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Brewers vie for taste of victory

For most of Friday afternoon, it felt like an SAT test instead of a beer tasting.

The judges swirled, sniffed and sipped the microbrews in tiny plastic cups, but then they scribbled down notes and kept to themselves.

Perhaps the seven judges felt the weight of responsibility as they sat around a large table in the dimly lit pub at Alltech's Lexington Brewery Co.

After all, the amateur brewer whose beer they selected as the top one would see his or her recipe brewed by the Lexington Brewing Co. and then entered in competition this October at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

Last year, Bill Caldwell's recipe for a hefeweizen, a German wheat beer, won a silver medal in the pro-am division.

Heady stuff for any local brewer.

Maybe it was the fact judges had to think about beer instead of just drinking it.

Beer has about 2,000 flavor compounds and can possess tastes and aromas that run the gamut from green apple to skunk.

The aroma of one brown ale made Mark O'Shea think of sweet pancake syrup.

“I did kind of like that one,” he said.

Beyond smell and taste, however, judges had to decide whether a beer adhered to style guidelines for its category. In that respect, that same beer was “probably the biggest flop,” said Lexington Brewing Co.'s Master Brewer Christopher Bird, who has judged before in Denver.

The 13 entries, all made by members of Brewers of Central Kentucky, ranged from a blond ale to a Russian Imperial Stout. Entries this year were limited to styles that could be made with English hops because the domestic hop market has gone haywire and prices are up 800 percent, said Lexington Brewing Co. brewer Adam McCraith.

Other remarks offered by judges to describe the various beers included “fruitiness,” “too watery,” “old cheese,” “citrusy and grassy” and “like old cough syrup and burnt coffee.”

For Leland Conway, one beer “hit you real hard and just died in your throat.”

Ouch.

But there were four they really liked.

There might have been a retaste, but Bird realized most everyone had been eating cheese. That could screw up their palates, he said.

So, after a lot of debate, mathematics and some bathroom breaks, they did agree on a top beer.

The announcement will come Monday evening with the homebrewers in attendance.

It is competitions like this that will raise the bar and appreciation for microbrews in Kentucky to levels already seen in places such as Colorado, McCraith said.

“We're going to pick the best one here and do the best we can,” he said. “We've got good home brewers, and we've got good people, so we stand a chance.”

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