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What gets brewing behind the scenes

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The judging room at the Half Pints Pro/Am Challenge.


The judging room at the Half Pints Pro/Am Challenge.

Despite some fairly sketchy driving conditions — at least within the city — I bundled myself up Thursday morning and made my way out to Lockport to serve as a steward at the first annual Half Pints Pro/Am Challenge.

The beer competition is being put on by the Winnipeg Brew Bombers, a group of local brewers. Both professional brewers - ie. actual bricks-and-mortar breweries - and home brewers were eligible to enter the competition (hence the "Pro/Am"), which is sponsored by local brewery Half Pints.

Certified beer judges from across Manitoba and beyond convened in Lockport (in the big insulated garage at the home of one of the members of the Brew Bombers) Wednesday evening to start the process of meticulously examining the colour, clarity, aromas, flavours, texture and effervescence of the 400+ beers submitted to the competition. Beers are given a score and from each category emerges a winner, which advances to the Best in Show judging that happens Saturday afternoon. Sort of like the Westminster Dog Show, but tastier.

As a steward, I was one of the guys fetching, pouring and delivering beers to judges at their two- or three-person panel. As is the case at the wine competitions I judge at, beers are tasted blind — judges are only given the style of beer, and don't know whether the brew in front of them is made by an amateur or pro.

I'm used to sitting on the other side of the wall, and having people ferry out various glasses for me to sniff, swirl, sip and spit, so it was great to get a perspective on just how much work goes into making a competition such as this one run so smoothly.

There were also some interesting differences between wine and beer judging:

- At wine competitions, we typically get anywhere between 8-12 wines at a time for judging - usually all made from the same grape or in a similar blend. Notes are made on each wine (normally for the judges' use after the competition only), and scores are received by competition organizers and entered into the database/program used to tabulate finalists/etc.

Beer judges, meanwhile, get one beer at a time. At beer competitions, judges are also given a separate, industry-standardized sheet of paper to fill in for each brew, a copy of which goes back to the brewer. Categories are highly specific about visual, aromatic, taste and textural components, with a section near the end of the sheet for suggestions, etc.

Considering there are so many amateur brewers in the competition, this is a nice touch, as they tend to appreciate the tips/feedback. However, all of this means beer judging takes about twice as long as wine judging (in a typical wine-judging day I'd taste somewhere between 70-100 wines).

- One thing you always have at a wine-judging table is a spit bucket - even if you just tasted one ounce of each wine, tasting 100 wines would be the equivalent of nearly four bottles of wine. Beer judges, however, don't seem too bothered to spit out what they're tasting (unless it's skunky swill), although they taste about half as many samples of a drink that brings one-third of the alcohol of most wines. (For what it's worth, judges at the Half Pints Pro/Am Challenge were also transported to and from the judging location, for what it's worth.)

The winners are being announced Saturday night at Barley Brothers, with events getting underway around 7 p.m. for all to attend. On Thursday, Half Pints brewmaster Dave Rudge indicated his brewery would probably have a few special treats on-hand for toasting the winner of the competition.

The main downside: Manitoba liquor laws dictate the public can't try homemade beer in a public venue.

Up next in this space: reviews of a couple of recently released local brews and an import that fans of TV's Stark family should pick up while they can.



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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.


Blogs that Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson follows:

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