Luckily that only happened twice, as I recall. A lot of the folks in the usual judging pool just were not available. Alana (GM of Santa Fe Brewing Co.), for instance, is a strong judge that comes out for every competition. I haven’t seen her in a long time, but I understand she’s pretty pregnant right now.

DSBC: This is true. Any lessons learned from this year’s judging?

Rowley: Schedule means a lot. I think Kevin’s idea to move it into September next year will help a bunch. With Hopfest and Labor Day weekend, people have their minds set on consumption, not judging. We also need to develop more judges in this state. I think the judges we have are fantastic. But we just need more. Places with greater populations and overall interest have an advantage in terms of sheer numbers. The Sangres will be starting up a new 2015 BJCP class very soon so hopefully we can get some new faces in for this. If you are interested in at least learning the new guidelines, feel free to sign up to our list at groups.yahoo.com and search Sangre de Cristo Craft Brewers.

DSBC: Did you guys experience anything weird, awkward, or funny moments this time around?

Rowley: There’s always some funny stuff that goes on — people spilling Russian Imperial Stouts onto scoresheets, bottles gushing foam geysers all over the place, things of that nature. I think the funniest thing this time around was the bottle of Biere de Garde (that) Kevin had placed on the floor drain at Tractor. That bottle was slowly pushing out a rocky, tan stream of foam and when it stopped, he threw a cork in it to keep it from getting too flat. About 45 minutes later, that cork ejected violently and actually dented the ceiling tile about 20 feet above the bottle. Everyone was at first surprised, but then laughing hysterically. Luckily nobody was hurt. A cork like that can take out an eye. I never imagined I would have to wear safety glasses to judge beer.

DSBC: It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Then it’s just funny. What do you think a competition of this type means for homebrewers and pro brewers of the state? What does it mean for the New Mexico craft beer industry in general?

Rowley: As a judge, I hope we helped beginning brewers with well-worded feedback when their beers had issues. I encountered my fair share of beers with issues this time around. This shows me that there are a number of new brewers out there, which I think is great. It’s always good to see a new generation of homebrewers getting after it. I always encourage new brewers to email me if they have questions with their processes. I’m always game to help out as much as I am able to. Brewing great beer has a lot to do with your process.

For the professionals, it means a lot to be able to show off hardware/medals in their respective places of business. Competition improves everyone at some level. When quality comes first, everyone wins. You don’t get medals without being able to brew high quality beer.

DSBC: What will it be like entering your beer as a pro next year?

Rowley: I look forward to being in there. It’ll depend on the Dukes using the new 2015 guidelines. The beer we plan on brewing at Sub Rosa Cellars definitely leans towards the 2015 guidelines over the 2008 ones.

DSBC: What’s the next major homebrewing competition coming up?

Rowley: To be honest, I haven’t really focused much on what’s going on outside of the area since we have been really busy with the new brewery, but I suspect the FOAM Cup is the next one coming up. FOAM is a big club in Oklahoma and they usually have an event in the fall. I won’t be entering any more AM comps besides the Santa Fe Open. After that, I suspect I won’t have time to be brewing much at home.

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From left, John Rowley (Sub Rosa Cellars), Jerome Mondragon, Jim Steinbach, Jason Kirkman (Bathtub Row Brewing), James Warren (Blue Corn Brewery).

DSBC: Can we get a small preview statement on the Santa Fe Open?

Rowley: So this year we have a lot of fun things on tap. We have a new, larger venue at the Santa Fe University of Arts and Design. Judging will be much more comfortable this time around. I’m working on prizes and the prize packs for judges right now. I’m having custom wine barrel stave bottle openers made with an engraving for the judges. These are super trick. I think judges work their asses off for little to no reward so we like to give back as much as possible. We will also have a pro round similar to last year with pro beer and pro cider rounds, as well as all the 2015 BJCP categories for AM’s. As you have seen yourself, Luke, our trophy is the biggest trophy in the state and makes a great impression on a taproom bar.

DSBC: It’s made a nice addition to my office, yes.

Rowley: We will be having the pro awards ceremony at Cowgirl again, a judge wrap up party at Santa Fe Brewing, and three technical talks followed by the potluck and awards ceremony at the University. Jeff Erway has graciously offered to give the plenary talk, and James (Warren) from Blue Corn will give a talk, as well as a talk from one of our judges last year from Colorado on opening your own brewery. Sub Rosa Cellars is also hopping in to sponsor the club competition. The club with the most points will win a barrel, similar to last year when Susan’s Wine and Spirits donated a Buffalo Trace barrel. Should be a fun competition for everyone. We had such a great time last year, and hope to step it up even further this time around.

* * * * *

Brewing better beer is the goal of most homebrewers and all pro-brewers. These competitions, whether large or small, are a good way to constantly check yourself, while receiving solid feedback from very hard-working judges. As fair as they can be, the judges award medals. Medals are earned for quality. Quality is achieved through good practice and real imagination. Through this process, brewers are challenged to brew better beer, mead, and ciders. These competitions increase the standard of quality throughout the local brewing communities. And I should say, no (pro) brewery is too good to receive solid feedback from their peers.

We’ve seen some very interesting results from these competitions, but we should think about the effects these competitions can have. Or perhaps we should listen to what the results of these competitions are telling us. Maybe a guy who three-peats Best of Show (Amateur) might go on to open a brewery or something. Who knows? And remember that one time when a cider won Best of Show (Commercial)? Think that win was insignificant? Let me ask you this: How many breweries now serve that cider in their taproom along their ales and lagers? Makes ya think, don’t it?

Cheers!

— Luke

For more #CraftBeer info and @nmdarksidebc news, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro!

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