Upping Your Homebrew Game with BYO

BYO Boot Camp Logo

(Logo courtesy of BYO magazine)

We’re five minutes into the full-day workshop “Evaluating Your Homebrew Like a Master Judge,” with our noses buried in our glasses and inhaling deeply. “What do you smell?” asks presenter Gordon Strong, president of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). When several of the 20 participants say, “Nothing,” Strong responds, “Exactly, and that’s a good thing.” A ripple of laughter goes through the group as we put down our empty plastic cups.

Strong has just made the point that in BJCP judging, clear hard plastic glasses are standard because 1) unlike some plastic cups, they don’t have any odors that might interfere with beer aromas and 2) the clarity allows for proper evaluation of beer color.

Another 45 minutes passes before Strong instructs us to actually taste the ounce or two of Ninkasi’s Hell’s Bells in a second glass before each of us. If you’re wondering how anyone could possibly talk that long about how to take a sip of beer, watching and listening to Strong walk his talk would up your awareness several levels.

Typical sample size in "Evaluating Your Homebrew Like a Master Judge"

Typical sample size in “Evaluating Your Homebrew Like a Master Judge”

He wasn’t addressing a group of casual beer enthusiasts. We were experienced homebrewers and beer drinkers who had invested hundreds of dollars in this workshop, travel to Santa Rosa, California, plus meals and lodging. Still, Mark Fisler of Marina, California, who had recently brewed his 200th batch, and the rest of us meticulously followed Strong’s instructions, practicing high and low sniffs, drive-bys and dog sniffs. When we were finally rewarded with that first sip, we swished it around, let it rest on the tongue, chewed it, aerated it, swallowed and exhaled through the nose and then through the mouth.

Did the malt, hops or yeast dominate? What flavors came through and at what points? How did it feel in the mouth—creamy, silky, thin? Was the aftertaste dry or was there residual sweetness, and how much? Was the beer balanced for its particular style?  What about flaws—overly bitter, sweet, astringent, too carbonated or not enough? Any off flavors—cardboard, butter, sulfur or cooked corn? What did we estimate for the ABV and the IBUs?

All this in one hour of the two-day Brew Your Own Boot Camp February 24 and 25.

The camps are a relatively new concept from BYO, a popular magazine among homebrewers. There are workshops for homebrewers at all levels from “Brew Chem 101” (Ashton Lewis) to “Advanced Yeast Techniques” (Dr. Chris White, founder of White Labs). I asked Brad Ring, president and publisher of Battenkill Communications, BYO’s parent company, how the idea came about. “We saw an opportunity to create a new kind of homebrewing event we didn’t see out there that focuses on small-class immersive learning led by brewing experts.” The first camp took place last November in Vermont, BYO’s home turf. Judging from the 200 homebrewers in attendance each day in Santa Rosa, the camps appear to be a success.

Boot Camp lunch (photo courtesy of B. Vandevort)

Boot Camp lunch (photo courtesy of Bill Vandevort)

Participants came from all over the country. Friday evening, I joined homebrewers from Monterey, Los Angeles, Des Moines and Atlanta for dinner at Santa Rosa’s Third Street Aleworks where we shared a couple of the brewpub’s 15-sample flights. On Saturday, it was lunch and bottles of Russian River’s famous Pliny the Elder with Mark Fisler and homebrewers from San Diego, Sacramento, Philadelphia and Houston. (The last was a native Brazilian.)

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Boot Camp was the opportunity to talk with well-known experts. I was planning a brew with yerba mate, the South American tea, but was still unsure about how and when to use it. Homebrewers, imagine casually chatting about your next brew with the Homebrew Chef (Sean Paxton) over beer cocktails or with the BeerSmith (Brad Smith) during the Russian River reception after the day’s workshop. (With no preparation, both made thoughtful suggestions within minutes.)

The good news for homebrewers is that BYO has Boot Camps scheduled in June and November of 2017 and plans for two or three more in 2018. For information, click here.

Bill Vandevort, Gordon Strong and moi

Monterey homebrewer Bill Vandevort, Gordon Strong and moi

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