A Look Into the Judging of GABF Beers
Have you ever wondered what it takes for breweries to win medals at Great American Beer Festival? You might say “Easy, make great beer.” That is technically correct, but as it turns out, it takes a ton of behind the scenes organization, planning and coordination to judge all of those great beers that get entered.
With 300 judges from 13 different countries, it also takes a lot of people. This year the festival is expecting over 8,800 beer entries from 2,450 breweries across the country, not to mention an additional 105 Pro-Am entries that also need to be judged. This year there will be 102 categories representing 167 different styles, including a few newcomers to the scene this year: Hazy IPA, Contemporary American-Style Pilsner, and Classic Australian-Style Pale Ale. Some categories are really heavy hitters with hundreds of entries (we’re looking at you American IPA) but on average there are about 82 beers entered into each of the categories. That’s a lot of beer!
How does one become a judge do you you ask?
Well, the GABF Judging Panel is made up of experienced and recognized folks in the industry, people with formal sensory training, beer writers and other other experts. There is an application process which collects experience and references, and then ultimately the GABF competition manager Chris Swersey hand selects the final list of judges. Many of the judges are brewers themselves with beers in the competition, but Swersey takes the needed steps to ensure they don’t judge any categories that they have a beer entered in. Each year the panel adds at least 20 new judges to ensure diverse palettes and there are six to seven judges per category.
Over the course of a single session, every judge tastes as many as 36 beers. Based on how many entries there are into a particular category, a single beer may go through many rounds of blind tasting against its peers before making it to a final round. For our good friend the American IPA category and its plethora of entries, the Gold Medalist IPA has gone through at least 5 rounds of judging, whereas a very small category may only need one or two rounds. Each judging round is comprised of a small number of the overall entries in the category so that the judges don’t get fatigued on the style, and only the best from each group then move forward to the next round until the final group is selected.
In addition to the judges, the army of volunteer stewards make the competition happen.
The stewards are 183 volunteers that help with all the various tasks related to judging. The stewards’ jobs include preparing the tasting cups, getting the random numbered labels applied to those cups, properly pouring the beers, serving the beers to each judge at the appropriate tables, and returning the comments and advancements back to the steward captains. While the judges may be industry folks, the stewards are not allowed to have any affiliation with any brewery that has a beer entered in the competition.
The steward process is only one of the many steps that are in place to ensure fair judging. Swersey explains that “The integrity of the competition is of the utmost importance. We ensure that no judge can ever judge a beer that they themselves produce or any beer with which a judge may be in some way affiliated with that company. We physically separate judging and what we call staging. In the staging room, beers are poured into the numbered judging cups and then sent out to be judged. Judges are blocked from going anywhere near the staging room,” he goes on to say that “All stewards are required to sign a confidentiality agreement, and may not be affiliated with any brewery with a beer entered in the competition. There are many other security steps, both physical and electronic in place to keep the competition completely fair.”
Judging for this years competion will begin on September 19 and will continue over the course of three days. All winners will be announced at the official Awards Ceremony on September 22, which, while not open to the public, will be live-streamed on TheBrewingNetwork.com, starting at 10:00am for us all to follow along with. As well, we at PorchDrinking.com will live tweet the results as we have done in years past.
Best of luck to all the breweries who are competing, and to everyone else, happy GABF!