As I prepare myself for the task of judging at the Great American Beer Festival in October, a million random thoughts run through my head. I ask myself, “Have I practiced enough?” I see you rolling on the floor, laughing at my question. “How much beer is enough? I’ll help you!” you exclaim.
Being asked to judge at the Great American Beer Festival – or the World Beer Cup, for that matter – is a privilege and comes with challenges and great responsibility. If you merely want to do it for bragging rights, go parasailing instead. As beer judges, one must be keenly aware of sensory perception, tuned-in to the nuances that make beer “World Class.”
And don’t forget the endurance factor. There are days when a judge may taste 50 to 60 beers in one day. Judges need to stay focused in the fight against palate fatigue when evaluating so many beers. They need to be dedicated from the get-go.
Fortunately, beer judges are very different personalities and must be willing to bare their opinions in the face of other experts, regardless of whether they are novices or seasoned old-timers. Old-timers are additionally responsible for respecting the opinions of the novices, while sharing their expertise.
Judges who are brewers may focus on the nuances that define the style, evaluating beer to match the guidelines, point-for-point. Those who are sensory specialists may be hypersensitive to defects in flavor, clarity, carbonation levels, aroma, head retention, or whether the level of bitterness or alcohol is appropriate for the style. They understand the chemistry behind the beer and what, if anything, may be lacking in the process. If a judge is a product specialist – in malt or hops, for example – they may be particularly focused on recipe formulation.
Organoleptic tasters are also layered through the ranks. These may be members of other professions who specialize in beer: media, culinary artists, professors, or marketers. These experts are focused on the overall aspects of beer, including style parameters, beer characteristics, the kinesthetic or trigeminal “feel” of each beer, and whether the beer, as it stands, demands attention.
All of these personalities are important to the overall evaluation of each beer. Every brewer has honed the combination of science and art to yield what each believes is the ideal. When they win medals, they gain credibility and the attention of consumers and the media. Beer lovers want to taste what has been deemed “world-class.” Wouldn’t you?
Judging is not monkey business and rules are strict. Beers are tasted blind. This means they are served to the judges in the exact same style of glass, marked only by a number, and kept in a room with restricted entry. Mobile phone use is prohibited. In fact, “touching” a mobile phone will result in a judge’s dismissal for the remainder of the competition. Tables are prepared with white tablecloths and lighting is bright to observe beer color and clarity. Water, matzos, or bland bread is plentiful, used to cleanse the palate.
Evaluation forms must be completed for every beer by each judge tasting them; then returned to the brewers after the competition. Judges are expected to be discreet and to exhibit propriety by not discussing the details of their judging sessions. They are not provided any privileged information. Award-winning beers are announced at the Great American Beer Festival Awards Ceremony, never prior to that.
Top 5 reasons to work as a beer judge:
My own preparation for judging includes reviewing the Style Guidelines and The Oxford Companion to Beer. The Companion, edited by Garrett Oliver and Horst Dornbusch, is an invaluable resource that provides brief, yet concise, information about the origins of beer styles, the characteristics of malts and hops, chemical aspects, equipment, techniques, and terminology. A visit to the spice shop, homebrew store and produce market gets my nose in gear to delineate the slight nuances of aroma in each beer. I may use a beer sensory training kit, or make my own, to practice identifying defects in several styles of beer. Diacetyl does not taste the same in Pale Ale as it does in Irish Stout.
And I drink beer. Bottle shops are good, but nothing is as effective as a great beer bar with an ever-refreshed beer menu and clean draught lines.
In the words of every beer judge, “It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.”
Looking for a great guide for beer?
The Oxford Companion to Beer
Boker Beer Barrel Copperhead Pocket Knife