Being a beer writer, as you'd expect, has its perks. For a few years one of these was being chosen to serve on a panel of expert judges at the Connecticut Blind Beer Awards, a competition between a dozen local beers which takes the popularity contest aspect out of the equation by serving each from unlabeled, color-coded taps. The event is held each year at the Blind Rhino in South Norwalk, and while brewery representatives are on hand in case their brewery wins one of the awards, they are sequestered away from public view in the bar's basement to bottle share, play beer pong, and perform impromptu interior decorating with some cans of spray paint they found, until the Experts Choice and People's Choice are handed out. I had no formal connection with the awards this year, attending instead as a civilian, and drank all twelve of the CT beers on tap. Here is how that went.
All 12 beers were IPAs, let's get that right out of the way. This isn't really representative of the Connecticut beer scene as a whole, but I understand it keeps the playing field relatively level, and IPA as a style does represent the majority of the craft beer consumed not just here, but nationwide, so let's play along. There is a good chance another style, like lagers, could be featured in an upcoming Blind Beer Awards - summer seasonals were the category once already, with Two Roads Bergamonster taking the People's Choice, and Shebeen Fore(!) taking the Experts - but this spring the theme seemed to be All The Citrus.
Two beers have managed to surprise me at multiple Blind Beer Awards, and one was this year's overall, sweeping winner: Do-Si-Do, from No Worries in Hamden. This beer took home the 2017 People's Choice, and both the Experts and People's Choice awards in 2018. The brewery got such a bump in sales after last year they were hesitant to submitDo-Si-Do again, but the internal faction in favor of letting it ride won out.
Do-Si-Do seems to have hit the sweet spot of "juicy" IPAs - in both flavor and aroma - and at the risk of shoulder sprain patting myself on the back, I was able to correctly identify its huge dose of mosaic hops wafting out of my opaque keg cup.
The other beer which seems to catch me like a can hurled into a crowd is one I described in my notes this year as: "juicy, with some bubblegum, a little muddy," with "cloying" sweetness. That would be 2016 People's Choice winner, and 2018 runner up, Back East Rakautra. Back East makes some damn fine beers, and their porter is one of the beautiful points in Connecticut brewing, but Rakautra doesn't even make the first cut with me. To me, this batch was like hop Kool-Aid, but that seemed to be the right speed for a lot of people, and there's no right or wrong with something as subjective as what beer you like.
The masks come off near the end of each day of the Awards as host Ken Tuccio brings a rep or brewer from each brand up on stage to address the crowd and tell what beer they've brought to compete. The entire crowd finds out at once, and everyone reacts differently as their mental blanks are filled in.
"Bold and malty, on the sweeter side" in my notes turned out to be Double Doobious, from Bad Sons in Derby. I've never made up my mind about Bad Sons, and I suppose that flexibility allowed me to be pleasantly surprised by the reveal. It wasn't one of my favorites (guests are given three wooden tokens on walking in to the BBA, and can distribute them any way they like into boxes in order to vote), but Double Doobious is a high point in the brewery's short history.
Another beer which caught me off guard was one I somehow liked less than every other time I've had it. "Odd, vegetable aroma, almost broccoli. Bitter, earthy, ConnCade hops?" went my notes. "Pretty good, not super." I'm embarrassed, but out of honesty I have to admit: this was Counter Weight Headway IPA. I liked the flavor profile, but that aroma was off-putting, and something I've never noticed in any other batch. I typically like this beer quite a lot, but these are the things which happen the beer names get deleted, and only the liquid remains. I'm still willing to chalk this one up as either an odd batch, or an artifact of chasing one sample of IPA with another.
Both new and established brewers scored high marks with the crowd at Blind Beer. One of best facets of the BBA every year is they cap ticket sales at a level far below what the space can handle. There is plenty of elbow room, almost never a line at a tap, and the atmosphere allows the crowd to mingle and share their thoughts. Speaking with different groups, I was a little jolted to find out so many had good things to say about the Light Blue tap (Rakautra), but there was a great deal of agreement with some of my preferred picks.
- "Fruity aroma with orange blossom, clean, bitter, very good" were the notes I had for Geobunny IPA from Nod Hill of Ridgefield. This one continues the citra/mosaic strike zone, but adds flaked oats to the malt bill, which I definitely enjoyed.
- With a nose that was "barely there" but got some dopamine flowing with a sweet, perfectly balanced citrus flavor and a smooth drinking experience was Cosmic Siesta from Aspetuck Brew Lab in Black Rock. I'd had this several times before at the brewery, and I came back for seconds at BBA without recognizing it. I also drew a little thumbs up in my notes here because apparently I'm still a 12 year old with a Trapper Keeper.
- A sharp, earthy aroma above a body which was a bit over carbonated but otherwise smooth, with the barest hint of chocolate to the malt, and that ever present citrusy hop flavor, was Shadow Prophet, via Relic in Plainville. I'm continually pleased by Relic's beers - I even sent some of their Whiting Street to a friend out of state - and I'll keep an eye out for this one at retail.
- A few people pointed out the yellow tap to me, asking if I'd tried it yet, and it turned out to be Mermaid Cove, by Armada Brewing in East Haven. I'd had this one at least once before, but was struck by its deeper malt profile, and an incisive character which my mind associated with lime zest. It also developed a great head.
I was grateful to not be forced into having a definitive position as a judge this year, and split up my votes three ways. In no order:
Supernaut, by New England Brewing Co. in Woodbridge. "YES," begins my notes. "Fecund, bitter, earth. Dig it." If I was a cartoon character, you'd have seen my pupils turn into spinners upon drinking this, and I drank it all the way through the last hour of the awards.
Figure 4, by Lock City of Stamford. "Dank, solid & a little heavy, but lower IBU," is what it says in the notes. I think if you're going to do a less bitter IPA, it should have some guts to back that up, not just candy sweetness, and Figure 4 was bodylicious and terpy. *plink* - in goes the voting chip.
Ode To Blumpy, from Thomas Hooker in Hartford. This IPA, brewed as a tribute to Hooker's long serving brewery cat, had a hop aroma which somehow felt familiar, rose up in a great head for retaining that nose, and balanced an orangey flavor with a significant layer of bitter undertone. "I could drink a lot of this" is written in pencil near the top of my sheet.
Every once in a while I'll see a car with one of those "Small State, Great Beer" stickers in the shape of Connecticut. The Blind Beer Awards strives to make public beer judging scientific, and the fact is: yes, we do.