Medieval Brewing Smackdown and why it was fun

We had the culmination of a brewing smackdown last weekend.

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 and the people who put the event together.  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.  My friend Baron Siegfried mused one day, 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).

Siegfried had a lightbulb-over-the-head moment: he hosts this fighting event every year at a private campground that allows alcohol (with certain rules of course), 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 activity – there are armored combatants in various skirmish scenarios over here, rapier fighters with pointier weapons doing their thing over there, and target archers exercising their devilish target creativity in a field not far away.   Highland River Melees, it was called.  A fighting event – it could take on another aspect with a little encouragement and planning…

At the time there were home brewing barons in two other nearby regions, and of course we were all friends. Siegfried 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 email lists for months beforehand.  That’s how the Baronial Brewing Smackdown was born.

Set Up to Smackdown

We three baron homebrewers planned the Smackdown for months.  Since we’re all friends, we worked out a smack-talk trajectory and timed it.  We let the first salvo fly on several email lists at once, where hundreds of people could see.  The people living in (and loyal to) our baronies chimed in quickly 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 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 in time for the event.

Yes, medievalists know a thing or two about managing fires.

2011 was the inaugural occasion, and it went spectacularly well.  We had a competition for the general brewing public and a separate one between the barons. Everyone who brews was invited to bring something to share. We had dozens of competition entrants and over 95 gallons of home-made beer, wine, mead and cordials offered up by attendees.    This is what happens when absolutely 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.  Now, 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 whole cordial category for us (thank goodness).  We finished our work with not a minute to spare (literally) because it was time for Court.  We barons  sit to either side of the attending Royalty, and all the Royals had come specially.  Royals and barons face the hall,  up front where everyone else can see.  We had been tasting brews for hours. We hung onto the arms of our chairs and tried not to sway or fall down.

We also had to clear the brewing tent premises where we’d been judging – that was where the open bar for Court was!

(My retainer  took a small jug of cyser to Court and stood behind my chair keeping my cup filled.  Court didn’t hurt a bit! )

One of the Smackdown judges got a bit overwhelmed by all the tasting.  He stayed in the judging tent and lay down, closing his eyes for a bit. (“Seriously, only three peoples’ entries?? Dude, you’re supposed to throw the extra out, not drink it!” )   Of course, Murphy’s Law is everywhere;  Mr. Unsteady got called into Court to be honored, 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 make some good stuff.

Open Bar

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.  If you’re having an event with a really specific time frame, that limits the choices considerably. 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 their beer).

You can 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 that were prevalent back then, call us weenies if you want.  A medieval-style bar can be quite pretty – never mind that such a thing as a drinks bar probably never existed in the Middle Ages. It requires some nimbleness from the bartenders, who have to remember what all the donated beverages are, so the brewers 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 just 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, all the brewers tend to circle up around what’s left of the bar and, inevitably, talk brewing, and bring out the odd small batches and talk over.  Sure, it’s a fighting event; almost everyone remembers about the fighting, right?

Tough Competition

As one of the three baronial contestants who was responsible for upholding the honor of my own barony, I will admit I got 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?  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…

The Mechanics

Usually we judge on authenticity, presentation and documentation to begin with. 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 category “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.  The judges this day 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 and 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.

the prize blue glove with beading on the wrist
Baronial Brewers Smackdown prize

Since three  of the most senior judges in our region are the brewing barons in question, we three judge the populace entries. Another very experienced team judges the Baronial Smackdown entries.  This year, our host and contestant Baron Siegfried was sequestered all day on vigil prior to receiving a very great honor.  Wait, that 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?), had no entries of her own that year.  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 where we were judging, and our heads would go up like a herd of antelope sighting a 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 for that yet – 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, hardcore brewers circled our chairs around a small cooking fire out front of the brew tent  and collapsed one by one, 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, well worn.  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 was a beaded glove.  I have the honor of having won it the first two years; Siegfried and Francesca won it the last year we did this. Francesca danced in Court, which was totally worth losing to see.  I keep the glove you see here pinned to my personal Baronial banner.

My entries in 2012: a traditional sack mead (made with honey from Deaton’s Farm in MS. The honey was a 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.

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