Behind Closed Doors - The Granddaddy of Beer Competitions
It is early Saturday morning. Darkness paints inky imagery across the walls, while the sun languishes deliberately beneath the horizon. Your household is deep in slumber, their dreams awash in a fogged utopia of music and euphoric dance, touched with amorphous adventure. Outside, a strange symphony begins in the trees – sweet, but with a slight edge of annoyance.
“Dumb birds,” you grumble. “Why would any creature awaken so early? Don’t they know it’s Saturday? A day to sleep in…”
You think about how this is “for the birds,” this getting-up-early-thing, but you quickly re-focus on what is important. You are on a mission.
A quick shower with unscented soap. No colognes touch your skin. You pack up your notes, bottle opener, and mechanical pencil. The drive will take a few hours, but dedication has become a part of you - dedication to those who create and brew beer.
Whether the competitors are professional commercial brewers or homebrew junkies, they depend on you, the beer judge. Those who enter their suds in competition do so with the intention of receiving valuable feedback from specialists in sensory perception. The information gleaned from a well-judged flight can be as valuable to a brewer as having analysis done by a professional lab, but the costs remain well below those charged by firms who perform scientific evaluation and consultation.
Some judges have completed courses through the Beer Judge Certification Program. Others are employed as scientific professionals - sensory lab specialists, commercial brewers, chemical engineers, water system analysts - who have attended Sensory Training Workshops presented by the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, American Society of Brewing Chemists, or the University of California – Davis.
Many are experienced homebrewers with significant experience judging at homebrew competitions. All are intent on evaluating beer with a high degree of accuracy - identifying flaws, searching for distinctive samples of style, and making comments and recommendations that will encourage the brewer to create a specimen of world-class achievement.
The Granddaddy of Beer Competitions - GABF
The Granddaddy of all competitions in the USA is held each year at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado.Chris Swersey, Director of Professional Brewers for the GABF and the World Beer Cup, orchestrates GABF judging with a high level of thoughtfulness. In 2006, he selected over 100 national and international judges for the competition in which 2,425 entries vied for Gold, Silver and Bronze Medals in 69 categories.
Swersey requires that all panelists get professional sensory training. These panelists are assigned into categories based on personal strengths that balance the group – organization, ability to identify defects, adherence to style guidelines, or development of techniques that increase sensory perception.
Dr. Gary Spedding of Brewing and Distilling Analytical Services, LLC and Dr. Christopher Bird of Alltech, Inc. present a sensory session for the panelists before judging begins. This session may include Flavor Active capsules - expensive flavor pellets that can be dissolved in a base-line beer (usually a standard lager). The capsules demonstrate each off-flavor, providing a strong and enduring example of each defect for the judges’ reference.
Spedding and Bird create “Flavor Notes” of specific chemicals, along with descriptors, information and thresholds. They link each chemical with examples, along with comments on how to control or eliminate these characteristics in beer.
Each panel of judges may evaluate three beer styles in the morning, and three in the afternoon, with a maximum of 12 beers in a flight. The group assigns a table captain who reviews the most up-to-date guidelines of the Brewers Association Style Committee with the panel, including plato number, ABV, expected bitterness units, color and description. Stewards serve flights in identical cups, marked only by numbers, so the judges cannot be influenced by external factors. Nothing on the table is touched until the table steward announces that all beers have been served.
Immediately, those at the table come alive with a sense of purpose – viewing the samples for clarity, head and color; swirling to perceive lacing or legs; covering the surface with their hand to concentrate the esters, phenols, or aromatics for distinct olfactory perception; rolling the beer across their palate; smacking their lips; cleansing the palate with water. There is no discussion at this point. As time passes, facial intensity increases. Eyes narrow. Some judges review the guidelines a second time. Stares focus into dead air as each judge concentrates on his or her overall impression. Comments for each sample are scrawled on individual evaluation forms. These comments will be methodically organized and filed during the competition, then forwarded to each entrant as valuable feedback. As panelists complete their flight evaluation, they lay their pencils on the table. Then the discussion begins.
Comments vary, displaying a healthy dose of opinion at the table. Their dialogue may sound something like this:
“Let’s eliminate number 189. It has a shower curtain smell.”
“Number 101 is delicious, but sour. There may be some micro-contamination.”
“I taste a vegetal, cabbage character in number 121.”
“I would like to eliminate 131.”
“131? But I like 131.”
“It’s thin. Not much malt.”
“I want to keep it on the table.”
“Number 178 is a fantastic beer. Good hop character, clean base.”
“I won’t fight for 131. Number 145 is better.”
Factors such as the “purpose for the style” (whether for sipping or drinking), drinkability of a “big beer,” or coarse character may be discussed. Secondary and tertiary flavor notes may introduce complexity that propels a beer into the winners’ circle. Eventually, the top three or four usually emerge from the flight. Then, final decisions reward the Gold, Silver and Bronze. In rare instances, the panel agrees that none of the entries qualify as a top-level example of the style. In such a case, only Silver or Bronze Medals may be awarded.
Judges also provide feedback to the Brewers Association. Each year, the Association may receive as many as one hundred recommendations for adjustments to style parameters. Says Chris Swersey, “Charlie [Papazian, founder of the GABF and Brewers Association] is the keeper of the flame of the guidelines.”
In the last five years, an explosion of Belgian-Style beer has found its way into the GABF competition. French Saison entries have increased seventy-six percent between 2005 and 2006 alone. In 2006, American-Style Low-Carbohydrate Light Lager, American-Style “Light” Amber Lager, and American-Style Premium Lager categories were eliminated due to a low number of entries. In 2007, Gluten-Free Beer (currently in the Experimental category) will emerge as a category, with GABF guidelines requiring the beer to be 100% free of gluten. “It is an evolving thing,” says Swersey. “It happens every year.”
Above all, judging beer is a service to the public. It provides a clear definition of style to consumers and showcases those who create examples of World-Class beer.
“It’s a great way to get rewarded by your peers.” ~ Chris Swersey
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