No, not the practice of judging extreme beer, but the sometimes dangerous pastime of being a beer judge, as I discovered on a trip to Tuscany back in September…
If you’re going to spend Sunday morning judging a beer competition, this is where you want to do it.
We’re inside an old villa atop a gentle hill just outside the Tuscan village of Buenconvento. The stone building is cooled by its high ceilings, and huge double doors are flung open onto an avenue of cypress trees leading down to freshly ploughed fields. I’m joining a mix of sommeliers, beer writers, importers and brewers to judge the Belgian-style section of a home brew competition as part of Villaggio della Birra, a beer festival now in its ninth year, which began as a celebration of imported Belgian beers and has now grown into something much bigger. Italy is steadily developing its own, original beer styles, but Belgium still seems to be the dominant influence from outside.
The standard of beers in the competition is incredible. I taste a saison that’s easily the best beer I’ve had since arriving in Italy three days ago. And then it goes one better: a dark Trappist-style beer that would substitute quite happily for Rochefort 10, in my opinion one of the best beers in the world.
But we’re asked to be harsh in our marking. We judge these beers to the same standard as if they were created by professional brewers. Out of a possible fifty marks, anything that scores less than thirty doesn’t get through to the next round. Despite the excellent stand-out beers, most score somewhere in the mid-twenties. We fill out our scores on the kinds of forms used in beer judging competitions around the world, giving marks for appearance, aroma, taste and so on. We are asked to give comments that will be fed back to the brewers, and we write our names at the top of each sheet.
The judging is over by lunchtime, and we head into the bright sunshine with a slight jolt. Belgium is cloudy and rainy as a rule, and one thing its beers do not mix well with is bright, hot sunshine. I take shelter in the barn where the main beer festival is taking place, spending tokens on a mix of Belgian, Italian and American beers. After a morning of strong Belgian beer, it doesn’t take long for the whole event to become woozy and floaty.
Around 4pm the judges are asked to assemble in a corner by the bar as the results of the competition are read out to the public. A combination of my being drunk and not understanding any Italian means it takes a little while before I figure out what’s going on. Then, with mounting discomfort, I recognise a sheet with my handwriting on it. I watch as the chair of the judges reads out an Italian translation of my comments – and then passes the sheet to a man who is obviously the brewer of the beer.
This is not how it was meant to go. It’s not that I don’t stand by my comments, it’s just a bit awkward where we’ve been critical in an unvarnished way, assuming we’ll never meet the people whose babies we’ve just called ugly.
And now here’s a seven foot-tall monster, a Death Metal fan with a gigantic ponytail hanging down his back like thick ship’s hawsers, boots like Judge Dredd and a Nordic storm giant’s beard, striding forward through the crowd to claim his sheet. He reads it and shakes his head, a movement that causes weather fronts to gather over the Tuscan hills. He frowns, and lightning bolts shoot from his eyes. I don’t think he’s happy with the scores he’s been given. I don’t think he agrees with them. I don’t think the person who judged his beer is going to be alive for very much longer. I can’t run – that would look bad. So I crane my neck around to see the piece of paper in his hand… the handwriting is not mine.
I breathe a sigh of relief. My shoulders slump. The last score sheet is handed back, and the ordeal is over.
And then there’s a tap on my shoulder.
“Pete, what is this word, ‘cloying'”?
This is worse than the threat of being dismembered by the giant. This is a young, slight, nervous guy in his early twenties, with big brown eyes that have gone slightly watery. He’s holding a sheet with my name on it, an I’ve pissed on his dreams. I’ve given his beer 24 out of 50, and he wants to know what the word ‘cloying’ means, because that’s how I’ve described his beer.
“It means sweet,” I stammer, “but not in a good way… they asked us to judge to style you see. It was quite sweet for the style, that’s what I meant. I liked it! But it wasn’t quite to style.”
He doesn’t seem satisfied, but there’s nothing else to say. He nods once and walks off. Ashamed of myself, I crawl away for another beer.
Disclosure: I visited Tuscany for a week courtesy of www.to-tuscany.com, who gave me a villa for the week to allow me to explore and learn about the Tuscan craft beer scene. I paid for all other expenses such as flights, care hire etc. I stayed at La Torre at Pretaccione, in the heart of Chianti, and will be writing more about the trip in various places.