I used to know it as a fun fighting event.
It all started like this
In the world of medieval enactors in the Society for Creative Anachronism, an integral part of an event is the afternoon Court. The local baron and/or baroness preside, and sometimes we have Royalty as well – the King, Queen, Prince and/or Princess of our kingdom might attend the event and preside over Court. In Court they recognize those who’ve contributed significantly to the kingdom and the barony, as well as the winners of the days’ various competitions. As hard as we all try (and we all do try), Court can be long, and it’s tedious if you don’t know the people being called up and recognized with all due pomp and ritual. Wouldn’t it be fun, my friend Baron Siegfried mused, wouldn’t it be fun and a lot less boring if we could have an open bar during Court? We’d either not care how long it got, or definitely have to keep it short in case the populace got unruly. Hm, he thought, if there were a way to do this…
Siegfried was not entirely without agenda here. He’s an elegant homebrewer with many years of experience, and lately his lady wife Francesca has gotten into the game too (she makes a damn fine porter). He had a lightbulb-over-the-head moment: he hosts this fighting event every year in a private campground/wet site, and he’s in charge and can have an open bar if he jolly well likes – as long as we observe Federal and state law and have a couple of bartenders who card, and avoid modern containers to maintain the medieval ambience. (No problem on our end, we do of all that any time we have alcohol on site.) Sure, this particular event has been known as a nifty little fighting event – there are armored combatants pointing weapons in various skirmish scenarios over here, and rapier fighters with pointier weapons doing their version over there; target archers exercise their devilish creativity not far away (happily pointed in the other direction). Highland River Melees, it was called. A fighting event – that could take on another aspect with a little encouragement and planning…
There are three regions within reach of each other that have a homebrewer as baron or baroness. Siegfried is one. He thought it could be fun to pit us against each other – for the honor of our baronies, for the visibility of home brewing in the region, for the fun of prolonged (and slightly planned) smack talk on all our email lists for months ahead. That’s how the Baronial Brewing Smackdown was born.
Set Up to Smackdown
We three baronage homebrewers planned the Smackdown for months. Since we’re all friends, we worked out a smack-talk trajectory, and timed it. We let it fly on several email lists at once, where hundreds of people can see. The people living in (and loyal to) our baronies chimed in quick enough. “We’re a Norse barony with plenty of Vikings, if you had any good beer we’d have come and taken it by now!” “If you could get your ships under our Italian canal bridges, but you couldn’t and we burned your ships instead…” “All the trade comes down the river past our barony. Y’all have been drinking our leftovers and paying tax to us for it.” It went on and on. We baronage would stir the fire once in a while, to keep it nice and hot. The idea was to build a hot blaze of smack talk right about time for the event.
Medievalists know a thing or two about managing fires.
Last year was the inaugural, and it went spectacularly well. We had dozens of entrants and over 95 gallons of home-made beer, wine, mead and cordials offered up to share. There were fewer than 140 adults in attendance! This is what happens when everyone brings a case, or a 5 gallon keg.
I don’t know what the final sharing tally was this year. A team of qualified judges who aren’t barons judged the smackdown, and we brewing barons judged the populace competition. However, there were about 50 entries in the populace competition and only three of us to judge them. When the team judging the baronial entries finished, they came and took over the cordial category (thank goodness). We finished our work with not a minute to spare (literally) and headed straight into Court. Oh boy. We barons sit to either side of the attending Royalty, and all the Royals were there. We face the hall, up front where all can see. We hung onto the arms of our chairs and tried not to bob and weave. Thank goodness for straight-backed chairs with arms to grasp.
Besides, we had to clear the brewing tent premises where we’d been judging – Court was open, it was time for the bar to open too!
(My retainer took a small jug of cyser to Court and stood behind my chair to keep my cup filled. Siegfried was right, Court didn’t hurt a bit that way! )
One of the Smackdown judges got a bit overwhelmed by it all. He stayed in the judging tent and closed his eyes for a bit; he wasn’t too steady on his pins at that point. (“Seriously, only three peoples’ entries?? Dude, you’re supposed to throw the extra out, not drink it!” “I know, I know.”) Of course, Murphy’s Law is everywhere; Mr. Unsteady got called into Court, where he had to bow and kneel and respond and smile and rise and bow again. And then he sat down and didn’t move off his seat for hours. I guess we barons make some good stuff.
How do you turn an open bar into a medieval bar? You serve as much beer, mead, and wine made in the styles and from the recipes used in Europe before 1600 as possible. Of course, most of us enactor brewers have researched this pretty thoroughly (and many of these recipes are really tasty – the famous Rheinheitsgebot, the German beer purity laws, were set in 1516, after all; these medieval folks knew beer). You nod to excellent modern inventions like jockey boxes and machine-made ice and deck them out in fabric and other covers that hide the plastic as much as possible. Most enactor home brewers bring their brews in more-or-less period containers anyway; the wine bottle as we know it existed, it was just smaller then, there was plenty of stoneware, and the occasional really fine crystal decanter. OK, most of us draw the line at the 120-gallon kegs prevalent back then, call us weenies if you want. A medieval-style bar can be quite pretty – never mind that such a thing probably never existed in the Middle Ages; those poor saps in Court had to sit still as long as the King’s whim said they did, which could be hours or all day. We can afford to be nicer. It requires some nimbleness from the bartenders, who have to remember what it all is, so we are pretty careful to label things (with ingredients lists for the allergic among us) and sort them by style. Cordials go at one end, then meads and wines, then beers. Above all, the bar can’t get too rowdy, because Court Is In Session a few yards away. Annoy the King, OR the Queen, OR the Prince, OR the Princess, and you can bet we don’t get to do this again next year!
Later on, after Court is over and dinner’s done, the brewers circle up around what’s left of the bar and, inevitably, talk brewing, and bring out the odd batches to share and talk over. Sure, it’s a fighting event; almost everyone remembers the fighting, right?
As one of the three baronial contestants, responsible for upholding the honor of my own barony, I will admit I get pretty nervous about this event. The two other brewing barons are tough competition! You know how Olympic gymnasts often say they’re most nervous about competing against the others from their own school? I understand that perfectly. Competing against my friends, in front of lots of friendly people, for the honor of the group I lead….it’s enough to make a girl prepare very, very carefully. Complete documentation, correct fill level (modern standards), period containers (I use glass), maybe a little pretty sealing wax and seal on the mead bottle corks…perfect clarity, excellent beverages, hand-lettered labels on hand-made paper in period ink tied on with wool thread I’ve spun…do I prepare or what?
Usually we judge on authenticity, presentation and documentation to begin. This year those three categories were eliminated – too bad for me, since I’m really good at the research and documentation and use it to boost my score. The judging format went straight to the beverage, beginning with appearance and going through bouquet, alcohol balance, taste/flavor profile, sugar balance, body, and that lovely ”overall impression” – subtitled informally, “would you like another glass”? Needless to say, during judging we can’t have another glass, we are taking in very small amounts so we can last through them all coherently- but we know that after the competition closes, there’s an open bar supporting Court and the evening meal followed by hanging out around fires together, and we judges have a jump on which beverages we would, in fact, like more of. Ask us for a recommendation.
We sort beverages by category and intensity, starting with the least intense and moving up. Beers first, and among the beers the stouts go last. My group had three or four stouts! Then meads, metheglins last (there were several of those, too). Then cordials ’cause they have the most alcohol and are hardest on our taste buds. So first, there’s this mad scramble to sort all the bottles, keeping their paperwork (forms and documentation) with them. Multiply by fifty entries in a small space. Oy.
We always try to have three judges on any team, and invite contestants to sit in – but we only had about three hours to judge all fifty entries! Any conversation with contestants was necessarily short.
Since three of the most senior judges in our region are the brewing barons, we three judge the populace entries; another very experienced team judges the Baronial Smackdown. This year, our host and contestant Baron Siegfried was sequestered all day on vigil prior to receiving a very great honor. Wait, they removed one of our baron-judges! His lady wife stepped up and took his place, Francesca, whose brewing expertise has come along so well (did I mention the rockin’ porter?). We had a runner going back to the vigil tent with samplers of anything particularly lovely. Every now and then the Smackdown judges would say something about our brews, which we barons could hear down at our end of the table, and our heads would go up like a herd of antelope sighting the lion…I’d murmur “Don’t listen, dooooon’t listen, focus….” We three worked as a team right up until Francesca was needed to plan out their own part of Court, since they were hosts. And then there were two. The two of us sped along with as much attention and focus as we could muster after a long gruelling afternoon of discernment and sagaciousness. Other activities started to break up, and folks began to drift by the brewing tent to see if they could fill their glasses. We weren’t ready to chat yet, and we needed to stay focused – I hope I wasn’t too rude telling folks to wait…next year, a separate bar tent from the judging area! And maybe a lock and key for the judging area. And some ice.
The Wind Down
As the evening got very late, we hardcore brewers circled our chairs out front of the brew tent and collapsed one by one around a dying fire, chatting amiably about hops and yeasts and our latest attempts at this or that beverage. This was the hour I longed for, when I got to take off my baronial coronet, sit down with my boon companions and just talk brewing. That’s a rare pleasure in the life of a working baroness.
The next morning, we scavenged empties and dismantled our setups, taking down big tents and packing up chairs, collecting lost and found and claiming our own random items. Our event hostess found the bottle opener you see in the picture above, laying lost in the grass, opening surfaces well worn, printed with the website of a city in our region. She held it up for us to see and said, “Really, that just says it all!”
It’s such a nice little fighting event.
The prize for the Baronial Brewers’ Smackdown is a beaded glove. I have the honor of having won it both years. I keep it pinned to my personal Baronial banner.
My entries: a traditional sack mead (made with honey from Deaton’s Farm in MS, prize for a Best of Show from last year’s Bluff City Brewers annual competition), cherry pyment, blood orange cordial, cranberry cordial, spiced braggot and a whisky barrel stout.