Among the Beer Geeks 

James River Homebrewers Association

It was yet another monthly meeting of the James River Homebrewers Association, and as it happened, Wednesday marked the annual Club Competition for local members, which doubles as a means of preparing them for more heated national competition.

We found ourselves sitting at a judging table manned by Jack Jackson and Jeff Hewit, respectively the club's president and secretary, who had the task of judging porters and stouts. "Judging beer is totally subjective," Hewit said, probing a bottle of coffee stout at different angles with a minimag flashlight. "It's like figure skating, except we don't take bribes."

Hewit — a pretty stout guy himself — inspected each bottle, looking for, among other things, a ring of residue left in the neck, which could indicate the presence of infection. Would that stop him from drinking it? "Oh, no," he said. "As judges we're on the front lines. You take the risk of drinking bad beer."

Across the table, Jackson had a much more philosophical approach to evaluating craft brew. After sipping one porter he said to Hewit, "If we were fishing, we wouldn't have any problem making this go away."

Meetings of the association take place every second Wednesday of the month at Legend Brewery, with an agenda ranging from how-to lectures to show-and-tell sessions involving homemade beer-making implements. At the April meeting, a retired anthropology professor plans to present a 250-year-old ale recipe found on a recent Virginia-based archaeological dig. This night, however, was about the competition.

"Sometimes [judging beer is] like saying my hamburger is better than your fruitcake," Jackson said of the difficulty in evaluating different beers. Ignoring his scoring sheet, he looked to converse, say, about the phenolic traits of the yeast on the back of his tongue.

"Experienced judges don't swallow," Jackson added, when asked about the number of beer samples he consumes during a competition. "But being the unsavory character I am, I take advantage of the opportunity."

This year Jackson himself entered his Russian Imperial Stout, which took best-in-show at last year's competition. By his own admission, he always thinks his own beer tastes the worst. What did he get for winning? "A certificate suitable for framing," Jackson said. Hewit added, "And you get to be really cool for a year."

Finding a real winner at this table was proving difficult, with Hewit dishing out scores no higher than the mid-30s. A perfect score would be 50. "As far as I'm concerned, there is no such thing," Hewit said. "But this way I'll be ready for it when I meet it." S


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