Helping out with the first round judging for the Cask Days IPA Challenge means trying a minimum of sixteen beers (plus whatever beers you drink after judging), which was half of the competition this year. That gives a pretty good base for the overall quality of the event, because odds are that the great and terrible beers are equally spread out between the two judging groups. Like the rest of the event, our judging was done blind with no indication of the beers we were trying. For those that haven’t judged beer before, it’s quite a challenge – the first three or four beers can be hard to rate until you can establish a general standard for comparison. Sometimes you come across a perfectly fine beer that goes against the style, either in a small way or rather glaringly (this happened on more than one occasion).
Judging the IPA Challenge is also difficult because the beers are being rated against the set style criterion for English and American IPAs. That is not to say that breweries didn’t try to break the mold – a couple of casks seemed to have some White IPA characteristics and one strange beer contained smoked malts. The group I was judging with felt it was hard to give these beers a higher score because they went against the set style. I can understand why breweries would try to make their beer stand out – it was hard to remember all the beers in detail after you’ve had sixteen of them. (And no, not because of the alcohol, but just the sheer number of beers.)
On the whole, the overall quality of the casks was lower than my expectations. There were three beers from my group that stood out (scores of 40+ out of 50 on my sheet), but too many that seemed to have glaring errors in them. Some of the beers were clearly aided by added carbonation. Of the beers that did stand out, many seemed to be created in the same mold, which was very light in the malt profile to allow for the hops to fully stand out. Obviously the hops that are used create differences between the beers, but it was a little disappointing that the path to success has become fairly predictable.
Comparing the bracket to the scores is also an interesting exercise to see what beers deserved better fates and which ones were aided by their bracket. The Great Lakes Karma Citra was the second ranked beer from Round Three, but was eliminated because it faced the top ranked beer (Hopfenstark’s Post Colonial). The beer ranked 29th in Round One made it to Round Two thanks to their match-up, which came in 31st. Such is the nature of a competition that involves brackets – it’s not only about the quality of the beer, but also who that beer is paired up against. Some of my favourites didn’t make it past the second round, which is just the way things go sometimes.
The next Cask Days IPA Challenge will take place in a new venue, moving to the Brickworks Farmers Market on April 26 and 27, 2014. The Challenge is going up to 64 casks next year, so it will be interesting to see how that jump in numbers affects the quality of the casks. The dates for Cask Days were also announced, so mark your calendars for October 19th and 20th. It will once again be at the Brickworks and tickets will be available starting August 1st.