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Before participating in a beer judging, the thought of such an event conjured visions of a white walled, nondescript room filled with long tables flanked by rigid chairs supporting hard men focused to the nth degree on the finer points of the ales and lagers submitted for their consideration. In my imagination, they’d sit, swirl, swish and, hell, maybe even spit out lesser entries lest they become to inebriated to pass proper judgment. All the while, they would remain unbendingly serious. Comments would be calculated and debating would take the place of the jovial conversation that usually accompanies beer tasting. And, for some reason, everybody would be balding and sporting bifocals.

Fortunately, this is rarely the case when it comes to beer competition judging sessions. While it’s true that they are serious affairs populated by individuals who care deeply about beer and making sure the most deserving entrants get top ranking, even the most savvy judges remember that, at the end of the day, this is beer we’re talking about. As such, the mood remains relatively light for something so scrutinizing, but always intelligent.

White walls and a long table, but the chairs were cushy and the judges anything but hard, unenjoyable people

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in such a session, helping to judge Karl StraussPro-Am Competition. For this annual affair, the San Diego brewing company invites local homebrewers to enter their beers to vie for the grand prize, having that recipe brewed on their professional equipment and distributed to their brewery restaurants, and entering the beer in the pro-am contest at October's Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado. It’s a big opportunity and one everybody on the judging panel took very seriously.

For the first round of judging, evaluators were split into three separate groups

That panel included members of the Karl crew plucked from around the multi-faceted company. It also included two other members of the local media—Peter Rowe from U-T San Diego, and Candice Woo from EaterSD. Rather than lump us, the less technical judges, into one group, they smartly split us among a trio of judging splinters that each considered just over a dozen beers. Those groups then selected the top three from their field to move up to the final judging round.

My judging sheet after the first round

The beers entered in the competition were extremely diverse. There was everything from traditional altbiers and doppelbocks to a pickle saison made with cucumber and dill that was surprisingly drinkable, so much so that, believe it or not, it almost won. In the end, the panel was able to come to an easy consensus on a winning beer with so much vibrant flavor and to-style character, that even those of us who aren’t particular fans of that style (i.e., me) were excited about it.

While this altbier didn't make it to the finals, it did exhibit nice clarity and good flavor.

The winning entry is a 5.3% ABV Belgian Pale Ale called Bleke Citroen entered by Tim Taylor. Packed with citrusy flavors from hops and Belgian yeast esters and some nice white pepper nuances, it’s highly drinkable and delivers a punch of delicious flavor with each sip. Second place went to the aforementioned experimental beer, Pickle Tickle, while bronze was awarded to a coconut-infused lager called Coco Starkbier.

Forty-one beers were entered in all and, having tried the lion’s share of them and gone through numerous friendly yet real debates with some knowledgeable beer judges, I can say with great confidence that the best beer of this year's field took the crown. Look for Bleke Citroen to debut at Karl Strauss locations in late August or early September.

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