Getting SMaSHed on Good Beer

In our articles about Kim Euk-yeon, owner of Goodbeer, and the beer industry, we mentioned an upcoming homebrew competition called a SMaSH-off. The even was held at Gecko’s in Jukejeon, and our guest writer, Lucy Corne, was there to cover it. Lucy is a freelance writer specialising in travel and booze – preferably at the same time. Her features have been published in various newspapers, magazines and websites including Reader’s Digest, The Toronto Star and Wanderlust. You can read more of Lucy’s work at www.lucycorne.com.

Twenty-plus smiling faces, a full bar and a dozen new converts to brewing your own beer – in short, the first Homebrew Korea SMaSH Off was a roaring success. Not phased by the downpour outside, a dozen brewers and their guests assembled at Gecko’s new Jukjeon location for the first round of the beer fest. Ten had brewed a special batch of beer for the event.

A SMaSH beer is challenging to the brewer, despite its apparent simplicity. SMaSH stands for ‘single malt and single hops’ – limiting the brewer when it comes to giving their beer more complex flavours and aromas. For some it was their first attempt at all-grain brewing (rather than using malt extract); for most it was their first SMaSH beer.

We took our seats and after a brief welcome from HBK’s founder, Rob Titley, the tastings began. For each beer, each amateur judge (beer enthusiasts if not necessarily experts) had a complex scoring sheet to complete, commenting on everything from head and clarity to aroma, taste and ‘mouthfeel’ – a term new to many of us. We started well as we judged each other’s brews, but as the sometimes potent pints continued to flow, it became more of a challenge to tick the right boxes and more of a temptation to skip straight to the final score.

We started off contemplating whether a beer looked straw or copper in colour, whether it had lace or legs and if its head was tan or ivory. We inhaled for aromas of wood, spice or pine (good) or veggies, yeast and sulphur (bad) then sipped to see if we could spot apples and pears, smoke, flowers or toast. As the samples kept flowing, we began to tick boxes labelled ‘cloying’ and ‘gushed’, ‘lactic’ and ‘vinous’, simply out of a desire to use the words despite having no idea what they meant.

As conversation and beer samples flowed, we got lazy with the specifics but at least we managed to stick to the marking scheme (a maximum mark of 50) and give a final judgment with one of four options – swig the whole sample, finish a pint, pay for a pint or beg for the recipe.
The beers were of varying success – from smooth, creamy-headed pints to watery bubble-free offerings; from samples so tasty you wondered if they might have used more than one malt, to samples you finished only for fear that their maker might be sitting beside you (it was a blind tasting).
With the tutored tastings complete and a tasty Gecko’s lunch on the table to soak up some of the booze, Rob retired to tally up the scores. Third place went to the contest’s only female brewer, Katelin MacNair, for her light brew that smacked you in the face with a piney aroma and didn’t fail to deliver on flavour. The runner up was Kim Euk-yeon of GoodBeer, Korea’s main homebrew supply store, with one of the most eyecatching pints of the day – a darkish brew with a fine, frothy head. There were no surprises when the winner was announced (once we’d tasted his beer) since Bill Miller’s brew was a flavourful IPA heavy on the hops and with a great balanced flavour.

In fact the biggest surprise of the day was the wild card thrown in for fun by Rob. In fact there were only nine brewers – the 10th beer was actually a sample of Cass that got a much better reception that it would have, had we known what we were drinking. It might have been politeness for fear that your neighbour had brewed it, it might have been the extreme clarity of the beer (homebrews tend to be a little cloudier than mass-produced beers) or maybe Cass just isn’t as bad as we all claim. Whatever the reason, Cass placed 7th in the contest, leaving at least one brewer threatening to hang up his mash tun and brew kettle forever.

With the tipsy conversation flowing and lunch out of the way, it was time for round two of the festival – the public tasting. People can often be hesitant to taste homebrewed beer, thinking it impossible to churn out palatable pints from the comfort of your own home. But perhaps just curious to see what homebrew tastes like or perhaps keen to try their own hand after months of less than delectable Korean lagers, the public trickled in, keen to sample the nine brews (Cass was not on the menu) and talk beer with the brewers.

By the time Korea’s opening World Cup match was aired, the HBK guys had converted half the bar and were enjoying a well-earned rest. And on top of the prizes Bill Miller had already won, his fellow brewers added another reward to the pile – the gift of a light return journey to Seoul. Having commented that he didn’t want to lug a full keg back home, the brewers dug deep and in an act of selfless solidarity sat with Bill until the bar closed, ensuring that every drop of his winning beer had been drained. With such noble displays of friendship (and some of the best beer in Korea) I for one can’t wait for HBK’s next event.

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