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