In Prague, judging home-brewed beer like a local

As beer and food writers, we often try to coordinate our travel plans with a barbecue or beer judging competition. Lucky for us, the Prague Homebrew Competition lined up with our planned tour of the Czech Republic to study as many Czech style lagers as we can before I take the BJCP beer judging tasting exam in November. Good Czech beers are not so easy to find or study in Petaluma.

The Prague Homebrew Competition takes place each October in the heart of the Czech Republic’s famous golden city with its own emerging craft beer scene. Managed by ex-pat brewers and beer fans, the contest invites homebrewers to submit their wares for judges and beer industry pros to rate and give feedback. We were excited that they welcomed judges from Petaluma for this international event.

This is a Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP)-sanctioned event, meaning that the beers entered in the competition must follow set standards for aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel based on commercial prototype examples. A local craft “pivovar” (brewery) hosted the contest this year, and welcomed homebrewers to submit their brews in six categories for judges to critique: Czech Premium Lager, American Pale Ale, Witbier, Berliner Weisse, All-Brett IPA, and Baltic Porter.

Often when we judge beer in the U.S., brewers are invited to enter beers in 35 categories, each with its own subcategories, making for hundreds of entries. Judging only six categories of beer in Prague made this an easy choice for us to travel so far to judge a narrow field of style we enjoy.

In the U.S., we have judged or volunteered about a dozen BJCP sanctioned homebrew events, usually with local homebrew entries. The event in Prague was an international showcase of beer personalities: we met professional brewers, beer cafe owners, and homebrewers from Germany, Hungary, Latvia, France, Holland, Israel, and American ex pats living in the Czech Republic. Compared to U.S. judging events, we were surprised that homebrewers drove many miles to drop off their beers in identifiable bottles at the judging table. (In the U.S., brewers usually submit unmarked bottles a week prior to the event to protect anonymity.) BJCP events are few and far between in Europe as the organization is just getting off the ground there. The beer in Prague was opened at the bar and served in glass to teams of four judges, who rate each beer based on how closely it matches the BJCP style guidelines.

The character of the beers were much like homebrew in the U.S. – some were high quality, tailored brews that easily took high ranks. In fact, there were four or five Baltic porters that tasted so good the judges had a difficult time picking the best. I judged Best in Show for American Pale Ale and was surprised at the light, very citrusy submissions in this category that scored well. I expected more of a classic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale with caramelly malt and piney bitterness, but the European take on the APA is more like a session IPA: lighter in color, hoppyness, and very effervescent.

In terms of regional specialties, we were all excited to try the Berliner Weisse, a German sour beer that is usually dry and effervescent. But some brewers in Prague prefer a Berliner Weisse with added raspberry and fruit flavors that produces a pink beer. While some of these adaptations made for an excellent and highly drinkable beverage, the beers scored low because the beer was “not to style” according to BJCP guidelines.

We were pleased to see the BJCP community flourishing in Europe to help promote beer knowledge and literacy as craft brewing grows. The competition allowed us to sample regional and cultural adaptations of classic styles, and get a sense of the flavor palettes in other countries. More importantly, we met some great people who love to taste and talk about craft beer.

Even with the variety of fine Czech lagers available in Prague, just about every beer lover we spoke with there said “Next time, bring Pliny the Elder” - proving that a good Sonoma County double IPA still travels well.

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