High up on a plain white wall, the skinny hand of a clock ticked away the seconds, counting down the moments competitors had left to enter their creations.
When the time came, the door was shut to the dark and stormy night outside and a small group of 12 judges were assigned to stations around the room. Surrounding them were tables full of cookies, pies, breads, muffins, cakes, fudge, and cupcakes — sometimes dozens of each kind.
At 9:41 p.m., the first bite was taken. Everything would need to be tasted before they could all go home.
When you see a blue ribbon at the Alaska State Fair, you may think about what merited that work of art or handcrafted item to win. Rarely do people consider the person who awarded that ribbon, but that is Joanne Berberich’s job.
Berberich is the superintendent of the baked goods department at the Alaska State Fair, a position she’s held since 1991, though she’s been a part of the baking competitions in some way since the early ’70s.
Aside from arranging the displays, Berberich recruits judges for each of the six main divisions and subcategories — each of which can have up to 22 classes. She said that while the volunteer positions are a coveted job, the hours are what make it hard. Everything must be tasted in one night, after the entry period closes at 9 p.m.
Walking from table to table, each judge seemed to have their own technique for getting through the evening. Some eat dinner. Others don’t. Most make sure only to taste a small portion, rather than eating an entire cookie or slice of cake.
John Vinduska has been a judge for over 10 years. The Palmer firefighter said someone recruited him after learning about his love of desserts.
“The main thing is don’t eat very much or you’re going to be sick by the end of the night,” Vinduska said. “It’s horrible if you eat too much of the sugar.”
Vinduska was giving advice to nervous rookie judge Hiram Pendergrass, who said he thinks every one of his teeth is a sweet tooth. But by 10 p.m., it seemed like he was off to a good start.
Culinary competitions at the Alaska State Fair aren’t limited to things a person would make in an oven. Nonperishable entries are often judged a few weeks before the start of the fair, among them is another favorite department of the fair: spirited beverages and soda pop, captained by Mary Helms.
This department includes wine, mead, cider, beer, liqueurs, cordials, soda pop and kombucha. Each year she said there are up to 100 entries, but the number seems to be on the rise. One thing remains constant — every year there many entries for raspberry wine.
With so much to taste, Helms said she recruits a fleet of 75 to 100 judges to taste each entry over the course of three days.
For beers there are two sections — homebrewers and craft breweries. While the professional craft brewers like Alaskan Brewing Company and Midnight Sun Brewing Company compete against each other, individuals duke it out in the homebrew section.
From there, the set up is rather simple. Point scales with criteria are used to judge libations just like any other tasting. Scores are totaled and put on a curve with a maximum of 50 points for each bottle. Guidelines for how each category are well-established and Helms said her judges follow the American Homebrewers Association’s 89-page handbook for beer styles.
“Think of it like a dog show,” Helms said. Each beer, wine or liqueur is judged in its own category then those winners go on to compete against each other for Best of Show.
One thing Helms requires of all her judges is for each to be willing to taste every entry — no matter whether they want to or not.
“Some of it is very, very good and some of it is,” she stopped to think, “mouth-puckering.”
This year, Helms said a popular entry has been penny-candy moonshine — a clear, usually flavorless alcohol like vodka which is flavored with cheap candies like Jolly Ranchers. The alcohol then takes on the color and taste of the sweet left to sit inside.
A particular entry that stood out in this category was a Tabasco jelly bean moonshine.
“It was OK,” she laughed.
Judges aren’t required to swallow each taste, in fact she encourages them to spit some of it out during the hours-long process of judging. Rest assured, Helms said plenty of water is provided as well as palate cleansers and a buffet.
She has a core group of judges that has been together for about 12 years. Some of them are certified judges for their respective areas of expertise, while others are just along for the ride. Helms, a self-proclaimed “bathtub chemist,” said she’s no longer a judge of the beer and wine herself, but she takes part in the baking competition every year.
Both Berberich and Helms said that to become a judge, people interested in volunteering can submit their names using the contact information for each department on the fair’s website.
Over at the cakes and pies, both judges said they’d been baking for years, experience that lends itself to judging the confections of others. Khristine Norton said she’s been involved with the fair for 25 years. Her partner at the table, Nancy Thomas, said they both love carrot cakes.
Both admitted that this job is not for everyone, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re just community and it’s just part of the state fair. You come out here, you do stuff you like to do,” Norton said. “Not everybody likes to do this, but it’s fun. We come in after work and stay all night — eat a lot of sweet stuff — but it’s worth it. I like seeing the community part of the Valley.”
Eyeing the table in front of them, filled with cakes and pies, the women said it looked like it would be a long night.
Entries for the second round of baked goods judging will be accepted from noon to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31.