5 Things I Learned As a Beer Judge on Brew Dogs
5 Things I Learned As a Beer Judge on the LA Episode of Brew Dogs
By Sarah Bennett
Last night I made my national primetime television debut—which, as a print journalist, are words I specifically went to school to avoid ever having to say.
But as much as I've tried to hide behind my bylines, pseudonyms and nom de plumes, it was only a matter of time before a beer TV show rolled into Los Angeles and I felt obligated to go to the auditions and offer to be a consultant, a sounding board, a guide through the heavy female presence in beer here—anything to ensure that all the facets of craft beer in my hometown were properly recognized.
Instead, they asked me to be a beer judge. For a semi-serious reality-TV-style brewing competition. Featuring two of the most unconventional characters on the global craft beer scene.
The show is the Esquire Network's Brew Dogs, a half-hour reality show featuring James Watt and Martin Dickie, the quick-witted, cheeky-as-hell owners of Scotland's punkest-as-fuck brewery of the same name. For its second season, the duo continued its M.O. of traveling to cities across America and participating in their beer culture by meeting with notable names and brewing one-off beers with local flair using native ingredients and bizarre processes (in Vegas, the beer made the most of the city's opulence with melted-down gold, shaved truffles, and water from halfway around the world).
In the season finale, which premiered last night, Watt and Dickie landed in Los Angeles and split up to go head to head in a homebrew competition with two members of the Maltose Falcons, the oldest homebrew club in the country. I—along with Father's Office owner Sang Yoon and Golden Road Brewery co-owner Meg Gill—served as judges for the final beers, which were infused with avocado after the brewing process, making for some seriously bizarre flavors and mouthfeels.
With my 15 minutes now more than up, I humbly return to life as a freelance journalist, but not before passing along a few things I learned along the way:
5. They did their research.
Despite having 10 cities to learn about and turn into episodes in less than a few months, Brew Dogs' L.A.-based production crew took their time on researching craft beer in their home base. Though there are a growing number of breweries popping up within county limits and a relatively new beer scene forging its own personality here, the episode smartly focuses on homebrewing, one of the region's more unsung claims to fame. As Watt said in an interview with Food GPS right after filming, L.A. is the homebrew capital of the world, a feat that served as the basis for the entire episode.
4. I was probably chosen more for my looks than my credentials.
Let's face it: In the craft beer world, writer chicks with black-rimmed glasses and bows in their hair are about as uncommon as bearded white men are the norm. It's safe to assume that I was chosen to be the final judge over several other candidates not because I'm a certified beer judge (I'm not) or because I'm a homebrewer (I've dabbled) or because I've passed the intensive tasting exam to become a Certified Cicerone (I haven't), but because I probably auditioned well and Esquire thought I was pleasing on the eyes.
After getting over the fact that I was up there in the shadow of giants, I felt honored that they chose me and my husky voice to serve as proxy for the entire community of L.A. beer writers (there are a lot of us). Who knows if the producers even read my work?
Next: How did they really pick the winning beer?
3. Meg Gill knows her stuff.
When I heard that Golden Road co-owner Meg Gill was going to be one of the judges with me, I thought that she was also chosen at least partially because her curly blonde hair and varsity swim-team background fit all sorts of SoCal stereotypes. But then I remembered that she has also long served as the de facto face of the brewery on other television appearances (see: The Steve Harvey Show) and that she really knows her shit about beer.
This is not meant as a back-handed compliment, but instead a diss on how the media has presented her in stories, which is mostly as the young, female, business-savvy salesperson behind the success of Golden Road. Which she totally is—but she's also a beer lover who knows the brewing process, which I wasn't really expecting when she whipped out detailed tasting notes on the kind of yeast the brewers used and called out Dickie on his beer's citrus imbalancing act.
2. It's really hard to make beer and the brewing process interesting for TV.
God bless Brew Dogs for shedding light on the craft beer culture I love so much, but damn does brewing make for uninteresting television. Brewing is not like cooking, some of which can be done in real time on a competition floor. Brew days are looooong and usually pretty boring, and when that's all over, you still have to wait weeks for the yeast to do its thing before you even begin to know what the final product is going to taste like.
Then, once it's in the glass, it's not like food, where you can see it plated and say “Oh, that looks delicious”—you have to rely entirely on your nose and palate to determine any semblance of drinkability. Both of the competition beers were unfiltered golden-ish ales brewed with fatty avocado, making the judges words and reactions to the mouthfeel and flavors even more crucial for the audience back home to figure out just what kind of weirdness was in our mouths.
1. We actually got to pick the winner.
As much as people want to believe that reality shows are over-produced, and the outcome is decided before the cameras even begin to roll, the judges and I spent as much time as we needed to have a genuine conversation about which beer deserved to win. I half assumed that the other two judges—especially Gill, since the winning beer was to be brewed on a larger scale and sold in Golden Road's brewpub—would have an idea of who they wanted to win. But I was not once coerced or told to say anything about the beers one way or another. My first time tasting the beers was standing at that table in front of the live audience, and our consensus on the winning brew was filmed in real time.