Evaluating the non-alcohol side of home-brew

Once upon a time it was thought that non-alcoholic historical beverages were not as ambitious brewing entries as their fermented counterparts. As additional research continues to emerge in this arena, we are learning that not only is this not true but the depth and versality of such drinks are near endless. Non-alcoholic beverages include those that are fermented items that have an alcohol content lower than .05% ( such as natural sodas, small beers, and root beers), shrubs, teas, coffees, and syrups.

Adding to the complexity of their creations, there are a whole slew of challenges that non-fermenting brewers must conquer such as shelf life and preservation. These elements and how the brewer overcome them should not be discounted.

Currently in the Middle Kingdom, non-alcoholic beverages fit into the Specialty Beverages Category with the hope that one day there are enough interest to dictate their own category. As with all beverage/brewing items they must fulfill some generic requirements including:

  • Listing herbs and spices with their Latin botanical names.
  • Complying with the Prohibited and Restricted Herbs List.
  • Copy of the recipe used including quantities and methods used.
  • Supplying materials to assist the judge to better evaluate the beverage (appropriate glasses, white tablecloth, candles, a palate cleanser such as lemon slices or unsalted crackers, water, and bottle with openers).

When judging a non-alcoholic brew I always recommend first reading the documentation to make sure the brewer has included:

  • WHO would have drunk the beverage
  • WHAT time frame does this beverage come from
  • WHEN would they be drinking the beverage ( holidays, time of the day, with meals, ext.)
  • HOW would they drink the item ( mixed, straight, in what type of glass).

Then I look to see if they have

  • Sources ( primary, secondary, ext)
  • Listed methods
  • Reasons WHY they chose the methods they chose.

When it comes to methods in brewing, there is a distinct decision between deciding to use sanitary practices and period elements. If the brewer has chosen more modern methods such as modern sanitation agents and cooking procedures, do they list or discuss their knowledge of the historical equivalents? If so, and they can easily justify their choices (and knowledge of medieval equivalent), then they should not be docked points in the method category UNLESS their choice would change the final product. Always remember the end goal of everything we do in the medieval brewing recreation world is to produce beverages that look, feel, or taste authentic to the intended time period or culture AND create items that people want to drink.

After you look at the methods and materials section, you can start to look at the overall scope and ambition of the project. To score this section, look at if they used pre-prepared or processed ingredients ( lower points) as compared to raw ingredients ( higher points). How many times they tried out various recipes or taste tested the items in the process ( the more variations they tried, the higher the points), as well as how many steps the recipe calls for, ext.

Once through the documentation it is time to be rewarded by trying the beverage.  Always start by looking at the beverage in the bottle. Hold it up to the light ( this is why the entrant has to supply a candle), can you see sediment in the bottle when it should be clear? Or is it perfectly clear when sediment should be present? Is the color of the item true to what it should be? If your not familiar with the attributes and qualities you should be looking for, ask the brewer or look in the documentation.

Pour the brew into a glass and once again hold it up to the light to check the clarity and the color. Smell the beverage. Does it smell like you think it should? For example, if it is a blueberry shrub it should have elements of a vinegar and blueberry smell. Does the beverage have off smells that should not be there? Next taste the beverage by taking a small sip and letting it sit on your tongue before you swallow. How is the body for the type of beverage? For example a syrup will have a fuller body than a shrub or tea. What are the general flavors and sugar balance like? Remember to judge to the TYPE of beverage the brewer was creating and not to your own palette. After you have taken a sample drink, check out the presentation. Is it appropriate to the drink being offered? If the item is in a bottle this would include making sure the bottle was properly filled and stored with appropriate labeling. If the drink is setup in a presentation method such as a pitcher, is the presentation appropriate to the type of drink and culture where it would have been available? Does the presentation transport you back to the appropriate culture? After you look at all the previous skill areas, go back and evaluate your palate. Was there any unpleasant lingering tastes or aftertaste?

Sit back and enjoy the beverage while you judge Ingenuity and the Judges Observations. Ingenuity is where you look at the entire project. Did they find creative and resourceful ways to create a period beverage? Was the entire process from research, interpretation, vision, and final project successful? In judge’s observation is where you share your own private and personal preferences. What did you like? What would you like to see again? What would you like to see next time?

Just as in judging traditional beverages, always make sure to judge to what the entrant was trying to achieve. I prefer my non-alcoholic beverages more syrup like and less vinegary, however I would never dock a shrub or sekanjabin for being too acidic.

When you look at the non-alcoholic beverage as a whole, including documentation, experimentation, process, and final beverage it  easily demonstrates just how complex these beverages can be.

Legs & Head of a Good Brew

With terms like Head, Body, and Legs you could be talking about a beauty contest- but in these terms we are looking for the finest glass of homebrew you can imagine. From Absence of off odors to Taste appropriate to type, here are some of the brewing terms used most often in SCA and modern world judging.

Components  •   Mouth Feel  •   Smell  •   Taste  •   Other  •   “Off” Flavors

The full class notes (pdf version) can be found here.


  • Acid- Detectable presence of sourness normally in wine
  • Alcohol- Detectable presence of ethanol in the beverage
  • Carbonation-Fizz due to CO2
  • Clarity-Quality of being clear. Lack of sediment
  • Color-The pigmentation of the liquid within the brew
  • Head Quality-The foam quality on the top portion of the beverage
  • Hop Characteristic-Bitterness and aroma from hops if used/
  • Lacing-Pattern left by the head as it moves down the glass
  • Legs-A visible indicator of a drinks weight


  • Body-Texture or viscosity in the mouth
  • Finish-The feel and the taste in the mouth after the liquid has left the mouth
  • Tannin-The dry feeling in the mouth.


  • Aroma-Components perceived by the nose of both scent and flavor
  • Bouquet-A characteristic or particular scent


  • Aftertaste-Lingering flavor after the liquid has left the palate
  • Flavor- Taste
  • Sugar- Amount of sweetness or taste of the sweetening agent
  • Sugar/Alcohol Balance-Sweetness to ethanol balance
  • Sweet/Dry balance-Sweet to non-sweet balance as determined by the beverage type
  • Sweetness-Noticeability of the sugars
  • Taste-Sensation of flavor as perceived in the mouth and throat


  • Presentation-The manner in which the beverage is displayed
  • Documentation-The history of beverage type as well as the creation process

“Off” Flavors or Odors

  • Acetaldehyde-Grassy, Acetic
  • Alcoholic- Hot, Spicy, Vinous, Warming or Burn in throat
  • Astringent-Dry, High Tannin, Puckering
  • Bitterness-Felt on back on tongue and roof of mouth
  • Buttery-Mouthfeel, slickness on palate, butterscotch
  • Cardboard- Stale bread, cardboard, wet paper. Wood like aftertaste
  • Cooked Corn-Vegetable or oyster like flavoring
  • Fruitness-Esters or any fruit like flavoring
  • Light Body-Water or weak
  • Grassy-Fresh cut grass
  • Grainy-Spent grain, starchy, cereal like
  • Phenoli- Plastic or medicinal
  • Musty: Earthy, musty, cellar like
  • Sourness: Tart, Sour, Vinegar like
  • Solvent Like: Pungent, harsh, acetone like
  • Sulfury: rotten eggs, burnt rubber,
  • Sweet: Sugary, Syrupy