When registration closes at the Charles County Fair on the night before the fair opens to the public, it’s just the beginning of the work day for the trio of judges assigned to the Home Brew Beer and Homemade Wine divisions. Even so, the evening tends to go fast for them — though not for the reasons one might think.
The three judges, who requested anonymity to ensure fairness, are all lifelong — or near lifelong — residents of Charles County. They have been judging so long, their origin story is a little hazy.
“Well, I think it did start with me, actually,” Judge 1 said. “[Judge 2]’s mom, she had originally been contacted by a lady at the county fair about obtaining some judges that would replace judges that were getting ready to retire. She said, ‘Well, I had the perfect people,’ and she volunteered [Judge 2]’s younger brother ... and myself — gee, seven or eight years ago now at least.”
“At least 10,” Judge 2 said.
“Maybe longer,” Judge 1 said without missing a beat.
Judge 2’s younger brother was a natural choice for a judge because he was a beer maker, but what were Judge 1’s qualifications?
“I’ve drunk plenty of it,” Judge 1 said with a laugh.
When Judge 2’s younger brother passed away suddenly several years ago, Judge 1 asked Judge 2 to take his place.
Judge 2, who is also Judge 1’s brother-in-law and a close friend since elementary school, believes Judge 1 selected him to fill his brother’s shoes in part because of his experience in the Navy, which he had joined in the 1970s.
“I had the opportunity to travel all over the Mediterranean and Europe and the North Atlantic, so as a very young person I was exposed to beers that at that time we just didn’t have,” Judge 2 recalled. “I just fell in love with it. That sparked me to pursue an interest in it.”
About five years ago, Judges 1 and 2 asked a third friend to join them and round out the team.
“Not because I had any experience other than being a beer fan,” Judge 3 said. “I guess they heard me complain about enough bad beer and food to think I knew something.”
The three judges follow the American Homebrewers Association rating system for judging home-brewed beers entered into the fair, assessing aroma, appearance, flavor, “mouth feel” and overall impression. Flavor and aroma count the most. Wines are judged on color, clarity, bouquet and taste.
At the Charles County Fair, beers are classed by ales, lagers and hybrids such as smoked, vegetable and herb beers. There’s also a category for “experimental beer.” Wines are classed by grapes, berries and fruit, as well as wine made from concentrate.
In addition to cash prizes for first through fourth place, the best in show winners and best label winners get etched mugs or wine glasses, depending on the category, and ribbons.
“It’s really pretty simple,” Judge 2 said of the judging process. “You taste it, [and] you use your knowledge and experience to evaluate how good it is in its class regardless of what you like personally. And then it’s numbers. We award points and then we tally the numbers at the end.”
The number of beer and wine entries varies from year to year, which means the judges never know until the registration desk closes how long they’re likely to be there. In busy years, they’re there until 11 or 11:30 at night.
“Everybody automatically goes to, ‘You had that many beers, it must have been a long night,’” Judge 2 said. “Eh. It does make for a long night, but very little of it is actually drinking. Maybe 10%.”
The rest involves filling out the score sheets, comparing scores and general conversation.
The nights did get longer a few years ago when the long-time wine judge retired and the three beer judges found themselves suddenly deputized to start judging that department as well.
“We had about two dozen beers to judge and we thought, ‘Oh boy, we’d better get started,’” Judge 2 recalled. “And then [beer and wine departments superintendent Sue Belmore] came back and announced to us that the wine judge wasn’t going to be there that year, and she needed us to judge the wine.”
Belmore then brought out about a half-dozen bottles of wine.
“It could’ve gone south, but we dealt with it,” Judge 2 said. “You take small samples.”
All three men said that many of the entries they’ve tasted could hold their own against anything available on store shelves.
“I’ll tell you the truth, I’ve tasted a few beers and wines at the county fair that I would happily pay for and drink regularly,” Judge 1 said.
Judge 2 credits the rise of the microbrewery industry as driving creativity “off the charts.”
“There’s just so much good stuff out there,” Judge 2 said. “You’ve really got to pay attention to keep up.”
“A couple of years ago, not so many people entered, but every one of the beers was like, ‘Wow, how can I get some of this?’” Judge 3 recalled. “That’s been the best part for me, having the privilege of sampling some of this homemade beer.”
Every now and then, there are some bombs, though.
“A lot of people ask us, ‘What do you do when it’s bad?’” Judge 1 said. “We are provided with a bucket to spit in. The spits are pretty rare, though, I have to say.”
Judge 3 added that, in addition to worries about being judged, a lot of people are deterred from making their own beer or wine because they have the impression that it’s harder than it really is.
“It’s really not that great of an effort,” Judge 3 said.
The three men all agree that a key part of being a successful beer and wine judge is to put aside their personal tastes and take each bottle on its merits. But when they’re not judging, what do they like to drink?
“I’m a porter kind of guy,” Judge 3 said. “And I’m still a big fan of Yuengling. It’s nothing fancy.”
“I started in that part of the world where stouts are brewed, so I’ve learned to love stouts,” Judge 2 said. “I get IPAs more often than not, but I very rarely get the same thing.”
“If people knew what I drink when I’m not judging, they would not want me as a judge,” Judge 1 said with a hearty laugh. “I like primarily Bud Light Lime.”
“Now you’re going to get us flooded with lime-infused beers and IPAs,” Judge 2 joked.
The trio has been working well as a judging team for many years, but it may soon be time for another change. Recently, Judge 3 underwent ear surgery that cost him his sense of taste — possibly permanently; the doctors aren’t sure.
“I’d like to go on the injured reserve list,” Judge 3 said. “I don’t want to retire. I’d still like to contribute, but it doesn’t seem fair [to continue judging].”
“Between the three of us, we’ll find someone else who’s got nothing better to do on a Wednesday night,” Judge 3 said.