Runup to the GABF, Rant No. 2

Judging at the Great American Beer Fest is not what most people imagine. It is staid, relaxed, professional, and sober.

No cameras allowed. This might be what GABF judging looks like.

It feels more like a Harvard law study group in a library than a group of despots on Mt. Olympus plotting to smash the dreams of unknown brewers. I’ve come to really enjoy it, being a despot like that. It’s like a grand dog competition, everyone vying in their respective styles and hoping to be best in the category. In the end, there will be glory, there will be disappointment, there will be surprises, and there will be knowing nods.

One of the things that I hear from brewers every year, and this is usually from those that weren’t fortunate enough to have won a medal, is “Well, it’s a crap shoot.” That’s not exactly my view. If a brewer wins a medal, he or she really deserves it – no question. But if someone does not win a medal, it does not mean that they didn’t brew a medal-worthy beer. They may have been a hot contender on the table right until the end. Sometimes any of the top five or six beers could merit a medal. But GABF rules prohibit issuing multiple medals (i.e. ties). Since there is no numerical scoring, brewers finishing out of the top three will never know if their beer could have been tied for third place or bringing up the rear at 83rd position. But they will receive written comments from the judges that indicate where the beer’s qualities were “appropriate” and “not appropriate” according to our style guidelines.

If you are hanging out at your local brewery and do (or don’t) see medals hanging on the wall, keep these thoughts in mind:

    • Winning a medal means that on that day a brewery had entered a beer that most closely agreed with a written style description That beer may or may not be to your liking. As judges, we “evaluate the beer in front of us.” We argue the relative merits of one entry against another and may advance a beer that is imperfect in minor ways.

    • A brewery’s commercial version of a beer might be a little bit different from the beer they submitted to the GABF. Entries are not tested in a laboratory, they’re evaluated by trained humans. In the end, you have to be the judge of the beers you drink.

    • I estimate there are 15- to 20-thousand unique beers brewed in the US each year. There could be even more. About 3,500 are entered in the GABF. That leaves a lot of room for great beers that are never entered, that is, the absence of a medal does not equate to the absence of greatness.

    • Entering the GABF is an expensive process that requires the beers to be sent many weeks ahead of the judging. Some beers simply don’t travel that well. In other cases, breweries may not be used to stabilizing their beers by sterile filtration or pasteurization, but at the local tap these beers might be stellar. Some categories have to be entered outside of their traditional season, for example Bière de Mars or fresh hopped ales, so the entries may not be at their peak for the GABF.

The GABF is one way brewers and their beer get their “cred.” The other, indeed more important way, is when beer consumers exercise their right to vote with their dollar. Give thought to what beers you purchase. Yes, price is a factor, but so is flavor, so is brewery sustainability, so is buying local.

Cheers, TPJ.

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Runup to the Great American Beer Fest, Rant No. 1

Takeoff time again. Source: US DOD.

Takeoff time again – the Great American Slosh Pit, er… Beer Fest. It’s got the low roar of a Harrier jet on takeoff and more bobbleheads holding their pizzles than 100,000 TV sets all tuned to South Park. It’s got your rock star brewers and your fawning beer groupies. Okay, so it sold out five weeks early this year. What does that tell you? Well, that the venue is too small, or the expectation of customers too high, or the marketing of the Brewers Association – pure genius. While most beer festivals have a finite growth phase, the GABF keeps breaking its own attendance records, adding floor space, and upping the ticket price. Gotta love it.

12,000 of your closest friends. © 2009 Jason E. Kaplan.

Quite frankly, the price doesn’t equate to value when you consider how much time you spend standing behind dopey gee-whiz beer dorks who clog up the line faster than quickset cement poured into a toilet. It seems a goodly portion of those who have plunked down their cash on the barrelhead have succumbed to the notion that you can’t cop a decent buzz with the all lines, so why not pre-load and show up half in the bag. Yeah, it’s a spectacle. There’s frenzy, there’s mob psychology, few if any get trampled… but really, people, and here is the previously unsaid truth: wait your turn, know what you want when you get to the front, get your one ounce of beer, and get out of the f-ing way! No fawning. No autographs. No drooling. Get out of the way so the next people can get their splash.

What’s worse, other festivals aren’t any better. Last weekend I was at a wine festival in Omaha. In five hours two of us tasted a grand total of 1.25 bottles wine between us – for 85 bucks. (That, and we had to endure a band playing gloomy Gordon Lightfoot songs!) Most of these were $10-15 bottles, with only a couple costing around $40. We discovered two or three good ones, but really, with all the blisters, broken glass, and line cloggers… arghh!

You might not realize it, reading my opening diatribe, but I love beer festivals, and I love the GABF. It has so much energy it would glow if the lights went out. Astronauts can probably hear it from low orbit. After all, it has about two thousand beers to choose from being served by close to 500 breweries. You have four and half hours… Ready, Set, Go! It has bagpipers and clowns, for crying out loud. There are herds of fist-pumping twenty-somethings rambling though the crowd leaving a vapor trail of testosterone in their wake while catatonic agoraphobes clutch their cell phones in the wings. That’s right, it’s just you and 12,000 of your closest friends, per session, that is.

It is a spectacle indeed, but here are some ideas for enjoying it all the more.

• Line your innards. Eat a rich meal before the event to stem the absorption of alcohol.

• Make a plan. Here are some ideas:

    • Try beers you can’t get at home. GABF is organized by region.
    • Look for beers on a theme – stouts, pumpkin beers, etc.
    • Stay away from the media darling brewers – you’ll wait forever.

• Take advantage of some of the alternate activities inside the fest:

    • Attend a food-beer tasting.
    • Buy groovy schwag from the concession.
    • Sign up for a “You Be the Judge” class (keep reading).
    • Dance in the Silent Disco – or at least spectate – really weird!

• Don’t forget the off-venue activities!

    See Denver Beer Week for ideas.

Yep, looks like beer to me. © 2009 Jason E. Kaplan.

Here’s a plug for the You Be the Judge event, which I’ve participated in every year since its inception in 2007. Organizers came up with this great idea after years of mystery about how beers were actually judged at the GABF. Attendees can sit down with a pair of competition judges and be guided through the evaluation of a beer using the same scoresheets and guidelines as the big boys. YBJ is held in a draped off, quieter section of the floor and attendees must sign up when they arrive at that session. I think we have between 20 and 30 people per sitting. Stop by on the Saturday evening session at 8:30 to be joined by the Brewers Association’s Paul Gatza and yours truly.

In a half hour, we can usually get through two beers, but understand in the real judging, we might evaluate six to a dozen beers in the same timeframe. In competition judging, judges conduct an “animated discussion” after they’ve tasted all the beers, so it takes more than an hour, in actual fact. Unlike homebrew judging, the scoresheets are very simple. We don’t award points, per se, just rank the top three in the flight after providing some written comments on appearance, aromas, flavors, mouthfeel/aftertaste, and the… je ne sais quoi… wonderful ideosyncracies of the beer.

There are three or four judges per flight of about 6-12 entries. We are served all of the beers all at once. Each judge randomizes the order in which he/she evaluates the beers to reduce statistical issues like nugget effect, palate fatigue, and something I call creeping incrementalism.

In 2007 a journalist from the Seattle Weekly named Maggie Dutton recorded my session with her and it ended up here. Check it out!

Cheers! TPJ

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