Monday, August 26, 2013

The Dust Bowl: Byggvir's Big Beer Cup 2013!

Last year's epic post on Byggvir's Big Beer Cup was one of my most-read pieces of the year, so I figured I should do a recap to this year's event as well.  This homebrew competition takes place at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival as part of their Royal Ale Festival Weekend, and is currently in it's seventh year.  Personally, it was the first competition I ever put beer in and the first to award me a medal for my efforts--releasing the flood gates for me to become a beer judge and win lots more medals!  This was also the first competition in which I ever tried my hand at judging.  Between the relaxed (though loud and possibly dusty) venue and the easy-going nature of the competition itself, we encourage inexperienced judges to pair with higher ranked judges and let folks ease into the competition community.  I thought about trying to do this whole blog entry in Middle English or even a fake Renfest patois, but decided that would get old in about two sentences and let it go with an occasional "Huzzah!"

Behind the scenes organization takes many months before the actual competition.  Gera Exire LaTour, myself, Brett Glenna, Tim Roets, Jeremy Lawson, Wilbur Ince, and Steven Mathistad have been working at getting posters made and distributed, supplies wrangled, prizes/donations gathered, website updated, and much more.  This year we had a bit of a snafu with the website not allowing new registration (since all of us had old logins or admin accounts we didn't realize there was a problem until later in the game,) so we extended the deadline an extra week to allow for later entries.

Once our organizers had gathered all the entries from the local homebrew stores, we could get on with the labeling session.  Last year's was in my basement and trying to scatter 200+ beers in 18 categories throughout the space was crowded and difficult to say the least!  This year Tim Roets was kind enough the let us use the Historic Jordan Brewery (soon to be a fully operational brewery once more!) as a space for the organizing and later for a Friday pre-judging session.  I arrived early, having grabbed Tim's keys prior, and took advantage of the afternoon sunlight to take some cool pictures of the brewery building.  Jeremy and Brett showed up not too long after and the three of us worked on putting the entries in numerical order for ease of labeling later. 

Soon Gera, Wilbur, and Steven arrived and we dug into the next step: each entry must be assessed for damage, correct entry labels, etc.  Each entry is assigned a random number, and a neck label with the number and style category is placed on each.  A smaller number label is also placed on the cap to allow for easy organization in a cooler at the judging.  Since each entry is two bottles, we have to do all of this twice.  The entries that win gold medals in their categories have their second bottle go to the Best Of Show round on Sunday afternoon.  What happens to all the other extra second bottles you ask?  Depends on the competition really.  Mostly we mix them all together into a giant vat and make the people with the lowest scores in each category drink a German Boot of the resulting mess.  Ok, I might be pulling your leg a bit!  At Byggvir's we will sometimes crack open the extra bottle of the second and third place beers at the competition so volunteers can try some of the top examples of the styles (for education purposes only of course!)  One year we had a tasting at a Jack Of All Brews meeting focusing on some of the meads that were left over.  Sometimes it can be fun to track down the beers with recognizable flaws--again as an educational tool for brewers.  And mostly we end up recycling the bottles for future use in homebrews!  Now you know where your precious beer goes!

Once all the bottles had been labeled and anonymized, we organized them into categories in another of the brewery's rooms.  Then time for pizza, pickled ring bologna from the meat market in Jordan, Tim's homebrewed Mild Ale, and organizing the checks and paperwork.  As with any competition, some bottles come to us broken in shipping, or missing entirely, or having ended up in the State Fair competition by accident and sent back our way!  At this stage there are always some issues, and the 30 inch thick stone and iron walls made computer and cell phone use to fix them much more difficult.

While sitting in the main brewery, we heard a loud explosion in the other room followed by tinkling glass.  Quickly and carefully rounding the corner through the hobbit sized door we saw glass fragments that had been thrown 15 feet across the room from one of the entered bottles.  Strange but fortunate that it took that moment to expire instead of when we were handling it for labeling.  We very cautiously covered the second bottle with a box and later, using improvised bomb-squad gear, loaded it into a safe trash bag and disposed of the deadly item.  Gushers are common, but true bottle bombs are deadly.  Make sure to check specific gravities on beers you are going to bottle and that they are actually done fermenting first!

Between Tuesday and Friday all of us worked on our assignments:  Tim to gather prizes; Gera to work on gathering equipment for the judging itself; myself to organize the beer flights and make the judge lists; Wilbur to work on labels and paperwork.  Doing the flights was interesting.  We have 18 categories for this competition, so I had to condense the beer categories down in a way that made sense but didn't give us groups of beer that were too big or too small.  Once that was complete I had to do a complex logic puzzle (Sj will be glad to tell you that this is not my strong suit) to correlate judges' likes and dislikes, as well as making sure that they don't judge their own beers! 

On Friday evening we had a Pre-Fest judging and organizing session back at the Jordan Brewery in order to knock off a few smaller categories before the main event.  I had no idea how many people were actually going to show up and was concerned that it would three people judging 28 beers...but we ended up with 11 or 12 folks to spread the wealth around!  We made sure that Tim judged the historic category since he has won in that category several times and specializes in brewing crazy styles.  After the judging session, some of us organized the Saturday entries into boxes to be taken to the Fest in the morning.  I left around 10 PM, but I guess some folks were there into the wee hours chasing and struggling with a large bat that managed to fly in through the open front door of the brewery!  I wish I hadn't missed that excitement, since I keep thinking of the bat scene from the movie The Great Outdoors and imagining a bat stuck on Tim's face...

Awakening at 5:30 on Saturday morning (yes 5:30 on a Saturday...voluntarily) Sj and I donned our doublets, bodices, codpieces, flasks, leather mugs, swords, etc. and hopped in Steven's truck for the start of a long day.  We arrived at the Fest early, but had to sit in a long line of cars since they don't open the grounds until 8:00.  At least we were near the front of the line and were able to get a good parking spot once they let us in!  The gravel pit next to the Festival grounds has continued its inevitable expansion, its slow crawl now taking over more than half of the old parking area.  Festival workers apparently are having to park some distance away and get bussed in to work nowadays in order to leave more parking for Fest-goers.  The old entry gate for special events has been overshadowed by the burgeoning pit and is mostly out of commission, so we were at a loss as to where to enter the grounds.  Starting at one back entrance, we were then directed to last year's (now quite hidden), and then re-directed back to yet another ingress near the front of the Festival.  Upon arrival there, we discovered that this was only for the Pet-Fest and it took a bit of wrangling to figure out which entrance we were actually supposed to go to.  Eventually we discovered a tiny door near the front, almost completely obscured by shrubbery and flowering plants.  Huzzah!  No one was manning that entrance at the time so we walked through and ended up behind the scenes (not where we belonged) eventually having to spelunk our way into the actual festival grounds.  Always an adventure!  Having been through unusual circumstances with set-up at Fest before (see last year's post) I been prepared for some craziness.  I felt bad for all our other volunteers who probably had no idea it would be this difficult to get onto the grounds!

We're not in Kansas anymore...

Finally finding our tent, we went to work moving around tables and benches to our specifications while Todd Simmons set up his system to do a brewing demo during the judging sessions.  When the beer arrived (Tim had a coveted pass and was able to drive right up to the back entrance behind the tent) Steven went to work chilling down the beers in our large body coolers.  We papered the tables and got all the paperwork organized.  Volunteers started to trickle in and were put to work with further set-up until our judging time arrived.  As usual with Fest, some small things went awry, but nothing we couldn't deal with.

The morning and afternoon judging went without a hitch.  I had a great time talking with some old friends and met some cool new people as well.  A lot of novices got to try their hand at judging and stewarding and seemed to have a rewarding experience as well.  Steven did a great job again this year as Cellarmaster--handling and organizing all the competition beers.  The biggest trouble with the day was the elements.  The heat was oppressive with high humidity, and frequent gusting strong winds would blow sample cups over and set sail to much of our paperwork.  Blowing red quarry dust coated everything, including our sweat-drenched skins.  "No, that's not a nice glistening tan, its only my fine coating of perspiration and Fest-Dust (TM)!"  Interestingly enough I am currently reading a great Joe R. Lansdale book that takes place in the Dust Bowl during the 1930's and this day gave me just a tiny hint at what those folks dealt with.  I kept expecting a big humming plague of locusts to alight on our judging area!  Poor Sj is very heat intolerant (she gets crazy heat-rage) but was quite the trooper though all of this.  I felt worse for all the folks who brought their animals to take part in Pet-Fest!

After we finished judging, Tim had prepared a Post-Fest party for us back at the brewery.  Sj and I were hot, sweaty, filthy and exhausted...but Tim's cooking is something sublime and neither of us were going to miss it!  The brewery is built right up against the cliffs resulting in a natural air conditioning for the place, so we were at least able to cool down our sun toasted brains.  Timmy's Kolsch (Tim's Town Hall beer) was flowing from a keg for our libations and dinner was a stellar spread of Jamaican pulled pork and huge hot dogs from the local meat market.  Something like 20 different condiments, hot sauces and pickled vegetables rounded out the repast.   Tim does nothing by half measures!

Jerky Dog! (hot dog with jerked pork and bonus condiments)

A fair number of people showed up for the party and Tim even had a drawing for prizes.  I won a pound of Saaz hops, so I'd better get cracking on some Pilsners!  Sj and I had to leave a bit early due to an impending catastrophic migraine (thanks heat, beer, sun, beer, and more heat)  but the party went on pretty late that evening even without us.

Tim giving away awesome prizes to his lucky guests

On Sunday the hated alarm again sounded out its call to arms at 5:30 in the morning.  "Why did I volunteer for this again?"  I loudly asked myself, using my Minnesotan passive-aggressive super powers to make my wife suffer with me.  Sj got to stay home due to heat and an incoming cousin visit necessitating some swift home cleaning.  Steven picked me up again we headed for the Fest.  This time we had inherited one of the magical passes that allowed us into the back parking entrance, letting us get in before the crowd of waiting cars.  We hustled over to the tent and started cleanup--a ton of empty cigarette packs and PBR tall boys--from the previous night's Festie Festivities.  This day we had a stumble right off the bat with our flight pull sheets not arriving on time, requiring a bit of a late start, but we still ended up completing our morning flights in time for the afternoon to begin.

The serious business of judging beers!

Once again, our day consisted of tasting beers, with the addition of ciders and meads.  If Saturday was an extremely hot day, then Sunday was its terrifyingly searing older brother.  The temperature topped out at 98 degrees with high humidity, resulting in the lowest attendance I've seen at the Renaissance Festival in my life.  There was no grand parade due to concerns about cast members and their pets passing out from heat stroke.  My friend Hassan was happily Morris Dancing his way around the Fest though--a brave man indeed.  Let me tell you that the privies were not a pretty sight, nor a pretty smell.  I fervently hope that they were checked frequently to pull out the folks who may have passed out from the steaming effluvium.  Even the flies seemed lethargic and lackadaisical.  Poor Joe Lushine was a trooper as our daily demo brewer, generating even more heat with his burner and boiling wort.  Tasting high alcohol sweet meads in this type of environment was difficult to say the least.  The dust was not as extreme as the previous day though.  Small favors.  I will say that the environmental roulette that one plays with scheduling this competition can add to the character of the event and to that of the participants.  Every score sheet will return to its beer's owner coated in sweat, rock dust, dried beer, turkey leg drippings and more.  Take a little Renfest home with you, one and all!  Huzzah!

After the sweltering afternoon round was complete, our Best Of Show round began in earnest.  Mike Hoops and Pete Rifakes from Town Hall, Al Boyce and Jeremy Lawson all got to taste the top beer in each category and try to narrow down the BOS winner.  I was not able to watch this process since I had some beers in this competition and potentially may have had a beer in this final round (fingers crossed.)  One of these top scoring beers will be brewed with Mike Hoops on Town Hall Brewery's system and entered into next year's Great American Beer Festival Pro-Am competition.  This is probably the coolest prize for any homebrewer to win:  getting to brew with one of the best brewers in the country with the chance of winning a medal at the GABF?  Heck yeah!  I thank the folks at Town Hall for offering up this gem of a prize to our competition and also to all of our other sponsors for donating prizes and supplies to it.   A large number of awesome people contributed to making this event happen: MHBA, Jack Of All Brews, organizers, judges from many clubs, stewards, spouses, sponsors, and more.  Thanks to everyone for making this a great and truly unique experience.  Most importantly, we have to thank the Minnesota Renaissance festival for hosting the adventure!   Despite minor mishaps and tropical heat this is hands-down the best homebrew competition I've ever taken part in and wouldn't miss it for the world!

Best Of Show deliberation featuring Jeremy Lawson and Mike Hoops (and the disembodied hands of Pete Rifakes and Al Boyce)

The winners will be announced live at Town Hall on Wednesday night.  The event starts at 5:30 and the ceremony will begin around 6:30.  Good luck to all those who entered beer!

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