IBA Challenge

Saturday night saw the culmination of months of discussion, research, secrecy and of course actual brewing. A small group of brewers submitted their take on the elusive but much-discussed new style, Black IPA or, as we decided to call it that night, the IBA (India Black Ale). The idea for this event started back in July when several of us attended the Vermont Brewers Festival and tasted a few breweries’ interpretation of the style. There followed the realization that no one had really yet defined it, and, although there were commercial examples out there, there was no consensus on its parameters. I decided to brew one, which led a few of my friends, colleagues and customers to also try their hand at it. We decided to pick a date and come together, IBA’s in hand, to compare, taste, judge, critique, etc.

The Guru judges - photo by Scully

In the end, seven different brewers rose to the challenge, and fourteen people, including six of those brewers, got together for pizza and snacks, and proceeded to judge the beers. I “ran” the event, being the only BJCP trained judge on hand. I started by explaining a little bit about the BJCP program, the exam, and how competitions are run. I handed out a judging procedural and scoresheets, and away we went. The seven entries, brewed by Rick, Ben, Aaron, Tom, Jake, Adam and me, were expertly poured and served to the waiting judges by steward extraordinaire Mollie. We took a few minutes with each beer, looking at its color, clarity and head, sniffing the hop and malt aromas, sipping, swirling, chewing and generally appreciating the complex flavors. We had divided the group up into a brewers’ panel (Rick, Aaron, Jake, Tom, Ben and me, Adam being absent), and a “people’s panel”, with Rich, Carol, Sarah, Evan, Adrienne, Walter and Anne. The idea was to choose a Brewers’ Choice, based on technical merit (i.e closest to style, authentic) and a People’s Choice, based on which beer was most drinkable.

Jake, our host - photo by Scully

Discussion at both tables was lively. With several different cups in front of each of us, we realized quickly that all seven were quite good. There were minor “flaws” – a couple were too light to be “black”, a couple seemed to lack in hop aroma, one had coffee in it, one had a molasses/vanilla taste… in the end, both tables agreed on the same three as their top choices. After a break to eat a little more, we came back to work and pitted those top three head-to-head, and argued the merits of one against the other. We finally settled on our top choice, second and third.

The Brewers’ Choice and People’s Choice were both awarded to the same beer, by a narrow margin, a brew called “Black Jacques Shellac”, proudly presented by Ben. He also brought along a keg of the same beer conditioned and dispensed with a nitrogen mix – completely different texture, aroma and taste. My IBA placed second with both panels, and Tom’s was the third choice. A bottle swap ensued, and Ben was asked to choose the next target brew – looks like we will be tasting  American IPA’s some time in March! Before we split up and went home, we were treated to a taste of Adrienne’s Holiday Porter, aromatic with vanilla… Yum!

It's a tough job... - photo by Scully

Tasting Notes – New Lagers

So what does a home brew guru do in between brewing sessions? Well, there’s racking and bottling, cleaning and organizing, of course, but I also get to try out new beers. Since I brew more or less weekly, I get a new beer “on-line” almost as frequently. One of the things I like about home brewing, especially the way I do it, is that I always have a variety of brews to taste. Variety is my ideal, and if I have two or three beers in an evening, it’s always two or three different styles.

Last night I decided to compare my three latest brews. Since the weather turned cold, I have been brewing mostly lagers. I have a room at the back of the house which is shut off and not heated during the winter (Yankee frugality or Scottish cheapness? or home brew guru cleverness? You decide…). In the dead of winter, when the rest of the heated house is between 60 – 65°F, and it’s anywhere from 20° down to -10°F outside, my back room stays a pretty constant 40 – 45°F. Perfect for lagering the way I do it.

First, a note about tasting. I am a BJCP-certified National Beer Judge. You laugh, but there’s actually a fairly rigorous training and educational program, culminating in a 3-hour exam. You need to know a little micro-biology, a little physics, a little chemistry, some math, some history… and you have to train your taste buds to pick out certain flavors, aromas, etc. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. You can get more information on the program, or see the style guidelines we use to judge in competitions on the BJCP website.

There are basically four tangible components to tasting.

  • Aroma – does it smell right? do you smell malt, hops, yeast, something else?
  • Appearance – is it the right color? is the head the right color and consistency? is the clarity or lack of it appropriate?
  • Mouthfeel – can be thick, thin, anywhere in between, but this also refers to carbonation level and certain texture factors.
  • Taste – there are lots of different flavors potentially in any given beer – with the style guidelines in front of you, do you taste what’s supposed to be there, and are the off-flavors and inappropriate tastes not there? aftertaste? bitterness and sweetness?

Generally speaking, the method is:

  • Pour an appropriately-chilled beer into a clean, clear glass. Different beers are served at different temperatures for optimum flavor. A dirty or greasy (or soapy) glass will interfere with carbonation level, head retention as well as aroma and flavor.
  • Swirl the beer gently, place the beer under you nose and inhale.
  • Look at the beer, with a light source behind it. Note the color, clarity, head, carbonation in the beer itself.
  • Take a sip. Let the beer sit on the back of your tongue for a few seconds. Note carbonation, mouthfeel in general; allow the aroma to rise up into your sinus passage. Is the beer sweet/ bitter? Note all the flavors, good and bad, you notice. Now swallow. Is there an aftertaste? a different flavor or aroma after the liquid is gone?
  • Repeat the last step to confirm your impressions.If tasting another beer, cleanse your palate with a cracker or piece of bread.

So, in the order in which they were brewed, going back to November, here is what I thought of my three newest offerings.

Hellespont Munich Hell (brewed November 5 2009)
In the tradition of the original Munich golden lagers (“hell” in German means “light”, as opposed to “dunkel”, “dark”…) such as Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner and Löwenbräu.

Dark gold (possibly too dark for style), pale head, thinnish – not fully carbonated yet, perhaps. Aroma is malty, sweet, no obvious hop aroma, mildly alcoholic. Medium-to-full-bodied, slightly lacking in carbonation. Nice bitterness on the back of the tongue. Rich malty flavor, some alcohol. Will improve with age, more carbonation. B / B+

Innsbruck Vienna Lager (brewed November 12 2009)
This style is no longer really brewed in Austria, or if it is, it is not exported. Instead, the best known examples are from Mexico – Dos Equis and Negra Modelo. These breweries date back to when Mexico was part of the Austrian Empire.

Deep amber, vaguely reddish, crystal clear. Light beige head, well-developed and persistent. Caramel malty nose, slight toasted notes. Full bodied and smooth. Sweet malty finish, background bitterness in balance, mild hop flavor up-front. Very clean beer, no notable alcoholic flavor or aroma. no diacetyl. B+/A-

Black Bridge Schwarzbier (brewed November 24 2009)
Also known as a Schwarzpils, this style is dark (“Schwarz” is “black”), but more crisp and clean, like a good Czech Pilsner. Not many good examples known in the US. Ayinger makes one, Köstritzer is probably the most revered. Saranac’s Black Forest Lager is quite good.

Dark brown, not quite black. Slightly cloudy/muddy appearance. Beige head, full and thick. Much diacetyl in the nose – not appropriate for style, maybe, but yummy butterscotch and roasty notes. Flavor is roasty/malty, grain bitterness but also well-balanced hop bitterness and flavor. Alternating bitter / sweet / bitter flavors. A little out of style, too sweet, too much diacetyl, but a delicious beer. May dry out and be more in line after a few more weeks in the bottle. B / B+