An Expedition Into Craft Beer

I’m into craft beer. As are a lot of people. But it’s one thing to just drink it, it’s another thing to know things about what you’re drinking and be able to say something somewhat educated about it. And this isn’t really coming from a place of snobbery (something the craft beer world, and, well, any niche area suffers from) but rather curiosity and empowerment. I don’t want to drink a nice, expensive beer for the sake of it. I would like to understand what I’m tasting on a richer level. Basically, I want to be that meme, “I drink and I know things”. What show was that from? Everyone was talking about it for a while…

After careful consideration (read: years of waffling) and encouragement from my fellow beer ladies, I signed up for the National Homebrew Club of Ireland’s BJCP Tasting Course. BJCP being the Beer Judge Certification Program. My good friend Christina has always spoken highly of her experience with the BJCP and so, along with some of my beer ladies pals, I signed up. Six tasting classes covering a variety of styles over a four-month period with the aim of sitting the exam in the fall (pending pandemic planning). I am unsure if I will commit to the exam yet, only time will tell. For the moment, I am quite happy to sit, sip, and listen to people much smarter than me telling me what notes I should be sensing and, honestly, having a little bit of social interaction. Boy, I miss the pub. And people.

I didn’t take any decent pictures of my beers for the first class, unfortunately, but I do have my notes (as scattered as they are) to try and recapture my thoughts from the first class. Our first tasting class covered four beers. And before I dive into the beers themselves, I’m going to go ahead and be honest with you. I am overwhelmed at how many categories and subcategories there are of beer. The mind boggles. How will I ever remember all of this? I am happy to learn about the history of beer styles and how to decipher tasting notes, but the thought of me actually being able to identify a beer style blindly is beyond my comprehension. Also, I should note that I am not a homebrewer. I have considered it in the past but the cost of another hobby along with knitting (yes, yarn can be expensive) is not something I was ready to take on… until now. Maybe. I will circle back to this later though.

Our first four beers were:

  • Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (American Pale Ale, 5.6% ABV)
  • Founders Centennial IPA (American IPA, 7.2% ABV)
  • Kinnegar Rustbucket (Rye IPA, 5.1% ABV)
  • Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (Barleywine, 9.6% ABV)

Trying to decipher my handwritten scribbles is a bit of a Herculean effort (okay, it’s not that bad), so I think in this review I will just focus on my main takeaways from the evening. For each beer, we had a speaker who talked about the beer in depth followed by smaller breakaway classrooms where we all focused on one particular aspect of the tasting as per the official BJCP scoresheet. So, anything from aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and our overall impressions of the beer.

Does the beer fit into the style in which it is categorized? Let me redirect you back to my earlier quandary of categorization. Now, I know BJCP is really for homebrewing aficionados out there, but I do get turned around with commercial craft beers calling themselves one style, when maybe, in fact, it is another, or what have you. Sometimes breweries just seem to make things up as they go along. I suppose taking these classes is my way of making heads and/or tails of a really confusing craft.

Jot down the most important aspects of the beer you think of first. Take a good auld sniff of the beer, taste a little bit on your tongue, swirl it around, spit it out. Wait. Scratch that. I’m not in Sideways. Don’t spit out and/or dump over your head. I do, in fact, like merlot. Wait a moment before taking another sip. Write down what you sense. I think I focused quite a bit on aroma in this class since most of my notes are about that. Lots of “pine-y/forest-y/nature-y” scribbles. Break to Google what resinous means. Also esters.

I think a big hurdle for me and probably anyone doing something similar is learning the vocabulary to describe the sensations you get from tasting a beer. Also, really being able to identify what it is you are tasting. There were plenty of times in my breakout classrooms that people would mention tasting or smelling something that I hadn’t gotten whatsoever. Is it me? Is it my beer? What batch do we all have? Also, note to self, start checking out the dates of the beers you buy in the shop. That matters. I also found myself being influenced by what someone else was saying they could sense. Is this more caramel or raisin? I’m not sure… Oh, well, he said caramel, so obviously I can totally get that now. Of course, it all makes so much sense. What fool would say raisin? Amateurs.

My one and only time stewarding a BJCP competition a couple of years ago was not only super fun but a real eye-opener into the craft beer and home brewing world. I look forward to the days we can do it again because I can see how doing these classes in tandem with learning from certified judges would be a real treat.

Looking back through my notes, I am noticing that I was getting more descriptive as the night continued. Was it the beer or my genius brain? I guess we’ll never know *cue music*. I can pinpoint the exact moment in the evening wherein I actually started to seriously consider home brewing. This is when I should have probably said good evening and called it a night, but alas, I was overcome with much desired social interaction. One book, in particular, was recommended to me which looked interesting. Brooklyn Brew Shop’s Beer Making Book: 52 Seasonal Recipes for Small Batches by Erica Shea and Stephen Valand. Erica and Stephen, you had me at peanut butter porter.

I have a lot of things to read and research before I decide which route to go. I am considering a box kit. I know, I know… But hey, we all start somewhere, right? If you’re a homebrewer and have something to recommend, please do share. I’m kind of going nuts with cabin fever these days and anything to occupy my time is appreciated. There’s only so much I can knit.

I fear this is getting quite long, so I’ll wrap up here. Of the four beers for this first tasting class, my personal favorite was the Kinnegar Rustbucket. I genuinely do enjoy everything Kinnegar puts out, so I wasn’t surprised. What did surprise me (mildly) though was how much more descriptive my notes for Rustbucket were compared to my notes for the other three beers. The flavors were more intense and fresher and therefore easier to pinpoint, and I think that is down to the length of time between canning and how they were stored before they reached my refrigerator. Oh yeah, I learned about oxidation too. Again, check the dates!

My next class is next week, so I’ll be more prepared to take photos and more thorough notes. Less -y’s and more actual descriptive words. I am hoping that by writing about my classes here I will be able to develop that vocabulary and hone my thoughts a bit more. Until next time…

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