That’s what certified beer judge Michael Krajewski called beer #10.
I scrunched up my nose. What the h e double hockey sticks was he talking about? I liked #10. I liked it a lot. And here was the guy across the table from me at the Cleveland Labor Day Oktoberfest Microbrew Competition calling it cat pee.
I had been assigned to the table judging India pale ales and Imperial India pale ales from Cleveland-area breweries.
Krajewski and I were sampling the five imperial IPAs, while Mike Malinowski and Andrew Mitchell were tasting the seven IPAs. After we were done, each twosome would pick a top three and then we would consult together and pick a “best of table” that would move onto the “Best of Show” round.
But back to that cat pee comment.
What the heck did Krajewski, a certified beer judge for 13 years, mean by that? He said it matter of factly. Not in any insulting way.
“It’s one of the aromas you associate with cat pee,” he said after taking a sniff.
I sniffed. Nope. No cat pee.
People who own a cat seem to pick up on that aroma, he told me.
I owned a cat for 17 years and I didn’t get a cat pee aroma from that beer. But I kept that comment to myself. When Krajewski had mentioned that he smelled celery in a beer, I suddenly smelled that. When he mentioned that he smelled burnt rubber in a beer, I suddenly smelled that. He obviously knows much more than I do.
I was feeling both defensive and unsure of my tasting abilities. I was a mere mortal at the table. I had been asked to be a “celebrity” judge thanks to my position as a beer writer for the Akron Beacon Journal and author of the book Ohio Breweries. Still, I have been writing about the beer industry for 15 years and feel comfortable picking out off flavors and aromas -- just not all of them.
Am I fan of cat pee?
Then Krajewski clarified after I quizzed him that it’s not necessarily a bad aroma. Hmmm. I’ve never heard cat pee described as a pleasant aroma. Never. I’ve heard plenty of animal control officers who found little old ladies living with 87 cats call it disgusting. And I’ve been in those houses and it is disgusting.
Beer #10 wasn’t disgusting. It was, in fact, my favorite beer among the five imperial IPAs we tasted.
Krajewski apparently is OK with a little cat pee, too. It was our only unanimous choice to move on to the "best of table" debate. But, when it came to dismissing beers during that discussion, beer #10 was one of the first to go. Oh well.
The top beer was #11, Krajewski, Malinowski and Mitchell decided. That happened to be a beer that didn’t even make my top three. That said, it was pretty darn good and I enjoyed drinking it. Just not as much as cat pee.
Heck, all of these brews were made by professional brewers. They were all decent.
After my table decided that beer #11 was the top one, I thought my duty was over. In other words, bratwurst and Paulaner time.
But competition organizer Paul Shick pulled me into the Best of Show judging. Each table had nominated a beer. Now I was at a table deciding which of six beers was the best German brew, best of the rest of the world and best of show.
That final table featured four certified judges and three “celebrities” – me, Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Marc Bona and Channel 19 weatherman Jeff Tanchak.
Here’s where the judging got really nitpicky. These were six great beers. Yet the certified judges were tossing around descriptions like too grainy, oxidized and too light with flavor.
And here’s where I struggled. Again, these were six tasty beers. The smoked helles– technically beer F -- was outstanding. I’ve got a soft spot for smoke beers. I wanted the smoked helles to win. So did Bona. So did Tanchak.
The real judges, though, were into the imperial IPA. Beer #11, the same one that made it off my table. Imperial IPAs aren’t my favorite style. Not even close.
“You need to set your personal preference aside,” Greg Irving, a near dead-ringer for actor Will Forte, advised me when I asked him how he dealt judging. He told me that it really does get down to nitpicking when it’s time to declare a winner among outstanding beers.
The table opted to name beer C – Madison, a kolsch from Buckeye Brewing Co. in Cleveland – as the best German beer.
In the end, the real judges won the debate on the Best of Show. It was the imperial IPA: El Lupulo Libre from The Brew Kettle in Strongsville.
The smoked helles, Lagerfeuer – that one that the celebrities liked better – was made by Fat Head’s Brewery, which has a brewpub in North Olmsted and a production brewery in Middleburg Heights.
I guess that explains right there the difference between beer awards and public opinion. The best ranked beer isn’t necessarily the best-selling beer. It also explains, at least partially, why I never became a certified beer judge even though I've attended my fair share of classes through the years. I just want to enjoy drinking a beer. Not try to find faults with it.
I’d much rather drink Lagerfeuer than El Lupulo Libre. That’s no slight against El Lupulo Libre, either.
Just personal preference.
I guess I’m also partial to cat pee when it comes to my imperial IPAs.
Looks like I’ll have to head over to Nano Brew Cleveland for a Particle Accelerator Double Rye IPA.