I’m back home from medieval summer camp (where I and ten thousand of my closest friends re-create camps and life in different eras prior to 1600 AD, complete with battles, bards, and all manner of arts displays, tournaments, and competitions – have I mentioned the parties?). I am thinking about beer and brewing. While I was away I entered the Interkingdom Brewers Guild competition (IKBG), open to people from all over the world. I steward for this event, partly because I really value it and they need the support, and partly so I can eavesdrop on the judging.
The IKBG event is held in a tent in a gigantic field, flanked by hundreds of other tents like it, in the middle of what is often blisteringly hot and humid summer weather. We have a water source (lucky us) to rinse glasses with, and tables and chairs for the judges and entrants. While we can roll up at least two side walls on the tent to catch any possible breeze, there ain’t no climate control, and almost everyone has a set time they have to be back in their own camp for dinner. The schedule is thereby confined.
Unusual among the medievalist brewers, the IKBG focuses on excellent flavor (as opposed to historical accuracy that may or may not be nice to drink). That leaves a huge range of ales, beers, wines, and meads open to entrants. IKBG gets all manner of beverages from people with a broad range of experience. Categories include beers/ales, meads/wines/ and cordials. (Since medieval cordials were medicinal tonics, people bring the much nicer modern versions; sweet sipping cordials date back only to the eighteenth century.) Even in the beers and meads, some of what’s submitted is straight-up modern. Every entry comes with documentation that says who made it, what’s in it, where the recipe comes from, any historical antecedents or context, what the brewer actually did and what they learned from it. I used to write fifteen or twenty pages listing everything I could find about each ingredient and process. I addressed things like when particular fruits become available in Europe and who could afford them, what kind of sugar would they would have had at the earliest known occurrence of this recipe, and what quality of malted barley would’ve been available in that time and place. Now I keep it down to 2-3 pages: where the style and recipe come from, what the recipe was, what I actually did, what I’d do differently, and a list of my reference sources. Getting ready for IKBG is much less painful nowadays.
The IKBG competition lasts four hours; there were perhaps forty entries in each of three categories: beers and ales, meads and wines, and cordials. At the beginning there is the usual mad scramble while all the entrants fill out their entry form and lay it down with their beverage and documentation, and the judges sort and organize them into a tasting stream starting with the mildest flavors and working up to stronger ones. Then they settle down to a challenging afternoon of tasting, expressing the experience, offering feedback and suggestions. The entrants are encouraged to sit in, and possibly answer questions for the judges. I always leave with good suggestions on how to handle various problems, or what might’ve caused this or that flaw.
Some entrants – generally new to the IKBG – will bring a whole presentation; perhaps a pewter plate of fresh bread and some grapes and some tasting glasses. They don’t do that more than once. Between the mad scramble to sort everything and get the judging started, and large number of entries, there just isn’t room for all the extra paraphenalia, or a good way to control its presentation on the table. If we can keep your bottle and paperwork together, we stewards and judges are happy.
The breadth of knowledge of these judges is impressive, as is the delicacy of their palates. Some are professionals or semi-pros; Karen Lassiter, Head Brewer of Bosco Brewery in Nashville (whose hefeweisen German-style wheat beer won a gold at GABF in 2011) was on the beer judging panel. It’s got to take a certain amount of nerve to judge this event. First, judges have to be familiar with not only the broad selection of modern brews but all the styles that existed in Europe before 1600 (and there were lots). Some of the entries will be lovely to taste, worthy of remark and sharing with other teams, and some will be just awful; a lot I expect are just fair to middling category. Above all else, the judges seek to encourage every single entrant and guide them to making better brews, no matter how minimal their experience or how gawdawful or wonderful their entry may be.
So what did I see go by that day? There was a peach mead that was exquisite, perfectly balanced with a round, peachy presence, not too much honey, no trace of yeast distress, a full mouthfeel and mellow aftertaste. There were a lot of brown beers of one sort or another, and much less in the IPA and wheat beer categories than usual. The cordials team was pretty well self sufficient, so I didn’t get much exposure to what they were experiencing, but there were a lot; I saw a pomegranate cordial go by, and the usual cinnamon krupnik and lemoncello (someone will bring those each and every year). Pretty much every kind of mead was available, including a 17-year-old by a brewer who boasts he doesn’t pour anything under 10 years old.
Next door to the competition tent was a tasting roundtable where a lot of the entrants hung out while they waited. I got practice roaring out names over that happy crowd to summon people when it was their turn.
Each entrant can put two beverages in each category, and I entered all three, with two beverages in each. I had pretty thorough (if brief) documentation, and presented each corked bottle with a hand-lettered tag on hand-made paper tied with thread I’d spun. I dripped some nice sealing wax on the corks to seal them, for effect. When they had read my documentation I retrieved the paper and took notes, and recorded the final score. Not my best year, but not bad, and my spice braggot got the first perfect score I’ve ever gotten on a beer. I am kind of insecure about my beers; there are people who only make beer, maybe only one or two styles, and they get extremely good at it. I’m a bit broader in my brewing, and while I’m no piker I just don’t have that kind of laser focus or the depth of knowledge that comes with it.
There are no winners and losers in this competition, your scores are your own. My six scores (on a 100 point scale) included one 85, one 100, and the rest in the 90s. I kept pretty detailed notes of suggestions and resources. Keep an eye on my reading list/bibliography posts, they will probably get updated with some new resources. IKBG has a complex grading system based loosely on medieval guild status. I have completed the Masters levels in wines/meads and cordials, and am one score away from Master level in beers and ales. Next time I see them…
I tend to only cross paths with IKBG in action at this one event in the summer. I think I will continue to compete and steward for them even when I finish all three of their Masters levels. I always learn something at this event.