2011 Dickens Fair Best of Beer Competition Recap

A couple of weekends ago, I was given the privilege to judge at the Best of Show table at the Worts of Wisdom sponsored Best of Brew homebrew competition. The Best of Brew competition is a little different than other homebrew competitions because the scope of beers it accepts is limited to just English style beers, ciders and meads. Why so limiting? Because the Best of Brew awards ceremony is held during the annual Dickens Fair.

Dave Messink, Worts of Wisdom homebrew club member, is the organizer of the Best of Brew homebrew competition. Messink, Worts of Wisdom, and several other homebrewers did a great job organizing the competition and getting the pre-liminary judging completed before the final table at the Dickens Fair. Because of other commitments, I was not able to judge any of the preliminary rounds. I did the year before and hope to be able to spend a little more time judging this year.

The Final Table

I consider it an honor to be asked to judge a Best of Show round. I'd like to think that my palate and evaluation skills are good enough to warrant the honor. These are, after all, the cream of the crop and I'd like to be able to do the competition justice.

There were some fantastic entries on the table before us and I'm glad that I didn't have to make the decision on my own. Judging along side of me were Mike Pitsker, writer for Celebrator beer magazine; Beth Zangari, a Grandmaster-level BJCP judge, John Watson, a Grandmaster 2-level judge, and Kevin Patterson, the man behind Dickens Fair. With the exception of Zangari, this was the same group of people who judged the Best of Show table last year. Kevin Pratt was the lone change from last year's group and he couldn't attend because he is now the brewmaster at Santa Barbara Brewing Company. Dave Messink was around to help administer the event while Suzanne Nguyen and Jennifer Guy were our stewards.

If you've never experienced a Best of Show round of judging, it's pretty simple. As I mentioned before, the entries on the table are the tops of their respective categories. It is the jobs of the judges at the final table to decide which of these entries is the best among all the others. Determining which entry is the best is a matter of tasting them all against each other and coming to a consensus as a group which one will be Best of Show.

The entries were brought out one at a time by stewards Suzanne and Jennie. This is done so that we can have time to evaluate them individually, make notes, and rank them. Once we're finished the evaluation period, a process that takes as few as 10 minutes for experienced judges, we then advocate for our favorites and disregard the others. Disregarding beers is simply a matter of asking the table, "What didn't you like and why?". This elimination process usually takes several rounds. Some entries that may initially get submitted for elimination may have an advocate with another judge and survive a little bit longer. At this particular table, we whittled away the entries until the final 4 were left.

Each judge then assigns a place to the remaining entries on the table. 1st place gets the most points (an arbitrary number assigned by the head judge, Zangari in this case), 2nd place gets a little less, and so forth. Places are assigned to each entry, points are tabulated and a Best of Show winner is chosen.

The Best of Brew Awards Ceremony

In my experience, many homebrew competitions have some preliminary judging and the Best of Show judging all at the same event. The Best of Brew competition is a little different in that all the preliminary judging was finished before hand. Another key difference to the Best of Brew competition is its awards ceremony. While there are other homebrew competitions that feature an awards ceremony, none of them have the theatrics of the Best of Brew.

With all English-style beers, ciders and meads, having Victorian England as your backdrop makes perfect sense. I think having the opportunity to go to the Dickens Fair for the awards ceremony is as big a draw as winning the competition. It certainly is a motivator for me as a judge. Adding to the atmosphere, several homebrewers attended in costume.

Charles Dickens, the namesake of the festival, makes an appearance at the awards ceremony to announce the winners. All winners received a certificate and ribbon for their efforts. Unfortunately, none of the ribbons were on hand the day of the awards ceremony. In addition, 1st place winners took home Lagunitas branded brewery shirts. The Best of Show winner also received the Best of Brew trophy, an engraved stein. It's actually pretty cool.

You can view the results of the 2011 Best of Brew Competition at the Worts of Wisdom website by clicking here. Congratulations for Erich Schmidt for earning Best of Show honors this year for his barleywine!

Dickens Fair

Kevin Patterson is the main man behind the Dickens Fair. The fair not only celebrates the work of Charles Dickens but brings it to life as well. For several weekends, starting Thanksgiving weekend, the Cow Palace is turned into Victorian England. The fun actually starts on the outside as actors greet guests in character. Once inside, guests are treated to the streets of Victorian England during twilight.

There are numerous merchants that line the streets of Dickens Fair selling goods and services appropriate for the theme. I found the dragon themed chalice-ware to be particularly interesting while Mrs. BetterBeerBlog enjoyed many of the masks, jewelry, clothing and costumes. For kids, one of the more popular store fronts was the one selling replica Harry Potter wands.

There were many food vendors specializing in a few, select items like cookies or meat pies. If you wanted a more fulfilling culinary experience,  several vendors ranged from take-and-go cuisine to full service, sit down restaurants. Patterson and his crew did a great job selecting vendors appropriate for the fair.

Lastly, there were multiple bars seeded throughout the Dickens Fair. As far as I could tell, they all essentially sold the same things under the guise of different themes. Lagunitas, a sponsor of the Best of Brew competition, also seemed to be the sole beer vendor while Rabbit's Foot Meadery supplied the ciders.

For the kids, there was a childrens' section that featured a carousel, photo opportunity with Santa Claus, puppet show and activities. This is a fantastic event with a great family friendly atmosphere and nearly something for everyone.

Last Call

As I mentioned before, I thought the Best of Show trophy is pretty cool. So cool that I just might risk disqualifying myself from judging by entering next year's competition. The assumption, of course, is that I actually brewed something that would actually win its category (gotta be confident!). Besides, I want to shake Charles Dickens' hand wearing my new Lagunitas schwag.

I'd like to thank Dave Messink for all his hard work in organizing this competition and including me again in the final judging table. I'd also like to extend my thanks to our stewards Suzanne and Jennie for the great job they did making the event seamless. I'd also like to thank my fellow judges for making the experience worthwhile. I find that the best way to learn something is to shut my mouth and listen, and there was a lot to learn from my fellow judges. Thanks also to Kevin Patterson for putting on the Dickens Fair, it's a fantastic event that I look to make an annual occurrence for us. Until next year…

Merry Christmas!

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One Response to 2011 Dickens Fair Best of Beer Competition Recap

  1. Dave Messink says:

    Thanks for the great recap Peter. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed yourself.

    There’s another person within the Dickens Christmas Fair organization that needs to be mentioned. This is Carol Goodman, the fair’s beverage coordinator and the person that makes it possible for us to hold the competition. Carol takes care of all the logistics including reserving space for us, Mr. Dickens scheduling, judge swag, ribbons, 1st place prizes, BOS mug, etc. The great time we all have with the final judging and awards ceremony, and all our great prizes, are all due to Carol. Thank You Carol for another fun competition.

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