I judged the Mash Tun Fest and lived | Bleader

I judged the Mash Tun Fest and lived

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Mash Tun WTF Is This trophy
  • Mash Tun "WTF Is This" trophy
Maybe trying 49 beers in less than three hours sounds like great fun to you. Me, I got a little panicky at the prospect. As a judge at the third Mash Tun Fest, held at the Bridgeport Art Center on Saturday, I was tasked with employing my allegedly sophisticated palate to form considered opinions of two score and nine lovingly crafted adult beverages (out of 77 total pouring that afternoon), but I half expected to get so drunk I'd end up sitting on the curb, pale and sweating, head in my hands and dead to the world, my temple pressed to a blessedly cold but otherwise entirely forgotten bottle of water while I waited what felt like an eternity for the universe to stop spinning. Lord knows I've been there before. (Dark Lord Day '10, represent.)

Thankfully, that didn't happen. By the time I'd discharged my duties, I was decidedly unsober, but I made it to the Wrekmeister Harmonies show at the Bohemian National Cemetery three hours later no worse for wear—unless you count a dry mouth, a nagging headache, and an urgent need to pee every 45 minutes. Maybe by writing a beer column for nine months I'd essentially trained my liver for a marathon.

Festival organizer Ed Marszewski (you may know him from Lumpen magazine, Mash Tun journal, the Co-Prosperity Sphere, Maria's Packaged Goods & Community Bar, or the nascent Marz Brewing) personally recruited me to judge, and I thank him for taking me so seriously as a connoisseur of beer. I'll admit, I felt pretty validated! I also thank him for deciding that each of the four judges would have to drink through only two categories, not all four.

Mash Tun Fest setup. Just look at all those jockey boxes.
  • Mash Tun Fest setup. Just look at all those jockey boxes.

Those categories were "Every Day Is Like Sunday" (session beers, meaning their alcohol content is low enough for a drinking session), "Hopped and Confused" (aggressively hoppy beers, natch), "Bold and Beautiful" (strong and sometimes strange beers), and "WTF Is This" (even stranger beers).

Festival organizer Ed Marszewski in action
  • Festival organizer Ed Marszewski in action
I chose Bold and Beautiful and Every Day Is Like Sunday, reasoning that (a) Bold and Beautiful would include the Pipeworks Orange Truffle Abduction imperial stout, which I'd noticed on the tap list when I peeked at the program, and (b) Every Day Is Like Sunday would fuck me up less than the other categories. I was wrong on both counts.

My mistake was to assume that each category had the same number of beers in it. But Bold and Beautiful had 21, and Every Day Is Like Sunday had 22—yep, that's 43 beers. The other two totaled 34. I owe an apology to Eric Olson, the judge who had to share those categories with me. (He's also part of Marz Brewing, as well as the brother of Marszewski's wife, Rachael, who coordinated the judging process—more on the logistics in a moment.)

One of the other judges was a guy named Steve, recruited by Michael Kiser of the amazing blog Good Beer Hunting, who'd agreed to do the job but had to skip out for another appointment after organizational difficulties delayed the start of judging by almost two hours. The fourth was . . . OK, I'm sorry, I have no idea. I can't even remember his first name. I think I mentioned that I drank 49 beers.

Judging was supposed to be blind, of course, which made my peek at the tap list a bit of a faux pas. We were given sheets of paper with numbered entries for each beer, and Rachael Marszweski handed us tasting glasses labeled with numbers matching those entries. We picked three favorites from each of our two categories, then ran a "championship" round where we tried all 12 finalists (even those from the categories we hadn't judged) to pick the four winners. We didn't learn what we'd been drinking till after we'd made our decisions. Festival attendees also used a ballot box to bestow a "People's Choice" award.

Soon these will all have beer in them.
  • Soon these will all have beer in them.

The tools of the trade, such as it is
  • The tools of the trade, such as it is
I won't go into detail about the actual judging, with two exceptions. First, because we finally got started just as festival patrons began arriving, we found ourselves on display as we worked our way through row after row of tasting glasses, almost as though we were a sideshow exhibit. Over the next two and a half hours, strangers kept "checking in" on us, usually asking something like, "Hey, how are you guys doing there?" with a mixture of smug amusement and morbid curiosity that made it plain that they were very happy not to be in our shoes. (I'm pleased to report that none of us made spectacles of ourselves.) Second, my notes grew amusingly sketchy toward the end of the session, especially for beers I knew wouldn't end up in my top three for a given category—my 43rd entry reads, in its entirety, "Bubblegum? Celery? What?"

The top three "Every Day Is Like Sunday" beers were a Half Acre Kölsch called C Change (with a wonderful balance of tangerine, honey, and biscuit flavors, it was my favorite lager of the day, and would've won the category if I hadn't been outvoted), the Ale Syndicate pale ale Sunday Session (great body for a low-alcohol beer, with peachy, grassy hops), and the Lagunitas pale ale Fusion 16 (tropical hops full of mango and orange, with a juicy intensity that ends in a startlingly quick, dry finish).

Rachael Marszewski at the judges station
  • Rachael Marszewski at the judges' station
The winner? Lagunitas Fusion 16, over my weak protests. (All three beers are amazing.) I also want to shout out the 5 Rabbit wheat ale Missionario, my personal fourth place—it tastes like a nuttier, creamier Mort Subite witte lambic.

The "Bold and Beautiful" finalists were Against the Grain's Bo & Luke smoked imperial stout, aged in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels (whiskey, rye, pepper, and molasses, with a satisfying push-pull between syrupy and spicy), the Deschutes-Great Lakes Class of '88 imperial smoked porter (an audacious blend of roasty bittersweet chocolate, banana, cherry, and vanilla), and the Meantime Barley Wine (shockingly fruity despite its booziness, with notes of plum, apricot, marmalade, jasmine, and pine resin).

Bo & Luke may or may not beat all you never saw, but the stout won its category by a unanimous vote.

I don't have as much to say about the finalists from the categories I didn't judge, since I didn't taste them till I was 43 beers deep. "WTF Is This" came down to Virtue's Lapinette cider, Ballast Point's Thai Chili Wahoo Wheat, and the New Belgium-Red Rock collaboration Paardebloem (a Belgian-style wild ale brewed with dandelion greens and grains of paradise). I voted for the Paardebloem, entertained as I was by the way it seesawed with every sip between mellow peach and banana up front and prickly herbs in the finish. The Ballast Point chili beer took the prize, though, and the sharp pepper heat it leaves in the back of your throat is definitely a "What the fuck?" after its wheat-beer fruitiness.

The three finalists in "Hopped and Confused" were Mikkeller's Beer Hop Breakfast stout, Stone's reliable Cali-Belgique IPA, and Half Acre's first-ever double IPA, Navaja. Maybe it was just palate fatigue, but the Beer Hop Breakfast was so roasty and resiny I found it off-puttingly astringent. Navaja won with all four judges' votes thanks to its graceful balance of sumptuous caramel malts and bitter, funky tropical hops—I'm glad to see a local brewery carry home a Mash Tun trophy, and this beer is so good I wish I had some notes about it more coherent than "Wow!"

The view from the awards ceremony podium, also known as the south loading dock
  • The slightly blurry view from the awards ceremony podium, also known as the south loading dock

The People's Choice award went to Scratch Brewing, who I'm sorry to say I hadn't heard of before this weekend—they're from the tiny town of Ava, near Carbondale in southern Illinois. I didn't learn they'd won till Sunday, and as far as I know I didn't even taste their beers. (When I finished judging, I was in no condition to hit the festival floor and start sampling intriguing beverages I didn't know if I'd tried.) Anybody out there drink one?

I'll be disposing of my customary metal postscript very briefly, because this post is damn long already. Here's a Deathspell Omega song from their 2004 masterpiece Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice. It's called "Drink the Devil's Blood," and it's about something I didn't have to do this weekend.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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