Inside the Bluebonnet

March 24-26, 2000

By Dan Bedell

The 2000 edition of the annual Bluebonnet Brew-Off has come and gone and the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex is slowly returning to some semblance of order. This was the 14th time that homebrewers from around the state, and this year from as far away as Europe, sent their ales, lagers and meads to be judged against the field of 857 others.

The judging was methodical and intense, and the competition important but the Bluebonnet Brew-Off is about more than just which beer wins Best of Show. This is the account of the 14th annual Bluebonnet Brew-Off as told through the eyes, ears and palate of an outsider.

As I mentioned in my previous article, the Bluebonnet gets underway long before the weekend of the actual event. Not only do beers begin arriving for check-in weeks before the competition begins, but homebrewers carefully crafted these beer months, and in some cases, even years prior to the weekend of March 24-26. In the interest of your time, we can just stick to those three malt-filled days of semi-conscious bliss.

Friday, Bluebonnet Day 1, after a long day at work and an incredibly taxing drive from North Dallas to Irving across some of the most traffic-infested streets North Texas can throw at a driver, I was muttering that no amount of beer could help me unwind. Fortunately for me, I was heading to a homebrew festival, and I would soon drink those words.

I checked into my room, filled out my nametag, was awarded my really impressive, blue VIP nametag-ribbon and settled in to eat banquet chicken and listen to Roger Protz, the famous English beer writer and Bluebonnet keynote speaker, deliver an informative opening-night speech on the somewhat subtle differences between India pale ale, pale ale and bitter. This was Roger's first trip to Texas, and I think he was a bit surprised to have traveled all those thousands of miles only to be served tea (albeit iced) with his food. He now knows that there is no southern food that doesn't go well with iced tea.

Following dinner, I was volunteered to work a table at the commercial beer tasting. This year's Commercial Beer Guided Tasting featured beers from famous regionals like Celis, Shiner, St. Arnold and New Belgium, from nationals like Hart Brewing (Pyramid Ales) and from internationals like Paulaner, McEwans, Tennant's and some of the beers from Merchant du Vin line. For $10, participants could to sample as many of the roughly 50 beers as he or she liked. I wound up working the Celis table (fortunate for me, as I actually have some knowledge of their products), but I managed to sneak away long enough to make my way around the room a time or two, finally deciding that the McEwans Scotch Ale was the freshest (therefore the tastiest) of the lot, barely edging out Pyramid's IPA.

After the commercial tasting, the group of about 150 homebrewers and their respective spouses and friends headed upstairs for the Room Crawl. From the lobby of the Wilson World Hotel, I'd been able to look up and see the banners of several homebrewing clubs hanging from the balconies of suites on the top floor. The Bluebonnet organizers had arranged for an entire wing of the fifth floor to be overrun with beer and high-tolerance homebrewers looking to size up the competition prior to the judging. Basically, we simply wandered from one homebrew club-sponsored room to another, tasting the beers that club had brought. I sampled some marvelous beers, including a cask-conditioned export lager, a roasty, sweet and well-balanced raspberry porter, a spicy, floral heather ale and an amazing, oak-aged, English-style barley wine.

Not being a college student any more, my intake-ability gave out shortly after midnight, so I stumbled back to my room and fell into a sleep much deeper than an ordinary day typically induces. I guess that I missed most of the excitement however, as several of the organizers had the pleasure of meeting the Irving Police sometime between my departure and 2:30 a.m., when the hardiest of the crawlers made the term more literal and headed for their rooms. Not to give the event a bad name: the police were only around to advise the brewer-drinkers that the noise level should be kept in the double-digit decibel range. (Everyone knows that a good party is judged by how many cops drop by.)

Saturday morning brought a distinct desire for coffee, and two great presentations. The first was a technical symposium on the intricacies of lambic brewing, led by the locally famous homebrewer and perennial Bluebonnet award winner, Charlie Gottenkieny. Charlie's lambic talk was followed by an in-depth discussion of the English brewing industry from Protz.

Second-round judging followed, and I was lucky enough to serve as a judge for the flight of light ales, a category composed of American wheat beer, cream ale and golden ale. Although this category is typically not known as the most flavorful in the competition, I tasted several fine beers while deciding which three to pass on to the final round of judging.

Following a brief lunch, most of the group headed off on the now-famous "Blue Bus Rules" pubcrawl. This year's pubcrawl was actually three separate crawls, with buses touring drinking establishments in downtown Dallas, Addison and Arlington. While most of us were off sampling the selections of the Metroplex's best bars, the final round judges were busy sipping samples of the finest beers entered in this year's competition, making comparisons, and picking the event's big winners.

Since the Bluebonnet is about so much more than individual brewing accomplishments (though those do carry a bit of weight), I'm not going to list all of the winners of this year's competition.

The evening's big winners were the best of show beers. These are the beers that stood out among all styles as technically and subjectively excellent examples of their style. They are the cream of the hops, and deserve mention.

- Honorable Mention: Tim Nagode, (High Plains Draughters Homebrew Club in Oklahoma) and his Mickey Mead.

- Third Place: Tom Garner (North Texas Homebrewers Association) and his Blanc de Honig Belgian Style Ale.

- Second Place: Charlie Gottenkieny (North Texas Homebrewers Association) and his 2-Tonic Berliner Weisse style beer.

- And this year's Best of Show at the 14th annual Bluebonnet Brew-Off was Jim Layton (North Texas Homebrewers Association) and his Old Tucker Old Ale.

This year's winners took home some pretty cool medals, plus a huge, mantle-worthy stein to make their friends jealous.

I'm not a homebrewer. Being as obsessed with commercial beer as I am, I've always figured that brewing my own would cut into my intake of other people's beers. I have a slightly different perspective as a result of spending a weekend with some of the finest homebrewers in the country. The challenge they feel in attempting to brew a well-balanced bitter, or a flawless Bohemian pilsner is contagious. The enormous pride they take in sharing their concoctions with other brewers is palpable, and the thrill of entering their beers against others that feel the same way they do is as intoxicating as the most powerful barley wine.

These emotions have won me over. I've decided that I too have a need to create; an almost primal desire to see if I can make something that's good. Like the sculptor who gazes at the granite block and can see the statue inside, I'm now possessed by the need to create beer.

Next year's Bluebonnet is already in the early planning stages. Would you like to be obsessed too?

Dan Bedell