I helped judge the Best of Show beers at the Manayunk Brewfest on Saturday. Once again, it happens just as allergy season is hitting me, so I loaded up on Sudafed (the real, sign at the counter stuff) and Chlor-Trimeton, kept my nose clear for the fest, and paid for it with dopey drowsiness later.
I got to the fest about noon, grabbed one of the last free staff spots, and got down into the show. I met up with my fellow judges (four very experienced homebrew judges who I thoroughly enjoy tasting beers with; it's a very nice give-and-take, making this one of my favorite beer events of the year), grabbed a quick lunch, and settled in to start tasting.
Wide range of beers this year, and a much higher level of quality. The brewers represented at the fest each sent one beer, their choice, over to our table. There were a couple eye-rollers, but only a couple (we're tasting completely blind (or were after the first two pitchers, which a new steward labeled with the brewery name!) and only found out what the top three actually were, so don't bother asking: we don't know (and didn't wanna know!)), much fewer than in the past four years.
After two hours of serious, note-taking and discussion-style tasting, we narrowed it down to seven beers, and sent the stewards out for more samples to refresh our memories. Two of the beers had already run out (proving the crowd agreed with our palates!), and since none of us had those two beers as our number one picks, we decided to drop them. Once the five beers were in front of us, we came to a consensus rather rapidly: about 90 seconds! The winners, by unanimous consent:
3rd -- Erie Railbender, winning with a beautifully pure malt character, easily the very best batch of Railbender I've ever had (and I've had my share).
2nd -- Victory Baltic Thunder, nipping out General Lafayette's Chocolate Thunder Porter (a close #4) by virtue of smooth complexity and (scary) drinkability.
1st -- Triumph Simcoe IPA, rocked us all with its beautiful balance and integration. Billowing hop aroma, great hop flavor, trenchant but not overwhelming bitterness, and a smooth, solid malt basement made this the beer of the day, and we all went looking for more.
I wandered off with Chris Fiery at this point, and we did a little sampling of his Manayunk beers. He'd sent his Maibock to our table; I think he should've sent the California Dreamin', a powerfully-hopped beauty. And if you haven't had the Schuylkill Punch lately -- I hadn't -- it's all Oregon fruit puree (red and black raspberries), no extracts or essences, it's bumped up in ABV, and it's pretty good stuff.
A nice fest, not as crowded as previous years (last year I could hardly move), one of the best M/F ratio fests going -- always has been, don't know why -- and a GREAT band, Holt 45 (with an appropriate name for a beer festival, eh?). Usually I don't give -- pardon me -- a rat's ass about the band at beer festivals, because they're just getting in the way of my beer enjoyment and talking to people about beer. But these guys were NOT too loud, they were way into the music, and they were real musicians.
So then I left, and unlike other years, made no stops on the way home. We went out for a diner dinner (bluefish...I love broiled bluefish), came home, watched some tube...and I crashed out, done in by drugs and allergies. The first week is always like this: dopey, drowsy, and stupid. I'm fighting it off with coffee and air-conditioning this morning. I hate May.