“I think of it like a bloody tooth taste.”
The few times I have met Michael Jordan of Shanghai-based Boxing Cat Brewery, he has shown a flair for putting craft beer into easy-to-digest terms. Sunday was no exception as he addressed a packed house of home brewers at Boxing Cat’s pop-up in Beijing. The topics: how beer contests work and how to avoid beer faults.
Jordan has brewed at Boxing Cat since 2010. (He began as a student home brewer in the early 1990s, then went full-time in 1995.)
He began Sunday’s session by explaining judging criteria, which he said is fairly uniform across the major contests. That means tasting “blind”: the judges know the style of beer, say IPA or American Pale Ale, but not the brewery or brewer. It also means “neutral” glasses (plastic cups can have a resin smell), a neutral place (devoid of cooking smells) and info about special ingredients (for example, the Sichuan peppercorn used by some brewers).
Jordan said it is crucial to consider the style guidelines for each category of beer before you enter.
“It might be an excellent pale ale but it’s too hoppy and should have been submitted as an IPA instead,” said Jordan. “Some beers you really enjoy [as a judge] but you have to kick it under the table because it’s probably not in the right category.”
Judges typically score the beers out of 20 points. A common system is to give gold medals to those with 17 to 20 points, silver for 15.5 to 16.9 and bronze for 14 to 15.4. Jordan covered five judging criteria:
- Appearance: Is the beer clear or cloudy? How is the foam and the lacing? Should it look that way?
- Aroma: Is it fresh? Fruity? Floral? Malty? “If the hops are old and cheesy, you would reduce the score.”
- Flavor and body: Is it light, medium or full? Does that fit the style guidelines?
- Technical quality: Does the beer have any defects? Is it soapy? Musty?
- Style: How well does the beer match its category?
Again, that issue of style is crucial. If you aren’t in quite the right category, it could cost you the point that drops you from gold to silver or silver to bronze or bronze to “thanks for participating”.
Jordan said entrants also typically receive a comment card. Along with how well the beer scored, the info can include suggestions on freshness or storage issues, the appropriateness of the category entered, and possible recipe tweaks. It’s feedback from trained palates—grist for the mill or future tank—for a brewer to consider.
“If you don’t like it, don’t change,” says Jordan. “Some beers don’t fit into a style category. And styles do appear or evolve.”
He noted some of Boxing Cat’s own concerns with contests.
“We’ve sent beers to competitions and sometimes the lead time is two to three months,” he said. “The beer was fresh, we sent it in a cooler, and we hope it was put in another cooler upon arrival. You wonder how it will do.”
Finally, Jordan covered eight common beer faults. Those included aromas like butterscotch / buttered popcorn (diacetyl), cooked or creamed corn (dimethly sulfide) and wet cardboard (oxidation). An unintentional sourness could be due to bacteria living in scratches on plastic equipment. A copper or iron character might be due to a rusty equipment weld or metal bottle caps with a poor seal. (That’s when Jordan gave his “bloody tooth” analogy.)
We then tried a few beers brought by home brewers, gorged on snacks and guzzled Boxing Cat beer.
I’ve now tried all of the pop-up’s beers now and find quality across the board. I’d rank Boxing Cat with Arrow Factory as my favorites, followed by Jing-A’s seasonal beers (and stout) and the hard-to-find offerings from Nine Inch. But given how many places have opened this past year, and overdue visits to some craft beer veterans, it’s probably time to get out and do some more research.
Note: Boxing Cat’s pop-up is slated to close at the end of the month. Boxing Cat has also just released four bottled beers. More on those soon.