Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Curiosity of Competition

As a young pianist growing up in Minnesota, I entered a lot of competitions. Whether local, state, national, or international, I participated in just about every competition I could. I won several, lost several, placed second or third, and received honorable mentions.

When one enters copious numbers of competitions, one begins to see that they are – to a large extent – rather absurd and completely subjective. I recall one of the last competitions I entered back in '06: In the first round, I played absolutely terribly yet managed to get selected for the next round. This despite the fact that there were many, many other musicians who played (in my opinion) far better. However, in the next round, I nailed the pieces spot-on and the crowd loved it; I couldn't have played better! But what do you know? I didn't advance.

Competitions are a healthy means of preparing and challenging oneself, and I'd be lying if I said that winning wasn't fun. But I learned that it was very important to take the results (whether winning or losing) with a generous helping of salt, and furthermore that it was vitally important to always enter with the goal of simply playing the best I could, never expecting a victory – regardless of how well I had prepared.

Now why do I bring this up on a beer blog? Because I just received the results of the Merrimack Valley Homebrew Competition, and I was immediately reminded of my past competition experiences.

I entered my beer "Sludge" into the competition. Sludge was an accident beer of sorts: I simply threw all of my leftover ingredients into a kettle, added some chipotle chiles and cinnamon, tossed in an Irish Stout yeast strain, and waited to see what would happen. The result was actually a lovely session smoked Porter that impressed me and most who drank it.

I certainly didn't expect to win the competition with Sludge, but I did hope to get some good and interesting feedback from the judges.

But the commentary could not have been more contradictory. Said Judge #1, Rob North:

"Very well made Porter, but lacks smoke character to score well as a [specialty porter]. Up the smoke malt % or change source. Would likely score top ten in Porter category."

Said Judge #2, Chris Killinger:

"Not much here other than smoke, significantly increase the malt flavors to increase the balance. Getting a bit ashy, this makes it linger unpleasantly in the finish."

So what can one take from this? Unfortunately, absolutely nothing.  Except the very helpful reminder that beer – like music (or any other art, for that matter) – is a completely subjective experience. What I want to taste in a Porter may or may not be what you want to taste in a Porter. Even something which seems to be fairly easily measured, ie the smokiness of a beer, is an individual experience that is based entirely on opinion.

But there is one other important lesson to be learned: I need to brew exactly what I want to brew and to the standards I set, creating a beer that I think is a best in class. After all, I have to drink it.



Rhönring Hefeweizen batch 3. Finally nailed the color
and the head retention lingered like marshmallow
fluff, but I overcompensated with my fermentation
temperature and lost too much of the banana flavors.
Next batch to be brewed in September.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. My need for malt is extremely different than most, and add I love chocolate malt and not so for many americans. Enjoy the process and celebrate each batch, it's not the final point to get feedback other than your own. Recovering from a pumpkin ale in a 9 foot diameter of foam dripping off the ceiling from my judge Kim was tough too. Keep the faith and keep learning, luckily the cup needs refilling a lot.