By Frank Fermino
Being a beer judge is a lot of work. Fun and rewarding, sure, but work nonetheless. This year I have the privilege once again to join so many knowledgeable and respected brewers at the country’s largest beer judging competition, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), held every year in Denver, Colorado.
Being a judge at GABF is no easy feat. Many judges at the competition are Certified Cicerones, a member of the Beer Judge Certification Program, or have extensive sensory analysis training. In addition to having the right background to effectively judge beers, to be accepted at GABF as a judge you also need three letters of recommendation speaking to your qualifications from existing judges.
Oh, and there’s a three-year waiting list before you even make it to the show.
In short, it’s difficult to even become a member of this group and the people who judge the competition take the responsibility very seriously. It’s both humbling and exciting.
Months before the start of GABF, I need to declare beers I am unable to judge due to conflicting interest. If Lord Hobo Brewing were entering beers into the competition, then I would have to excuse myself from those particular categories. Further, I have to prepare a list of the styles I know well versus the styles I don’t know well and include my preferred categories to judge.
Not including subcategories of beers, there are 102 different categories being judged at the 2018 GABF. Thousands of beers will be judged over the three day stretch and a medal won by a brewery in any category can go a long way to boosting its reputation.
This year, most eyes will be on the new Hazy IPA category. Some 700 beers were entered across three Hazy categories: Hazy IPA, Hazy Pale Ale, and Hazy Double IPA. It makes the first time in a decade-and-a-half that American-style IPA isn’t the category with the most entries.
The day before the competition the assignments are handed out. This is one of the more exciting days when I get to open my folder and see what I got. In the 2017 competition I judged four categories, including American-style Malt Liquor (yup … insert your own jokes here), and a category called Field Beer, which are “any beers incorporating vegetables as ﬂavor or carbohydrate adjuncts in either the mash, kettle, primary or secondary fermentation,” according to the Brewers Association.
So, how do beers get judged and go on to earn a lifetime of fame and fortune? For us judges, it’s more than just reading the style guide and seeing if a beer fits into it or is exemplary of the style. It’s also not based on personal preference. Of course, we read and re-read the guidelines for what’s allowed and not allowed but we also sit around a table discussing the style’s characteristics and nuances before any beer is even tasted.
Sequestered in a nearby hotel basement to do all this, stewards bring us the beers unmarked in plastic cups filled with about 1.5 ounces of beer. It’s a blind tasting format. Then, a round robin run-off takes place. Each round, the judges determine the top beers from a select group to move on to the next round. If you have a large category like Hazy IPA you might have a few tables of judges. Each round of tasting and judging narrows the field. This judging goes on all morning with multiple samples, re-pours, lively debate, palate cleansers consumed, and frequent trips to the bathroom.
We scribble notes to give back to the brewery about their beers and finally choose which samples are exceptional enough to move on to the next round until the three medal-worthy beers in a category eventually rise to the top.
When you’re judging a style you like it can feel like the best responsibility in the world, but it’s difficult if you get a style you are unfamiliar with or don’t particularly care for. That’s when you have to dig deep. And there’s a good chance that happens to all the judges at some point!
Three straight days of judging multiple beers over six sessions, while hitting the festival floor and events at night will end on Saturday morning where all the judges grab a beer of choice and a breakfast burrito, and watch the awards go out.
It does take some luck to get a medal, but it always takes skill. Only the best beers have a chance of winning a medal and seeing the joy on some brewers’ faces when they win is cool. This is no different than winning an Oscar or an Emmy. To be recognized by your peers is to validate all of the effort, ups, downs, and everything in between that happens when you start a brewery and embark on that craziest of dreams.
Frank Fermino is the production supervisor and brewer for LHBCo. He has previously brewed beer at Red Hook, John Harvard’s, and Coastal Extreme Brewing.
Photo © Brewers Association