Competing in the Heartland

The Sower in Question

Key Takeaways

  • Homebrewers are awesome folk
  • Nebraska is not quite the middle of nowhere
  • The Lincoln Lagers put on a great competition
  • Very smooth from a judge’s point of view – never had to wonder what I was doing or wait around too long to do it
  • Lots of stimulation and activities for the judges
  • Useful swag
  • Immediate feedback to the entrants on site
  • Banquet and party to celebrate everyone’s efforts
  • Multiple education opportunities as enticement and enrichment
  • A very supportive brewery partner in Ploughshare makes things a lot easier

Last week I got to knock another couple of states off my list of “never been there” when I visited Lincoln, Nebraska for the 2nd Annual Sower’s Cup Competition put on by the Lincoln Lagers. This competition had 338 entries in the field and covered all the categories in the 2008 BJCP guidelines with some compaction as dictated by the entry counts. How do you get enough judges to deal with that many entries? I live in Los Angeles, a city with a massive population of beer judges and my club has issues getting enough judges to come out and handle our competitions in a timely fashion. Our problem is our judging location is usually located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, separated from LA proper by the mind altering and treacherous Santa Monica Mountains. That’s difficult to travel – mentally at least. Nebraska has it worse – it’s 150 times the size (77,354 sq miles) of LA City (503 sq miles) and has 1.88 million people to LA City’s 3.9 million. That doesn’t even include the whole “LA Metro” area which is 13.1 million people in roughly 4,850 sq miles (Nebraska could fit a mere 16 LA Metros in it’s borders). So what do the Lagers do? For starters, they have a different judging climate – judges will actually travel from out of state to judge. They also turn their big competitions into basically big events and parties with beer, food and education. That last is where I kinda come in. I was the Saturday morning education. Poor brewers!

Here’s my trip in a nutshell –

Thursday October 1st

5:00 AM – Leave my house – drive to my office near LAX

5:50 AM – Uber from the office to LAX

6:10 AM – Get in line at security, pass through security and get to my gate to await the dreaded first leg to Dallas Fort Worth

12:10 PM – Land in DFW. Think “hey, nice terminal. Oh gotta walk to the next terminal over.” Walk to next terminal and land in the decript depressing 1980’s airport terminal. Regret my life’s choices over a pretty limp Chicken salad from an airport concession of national recognition. Contemplate having a beer. Look at my choices of “better beer” and realize that choosing from a pool of zero is an easy task.

1:43 PM – On the next plane bound for Omaha! Damn these little planes are ridiculously tiny.

3:00 PM – At the Omaha airport, picked up by Mitch from Ploughshare Brewing and on my way through Iowa and Omaha proper to Lincoln an hour away.

4:00 PM – Ok, this is tiring and boring now – I made it to Lincoln, got my hotel room and together Mitch and I rolled over to Ploughshare Brewing, our home for the next few days. Time for some good beer and vittles. Thursday evening, I got to hang out with Matt Stinchfield, owner and head bottle washer, chef and brewmaster at Ploughshare. Everything about the joint reflects Matt’s focus on building a local tradition and his love and respect for classical European brewing traditions. The building was an old bus garage that they took over and split into a couple of parts. Rooms include a tap room and loft built with wood reclaimed from a century old barn along with a private meeting room with custom hop twine wallpaper. The other half of the building is devoted to a gorgeous German inspired, decoction capable brew deck and all the attendant gee-gaws. Matt, being the Brewer’s Association Safety Ambassador, also has built the brewery to demonstrate safety with all appropriate precautions being taken – including separating the boiler into it’s own explosion resistant bunker room. This move was inspired by at least one brewery death in Belgium attributed to a boiler explosion. Ploughshare Tap Room (Photo from the Lincoln Journal Website cause I forgot to snap one) The Ploughshare Brew Deck. It’s pretty up here (photo courtesy of Brendan McGinn) The Ploughshare Brew Valve Panel – I defy anyone to look at this and claim you can glean what valve does what without a lot of education! But with this collection of valves, they’re able to send water and wort in almost any direction. His beers run to the less hoppy side of the fence, focusing on the more traditional European interplay of hops and malt. Turns out that’s more than fitting for his audience in Nebraska. That’s not to say the beers are boring! Ploughshare has a cream ale that demonstrates a rich malt and corn character while still being dry and n American Red that plays right into the Cornhusker devotion to all things rouge. Two saisons (naturally my favorites), including a Fantome inspired Dandelion saison (Bouton d’Or) with a giant heaping dose of freshly picked Dandelions from a nearby farm. It was spicy, wild with just a bare note of the green plant matter under the spicy flavors. Nothing like a beer made with trash bags full of spices being picked as the brew is starting. And of course, there was beer to be enjoyed and of course I’m on my phone, but this was pre-beer – waiting on my flight! (Photo stolen from Chris Evan’s Facebook feed) Speaking of farms – oh man, the product coming out of the kitchen. I almost always hate tomatoes on a sandwich. Hate. They’re usually just wet gooshy piles of squidgy foam that make me regret even more life choices. But the tomatoes Matt’s using? They taste like I walked outside and picked a fresh one off the vine. The beef we had later in the week? Grass fed actually pastured cows that tasted like cow and not liver. The menu is simple and it’s excellent. You should eat it all. Thursday Night – Lagers Meeting Lincoln Lagers Meeting Getting Started First evening in a new town and why not have a homebrew club meeting? The Lagers meet in the brew house at Ploughshare and lay out a few tables and chairs. Members show up, drop their beers off with labels on the table and then everyone dives in as things show up. There’s a mix of homebrew and craftbrew and lots of chaos and variety. A couple of folks stand up and help conduct whatever business needs conducting while members tend to ignore the business and focus on the beer, moving in little pockets of conversation. A little lottery, a little raffle and even more beer to drink – and there’s your homebrew meeting. This is the second so organized meeting I’ve been to in the last few years. I always appreciate catching what others are doing. Friday Day – Brewing and Beer Visits The next morning when I could finally pry myself out of bed – look I’m terrible at mornings on the road after changing timezones – I walked the 0.6 miles from hotel to brewery and enjoyed the revitalizing efforts of the city in the area between the capitol and the university. (Ploughshare sits right at the edge of the current efforts. More city attention is coming to their area shortly). Mark Beatty, one of the authors of the morning’s brew standing next to Matt’s “pilot” brew rig It’s an oldie, but a goodie! The order of the morning – brewing up an American twist on a lost Polish classic – Grodziskie. This was an experimental pilot batch done on Matt’s old B3 homebrew rig. The hickory smoked, Chipotle syrup infused wheat beer with steeping addition of ancho’s was concocted by Matt and Mark Beatty of the Lagers. I just showed up and nodded approvingly of the effort. The recipe and the history of the beer will be in Issue 106 of BeerAdvocate the Magazine (aka next month’s). What no recipe? Yeah, I know – welcome to contracts. Viewing Matt through the Brew Fog – oh the drama! Drew receiving a Brewer’s Steam Facial (image stolen from Ploughshare’s Facebook feed here Checking the Gravity Notes are Important Anchos getting ready for their soak today and tomorrow’s trip to the breakfast salsa It was fun brewing with Matt’s old B3 brew rig with all of the old manual controls and workarounds. However, he disavows any knowledge of his head brewer’s old pump wiring, etc. But seriously, how much fun can you have hanging around, trying a few beverages and talking homebrewing with folks. Additionally, Ploughshare had recently hosted a brewday with homebrewers taking away wort from their Cream Ale to do with as they pleased. The winner of the associated judging was actually there that day kegging up a second run of his Cream Ale Braggot. This batch accidentally turned out stronger than it should have been. It was a 12% smooth liver kicker of a beer. We very smartly limited ourselves to tiny samples for fear of unsafety in the brew house. An old homebrew pump wired in a fashion that causes safety officers cringe! Remember Matt is the Safety Ambassador for the Brewer’s Association In California, this amount of chiller leakage would be a felony As the day wrapped up and the chiller required additional wrench surgery to stop leaking everywhere, the session strengh beer went into the carboys and I decided I wanted to try one of Lincoln’s other breweries – Zipline Brewing. Located 3 miles away, I had no car to get there or back and couldn’t walk there and back in time for the judging. Being an Angeleno, I naturally thought “huh, well, Uber would get me there”, but most of the guys in the brewery thought Uber was still blocked from operating in Lincoln. On the off chance, I pulled up the app and what do you know – Uber is in Lincoln! So I Uber’d to Zipline and walked into their tasting room only to be greeted by one of the bar staff with “Hey, don’t you have to judge soon? What are you trying to do ruin your tastebuds?” Turns out the shockingly psychic bartender with an attitude was actually Marcus Powers, co-owner of Zipline and my judging partner in the evening’s flight of Saisons. I sat down, grabbed a flight of Ziplines beers focusing on their recent GABF winning Copper Alt, their new FestBier, American Tripel, Rye IPA and of course, a Gin Barrel aged Hibiscus infused Saison. Altbier and I go way back – in fact – altbier would be the reason I’m a beer fanatic. When I first got into craft beer, I was in Boston and my three enlightenment beers were Harpoon IPA, Long Trail Amber Ale and Otter Creek Copper, Those last two are/were Alt’s. The Zipline Copper was toasty, chewy with a good malt heft and presence, but none of the usual sugary sweet thing brewers seem to come into when they try to make a malty beer. Marcus took me around the brewery – which is rapidly growing and just bringing on Captain Lawrence’s old packaging line amongst other projects like a giant new walk-in and barrel room. After a brief look through a local artist’s new show, a surprisingly tasty glass of Abita Bourbon Street Stout, Marcus ran us back to Ploughshare for our duties! (Gotta love the beer community – they’re awesome! Except you few – you know who you are – you’re no-goodniks.) Where the Zipline Magic Happens Busy Brewery Calendars Look A Lot Like This! A Different Sort of Emergency Plan. Mine Would Usually Involve Whimpering Like a Small Child The Captain’s Mark is Still On Zipline’s Packaging Line Friday Evening – Round 1! Arriving at the brewery we were greeted with an opportunity to sign in, fill out the usual requisite “I promise not to sue you” forms and then we were directed to grab our judging labels, a name tag and our swag – a pound canister of PBW and a free piece of Nebraska brewing swag. Also set out for everyone to look over was a long set of tables with two tiers of raffle items. Each set of items had a little paper bag out in front for you to drop tickets into if you were interested in a particular item. The lower, less expensive tier consisted of things like glassware and shirt sets, bags of grain, a couple of books by some dummy (who then proceeded to graffiti the heck out of them). The larger tier had some rad prizes like retro coolers, beefy regulators, umbrellas and a small SS Chronical. Very nifty! Judge’s gift because thanking your judges is awesome This is the raffle selection early in the process. After I took this shot, more and more items began to appear. It was great to see Lots of Signage is Good For Sponsors – Also Good for Your Volunteers to know where to go! In another example of the nutty popularity of Saisons and Belgian Specialities, the full category of Belgian & French ales would have been a sizable 30 entries. The organizers split it so that the Wit’s, Belgian Pales, Saison and Biere de Garde were one medalling class with 16E Belgian Specialities as another. On Friday, I helped tackle the 14 entries in the first subclasses. Sitting at the table, I noticed a few things that I really liked – sponsored water bottles, full judging kits with bottle openers, mechanical pencils, staplers and Beer Saver Silicone Caps to allow bottles to be recapped quickly at the table by the judges. Judge’s Kits That last bit is really handy to save the character of the one main round bottle to preserve for the mini-BOS. I’m not sure how effective they were for longer storage, but for the competition period they seemed to work perfectly well. Much easier than a capper and a bunch of caps. Also, more expensive. But convenience! Each leg had a steward dedicated to the panel with a box of entries at their feet and were on the spot about everything. If your beer was below the medalling range (30+), the remaining bottle was emptied and recycled to prevent entry confusion. The judges used the more modern queued judging system to move quickly through the entries and before you knew it we were done and a little party broke out in the tap room. (Because of course it did) My Favorite Part of Judging – the Mini-BOS Cover Sheets Instantly Tagged and Sorted As They Arrive to the Data Center In a rare pique of good sense, I actually bailed out on the party and went back “home” to finish writing my presentation. Saturday Morning – Breakfast, Talking and Judging The next morning, I woke up early and as is my thing these days, I took a nice early morning stroll around the city. It’s amazing how quiet downtown Lincoln is on a non-game day Saturday at 6:30 AM. My home is about 1/2 the population size of Lincoln and 1/4 of the size, but thanks to being connected to the LA Metroplex, it’s never quite that quiet. Or that cold in October. When I left home in the morning it was in 69F, this morning in Lincoln, it was around 40 and never got higher than 63F. So, the morning walk was brisk and recharging and now I feel like an old man for saying that. Pictures don’t quite convey the chilliness in the air. This is also the part where everyone from places with real “seasons” get to make fun of me Eventually I worked my way over to the brewery and was greeted by Matt and “garlic man” Claude, pulling pans of breakfast from the kitchen. We had meats, potatoes, eggs and cheese grits with two different sorts of salsa. One was made from the anchos that had steeped in yesterday’s brew for a sweet heat kick. The other was a terrifying multi-colored chile pepper concoction with a name somewhat like “Unicorn’s Ass”. I’m not going to lie – I decided to avoid that pre-judging. Something about tasting beer with more than one functional taste bud. Lofts are Made For Talking – This is above the tap room and is a nice presentation space built into the brewery With food in bellies and coffee on the brain, everyone adjourned to the loft where Matt introduced me by telling the story of the night in Belgium we spent very, very drunk at the Hotel Palace. Epic night where we stayed until the wee wee hours and finally Guy kicked us out of his bar. The next morning I rolled down to the hotel with about 5 minutes to spare and in a frantic mood because I couldn’t find my beer list – aka the list of everything I tried that night. So Matt and I sat down and recreated the list of 25 beers as best to our memories. In total, I think on that trip I sampled over 150 beers in the course of 8.5 days on the road. It was awesome… but regardless. Talk. I gave a 45 minute walking through a few of my design philosophies. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and as always my favorite dog was featured in the talk, because of course she was. Same Slide in a Different Context (This wall was in Brazil!) After that 8:30 talk, we all made our way into the brewery and sat down at our next tables. This is always the “fun” moment – just before giving a talk and looking out to see folks gathering and realize they’re all about to be paying attention to you – unless you’re boring, which is always a risk. The morning’s session was all about the Ciders & the Perrys. My usual rule of thumb is the more “up” in this country, the better the ciders are going to be. It’s just a function of availability of kick-ass juice to make a better cider. The favorites out of this flight all ended up being the flavored and fruited ciders mostly as a function of those were the liveliest. One cider was a textbook example of mousy, which is unfortunate. The winner ended up being a cranberry cider that used the tart and tannic qualities of the cranberry to make for a complete cider profile. Morning Judging Rows Lunch break was a sponsored box lunch of sandwiches and I got a chance to set out my shingle and autograph books and have a general blast talking to people. Seriously, it’s a bunch of homebrewers – you know we can talk and talk and talk. Wearing my Nebraskaflauge courtesy of JB Ellis of Mr. Dunderbaks – Tampa Saturday Afternoon – One, Ok, three more rounds of judging! With lunch business concluded, it was back to the salt mines, this time for the second half of the Belgian & French Ales – now they’re own category for this iteration of the competition. Once more we whittled at our flights coming up with a few samples for the mini-BOS. Our winner there was a beautiful Belgian Blonde Ale. After that, the judges all were invited to a Cookie and Beer Pairing where a local bakery produced these wonderful little cookies and several local breweries provided beers to pair with a particular cookie. Among the beers I saw was Zipline’s Hibiscus Saison that I’d had on Friday. Cookies included a savory cheesy cookie and a pistacho cookie and a double chocolate cookie, but my notes are spotty… I would have tried them all and reported back to you, but instead I had to go trudge back to the judging pits and put on my Best of Show hat for Meads and then Beer. Mead is always fun to do for BOS because it’s a really short flight – 3 entries. Short doesn’t mean quick and surfacey though. We (Amanda Burkemper, Michael Wilcox and me) took a good 20 minutes discussing each of the entries – merits, demerits, etc. Our final verdict went to a Dry Traditional Mead that was spectacularly executed. Best of Show Grid Then came the fun one – Beer BOS. 19 glasses filled with 19 beers. If you’ve never seen a BOS panel in action, it’s a whole other world. I tend to run my panels this way – all the cups go down in front of the judges and information on each style recorded. (In this case, the Lagers provided great printed grids big enough for a glass to lay out in front of the judges.) All the beers are poured out and then:

  1. Each judge tastes the beers, makes notes and waits for everyone to be ready
  2. In turn, each panelist picks a beer to discuss, usually the ones with the greatest flaws. If the panelists agree, out goes the beer
  3. Round and round this goes until the debate starts to get too contentious – if there are no clear agreements, we move on to the next phase
  4. Each remaining beer is discussed before anything else is removed.
  5. Once all the beers have been ruminated on – then we start the discussion again and see what goes away
  6. When the pool is whittled away to a few (4-6 usually), a ranked vote is taken to see if there are any clear patterns
  7. Repeat, remove, etc until finally there’s a consensus

Usually this process takes 30-60 minutes depending on how great the flight is and the personalities and preferences of the panelists. In this flight, we all avoided talking about the eventual winner – the Belgian Blonde because we didn’t want it to get kicked. So with that as our clear consensus, we settled on an excellent Rhubarb and Peach beer along with a wonderfully executed Bohemian Pilsner. Thanks again to Michael Wilcox and Lash Chaffin for judging the round with me. The Reaction to An Almost Completed Event Saturday Night – Banquet and Awards Ceremony Bœuf – It’s what’s for dinner With all the goodies out of the way there was a whole half hour or so to relax before the next event – the evening banquet. Matt and the Ploughshare crew put together a hell of a meal with beer pairings galore and all the best sources of ingredients – including a pasture raised grass fed beef tenderloin that tasted like beef. See the pictures for dessert, which was a spicy sweet cake because of course that’s how you close out a beer dinner! Matt and Monica presiding over the dessert course (and the all important dessert beer – Bourbon Barrel Porter) Because dessert! From there it was onto the Awards where the raffle was handled speedily and efficiently, which given the number of prizes was amazing. I stood up and did my best Vanna/Charlie P with medals when it came time to hand them off. There were two other categories that I didn’t judge that were pretty great – one was a Rye beer competition (Sower in the Rye) and the other was a Pro-Am “No Cheating” Decoction with the winner destined for Ploughshare’s fancy system. Full results here Awards Ceremony Announcing the Awards – More chairs brought in to hold those who didn’t buy a banquet ticket By night’s end, all the prizes had been handed out – score sheets were already stuffed into envelopes and ready for distribution and the crowd began to break up after a long hard weekend of work. Me, after a few more beers, I went walking back out into the night to go find what’s a quiet Saturday in Lincoln like. After all this was a weekend where the stadium didn’t turn into the third largest city in Nebraska! Sunday – The Leaving The Sower of the Sower’s Cup is way, way the hell up there on top of the capitol building The City’s Namesake Guessing all this green will be squashed soon – oh well, it’s pretty while it’s there! And like all good things, this trip came to an end. I had a lovely breakfast and went for a very long walk, circling the capitol and the rest of the city and then hopped a ride with Matt to the airport in Omaha. Off in the distance in a lot that costs a third of the price of an LAX lot, the Omaha Airport It’s a tiny airport there in Omaha, but that means even when you get pulled out by the TSA for having a pound jar of PBW in your bag, you don’t have to worry so much about missing your flight! I flew through Denver on the way back and got to sit in the New Belgium Hub Pub for approximately 4 hours. I did get to engage in rooting against His Noodliness Peyton, but unfortunately he squeaked it out again. New Belgium’s Pub in Denver – Waiting for hours isn’t so bad with some decent beers! Landed back in LA and grabbed the car – made it home just prior to 9PM – all in all a wonderful time and I thank the Lincoln Lagers for hosting me and showing me such a great time in the heartland! If you’re in the Greater Nebraska region next year, give the competition a look. They’ve done a great job so far and it’s an interesting party!