There are very few things more disconcerting than the familiar in an otherwise alien context.
Take, for example, the scene unfolding late last Tuesday evening at Big Spring Spirits, a distillery, cocktail lounge and tasting room in Bellefonte.
This is the monthly meeting place of the State College Homebrew Club, a collection of beer enthusiasts who take pleasure and pride in crafting their own supply — which, as you may have intuited, runs more or less the same risks as cutting your own hair.
“Part of the homebrewing thing is the occasional bad beer,” said Nathan Valchar, the club’s vice president.
That almost/sort of/not really explains the red Solo cups stationed at regular intervals across a handful of tables inside Big Spring Spirits — which is odd.
Housed in the Match Factory complex, the distillery itself is all brick walls, concrete floors and large windows that allow for ample quantities of natural light to spill into the room relatively unfiltered.
The vibe is sophisticated — urbane, even.
Putting aside the clash of aesthetics for a moment and returning to the business at hand — namely cheap plastic cups — each of which had been marked with many a different shape for a game called “triangles,” which it involves a fair amount of beer.
Everyone present in the distillery already knew the rules, one of the upsides of being part of a club that has existed off and on in various iterations since 2012.
To say that the members like beer is a crass oversimplification. They appreciate the artistry involved, the way that the slightest tweak in the production process can produce wildly different results.
“There are some guys even looking at yeasts under microscopes, which is really cool,” Valchar said.
This, believe it or not, brings us back to “triangles,” which as it turns out, isn’t so much a game as it is an extended exercise in quality control.
It was Zach Bauer’s turn to supply the golden elixir that would eventually fill each of the cups.
In preparation for the evening, Bauer had brewed a 10-gallon batch of unfermented beer, called wort, and split it in two. For one half, he used German hybrid yeast and in the other, a Kolsch ale strain.
There’s a bunch of different factors that go into making beer and it’s how manipulating those effect the kind of beer you’re making,” Bauer said.
“Triangles” was about seeing if anyone could tell the difference between his dual methodologies under the constraints of a blind taste-test.
The faces lining the tables were a mixture of young and old, but the small talk was consistently affable and free flowing.
And then it stopped. The entire room became very quiet.
Lips were too busy planting kisses on cups — not of the sloppy variety, but in chastely measured pecks, taking in just enough to make a judgment call without impairing one and the same.
Curiously, it was the sound (or lack there of) that persisted long after the sight had faded.
Drew Wham is more or less used to that by now. Like any good guest, he used a coaster for his beverage. Sure, he put his on top of his cup instead of on the bottom, but we’ll attribute that to professional acumen rather than the vagaries that commonplace etiquette has left open to interpretation.
Whatever it was, it didn’t escape Bauer’s attention.
“Wow, you’re getting intense. That tells me that you don’t know what it is,” Bauer said.
Wham was undaunted.
“I have my suspicions,” he responded.
There was more than just pride on the line here. If Wham couldn’t tell the difference from one cup in the next, it meant that Bauer could be afforded more flexibility in his process, indulging in a cheaper or easier method without affecting the taste.
He was facing high scrutiny.
Wham’s palette has been nationally certified for exactly this sort of exercise, courtesy of the aptly — but not very creatively — named Beer Judge Certification Program.
Wham was certified in advance of the club’s first homebrew contest last December, a process that required him to travel to Cincinnati and pass a written and oral (he taste-tested a lot of beer) exam.
Among the advantages is that he is now qualified to identify the flaws in his own beer and make the requisite corrections. As for the disadvantages — well ...
“We’ve had days when we’ve judged 18 beers, and you to give each one the full rigor of testing,” Wham said.
Beers are most commonly evaluated under five headings: aroma, appearance, flavor, mouth-feel and overall impression.
When it came to Bauer’s brew, Wham noticed that one of the cups had less foam and more spice than the others.
All of these are key in making a quality brew — but the key to evaluating a quality brew?
Adjectives — lots and lots of adjectives.
Wham said the judging process is designed to help the brewer improve and that means being as descriptive as possible about the total experience of the beverage.
“There’s definitely a mental fatigue,” Wham said.
He did pick the right cup, though.
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