Monday, January 28, 2013

Upper Mississippi Mash Out 2013: A Homebrew Competition That Goes To 11 (Day One)

Five or six years ago I took a chance and entered a beer in my first competition.  I chose the Upper Mississippi Mash Out because I saw it advertised at my local homebrew shop, not realizing that this particular comp was the second or third largest in the country (and world really.)  My beer was singularly skewered, lambasted and spat upon with much disdain.  After the initial horror of how bad my beer must have been, I took a step back and paid attention to those wicked comments and actually learned something from them.  "Use a yeast starter."  Hmm, I've read about those, but I thought my beer was pretty good without one.  I remember one particularly verbose individual who moved to the back page of the score sheet to continue with his informative roast of my beer, filling nearly a third of that blank page--that man was Al Boyce, who I now respect as one of the best and most dedicated BJCP judges out there.  I was hurt by this process, but I took it in stride and learned from those comments.

The next year I tried it again, after making some improvements in my process, and after starting a homebrew club and getting new friends to learn from and with.  That year I thought I had a winner and decided to go to the competition and try my hand at stewarding.  I spent a whole day gophering for judges by bringing cups and bottles, helping tally score sheets, checking the math on those sheets, and setting up and tearing down all the tables, etc.  This was fun, and I met several other stewards who seemed as new to this as I was.  I looked up to several of the judges with awe having read articles by them in Brew Your Own or Zymurgy, and wanted to learn from them and soak up the knowledge it would take to become like them.  I was a bit disappointed in that aspect since they were mostly so busy and professional that they didn't have a lot of time to talk.  Oh, and my beers got slammed quite soundly again, but not quite as bad this time.  I walked away from the experience feeling that there was an entire  sub-community of homebrewers who were really into the judging and competition aspect of the hobby. I envied the camaraderie between those people and their knowledge base.  I didn't just want to steward and hand out beers, I wanted to taste them, and judge them, and learn from them.  The following year I trained myself (with help from my club mates JD, Dave and Bill) to take the BJCP exam and get in the game for real.  I tried my hand at judging at Bygvir's Big Beer Cup for the first time and also won my first medal there for a Wee Heavy.

Now for the last several years I have returned to the scene of the crime--that place and collection of people that sparked this particular drive in me to become a beer judge and become a part of this somewhat dysfunctional but amazing group of people.  The UMMO.  A shout out to the organizers and volunteers before I forget:  You folks rock!

Now that I have a forum for beer talk, and some audience, I thought I'd give a run-down of how this particular competition works.  Most comps have a similar process, but this one is tightly run and incredibly massive in scale.  The contest caps off entries at 1000, and usually fill that.  One thousand beers, each with a second bottle held in reserve in case that particular beer makes it to the final round for Best Of Show and they need another bottle to open.  That makes hauling around, labeling, chilling, and cellaring nearly 2000 beers.  That is more than most small liquor stores have in the entire building.  Mind boggling.  The festivities start early in the week with small groups of high ranked judges meeting in homes to judge some of the smaller categories.  Friday morning the big stuff starts, for the last several years in the basement of Grumpy's in Roseville.  Around 8:15 people start showing up at the Grumpy's and hauling in tons of beers, prizes, equipment, coolers, paperwork, etc.  Each table needs score sheets, cover sheets, flight summary sheets, drinking/rinse water, pencils, staplers, cups, dump buckets, and more.  This year they used compostable cups which I think is fantastic--as a group we probably went through well more than 1000 of these over the weekend.  A jockey box is set up in the corner with hospitality beers to serve through-out the next two days, because what do you do between judging beers?  Drink more beers!  I would love to bring a beer for this, but it seems to be invite only at this time.

Judging starts around 9 AM.  One can only hope to get a category that isn't too rough to drink at that time in the morning--I find that IPA or sours in the morning is a bit rough.  This year I had porters so the dark roasty character in those was pretty close to my morning coffee.  Stewards will bring beers from the cellarmaster to the table in a cued judging method aimed at getting each group of judges in that category to finish around the same time and have a similar amount of beers.  This competition is so large that many of the categories had to be split into multiple subgroups of judges (I think around 5 for IPA's!)  Once all the judges have finished the two or three most experienced judges in that category will go on to do a mini best of show showdown tasting all the top 2-3 beers from each judge group.  In IPA this was about 10 or 11 beers.  The judges will pour all the beers and do a quick taste off; getting rid of the ones with flaws quickly and then zeroing in on the top three.  Usually the ranking is fairly easy, but sometimes the judging can get a bit heated as each judge makes a case for their favorite of the set.

Lunch and dinner are provided for volunteers and helps break up the judging sessions.  There is always some down time as you wait for the mini-bos tables to finish up, especially the larger categories and meads.  There is always a lecture over lunch which is usually very educational.  This Friday was a discussion of sour beers by Steve Piatz that I really enjoyed.  The Saturday talk was by Joe Formanek on unusual brewing techniques and ingredients that also got me thinking of trying something new. 

Friday has two more judging sessions in the afternoon, which went by in a blur of hop haze for me.  IPA and Double IPA's.  After dinner Andrew and I went upstairs to carb up on some of Grumpy's amazing tater tots and have more beer of course. 

Later in the evening, once the dust has settled, they start the Piss Up.  Bad name, but good event.  This is open to the volunteers only and is a reward for helping out.  There is usually a special theme to the initial part of the event.  Two years back several of the guys brewed up clones of commercial malt liquors...blech!  Last year was about 17 beers each brewed with the same base recipe but each with a different single hop.  This year's treat was 8 or 9 different styles of beer ranging from IPA to cherry stout all fermented with the same brettanomyces yeast strain.  The differences in the flavors and fermentation characteristics in each were impressive, though not all were beers I'd want to drink much of.  The IPA was stellar with lots of pineapple to compliment the fruity hops.  After this warm up the real fun begins.  In order to take part in the big tasting you have to sign up ahead of time and bring one or two rare beers.  These are then chilled down and there is a shared tasting of an extraordinary assortment of white whale beers.  This year's was split down the middle between a ton of sour beers and a whole slew of bourbon barrel aged beers.  Stand outs for me were the Cantillon Vignerone, Baller Stout, Bruery Smoking Wood Rye, Cascade Sang Noir, and Perennial Peach Berliner Weisse.  I may have gotten the Slow Down You Are Drinking Too Fast Badge on Untappd.  This was a great way to try a bunch of these amazing beers that you only hear or read about.  After that it was off to the Country Inn Suites just down the block and not nearly enough sleep!

Next Up: UMMO Banquet and Award Ceremony


Al Boyce said...

Thanks for the shout-out Eric! Nice wrap-up of the contest. Sorry for hurting your feelings on my judging of your first Mash-Out beer! ;-D

- Al

Kyle Sisco said...

Not to pat you on the back, too much Al, but your scoresheets continue to be the best I get back from any competition. Hardly anyone (myself included, unfortunately) takes so much time to describe their tasting experience so thoroughly and provide recommendations like you do. After judging as many beers as you have, it's amazing you haven't even moderately slipped into complacency.

Mr. Eat said...

Thanks for the write up! I'm trying to find any news on the event that I can. I'm really disappointed that I missed it especially since I (unexpectedly) won best beer!