As an international beer judge, I have had the privilege of evaluating beers from all around the world. However, there is one event that stands above the rest in my mind – the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). This festival, held annually in Denver, Colorado by the Brewers Association, is not only one of the largest beer festivals, but also one of the most prestigious beer competitions in the world.
Being selected to judge at the GABF is a tremendous honor, and one that I do not take lightly. To even be considered, I had to submit a formal application and obtain three recommendations from either current or former judges, or individuals in the beer industry. The rigorous selection process ensures that only the most qualified and experienced judges are chosen.
The day of judging at the GABF is no easy task. With multiple rounds of beers to assess, it is important to start the day off right with a substantial breakfast. I personally opt for a hearty meal of eggs, toast, fruit, and an iced coffee. Hot coffee is avoided, as it can affect the taste buds, and I prefer to have a small glass of coffee to prevent any interference with my palate.
During my stay in Denver, I find solace in the Queen Anne Urban Bed and Breakfast. The owner, Milan Doshi, prepares a delightful breakfast that showcases local businesses and fresh ingredients. It is a true highlight of my experience at the festival.
Each morning begins with judging 2-3 rounds of beers, followed by a well-deserved lunch break. The afternoon is then dedicated to an additional three rounds of judging. At a table comprised of five or six judges, we evaluate beers within the same style category. The table captain, an experienced judge appointed by the Brewers Association, divides the table into pairs so that each judge collaborates closely with one or two others. This rotation allows for fresh perspectives and opinions throughout the day.
Before diving into the beer tasting, it is crucial for everyone at the table to thoroughly read the style guidelines for the specific beer category being judged. These guidelines provide us with a clear understanding of what the beer should look, smell, and taste like. It is important to remember that our evaluations are based on these parameters, not personal preferences.
Once the stewards, who are an incredible group of dedicated volunteers, bring us all the beers for the round, the room falls into a serene silence. Each judge proceeds at their own pace, carefully assessing the beers and taking notes. Some judges work quickly, while others take their time. Regardless of the approach, it is crucial to find a balance between thorough analysis and timely evaluations.
In the initial rounds, we provide detailed feedback for each beer, which will later be shared with the breweries. These critiques play a vital role in helping the breweries improve their craft. Simple statements like “I like this” or “good” are insufficient. It is essential to provide well-written and thoughtful feedback that highlights both the strengths and areas for improvement of each beer. Failure to provide sufficient feedback may result in an invitation to judge being withheld in the future.
Once my judging partners and I have completed our individual assessments, we engage in a discussion about each beer. The beers are labeled with numbers to ensure complete blind judging, preventing any potential bias. Starting with the beers we find least appealing, we swiftly eliminate those that fall short of our expectations. It is not uncommon for one judge to appreciate a beer that another judge dislikes, which leads to fruitful discussions. It is important to be open-minded, consider the rationale of fellow judges, and respect differing opinions. Ultimately, we collectively select the beers that we believe best exemplify the style and advance them to the next round. The choice may not always align with personal preferences, but it is essential to prioritize adherence to the style guidelines.
The judging process at the GABF is rigorous, but it is a necessary process to maintain the integrity and high standards of the competition. Each judge plays a crucial role in advancing the craft of brewing by offering valuable feedback to breweries. The sense of camaraderie and mutual respect among judges is truly remarkable, making the experience all the more rewarding.
The Great American Beer Festival is not only a celebration of the incredible diversity and craftsmanship within the beer industry, but also an opportunity for judges like myself to contribute to its growth and development. It is an event that I eagerly anticipate each year, knowing that I will have the privilege of evaluating outstanding beers, engaging in enlightening discussions, and ultimately, recognizing the very best of American brewing.
A Unique Perspective on The Great American Beer Festival
One year at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), something interesting happened. There was a delicious hoppy beer in the U.S. wheat category, but unfortunately, it was considered too bitter and out of style. As a result, it had to be eliminated from the competition.
During the second round of judging, no feedback was given to the breweries. This round usually goes by a lot quicker, and as a judge, you simply take some notes for yourself, remembering which beers you enjoyed and which ones you didn’t. Your task is to select the best three beers to move forward to the next round.
In the larger categories like German pilsners, there could be up to four or more rounds before reaching the medal round. However, in smaller categories, there are only three rounds. The medal rounds are judged collectively by the entire table. This is a crucial moment as the judges determine who will be awarded a medal, so concentration is key.
Once again, all the beers are brought out, and as a judge, you make notes on each one. Then, the group as a whole discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each beer. There have been instances where panels have spent a couple of hours deliberating and debating, due to minor disagreements and the need for a majority decision on the winners.
The judging process takes place over three full days per session, and there are three “phases” spread out over three weeks. It’s a massive undertaking, involving around 250 judges from all corners of the globe, who collectively sip and evaluate an astounding 9,300 beers from over 2000 breweries!
The winners of the GABF are announced prior to the third session, in front of a jam-packed theater in downtown Denver. The celebrations are incredible, with Breakside Brewery from Portland, Oregon proudly accepting their GABF medal on stage alongside the Brewers Association President and CEO, Bob Pease, during the medal ceremony in 2022.
Now, here’s the interesting part – every day, as a judge, you have the opportunity to sample around 60 different beers. Yes, you read that correctly! However, the key is to take very small sips, ensuring that you never feel drunk or tipsy. The beers are spaced out throughout the day, and the buffet lunch provided is substantial. And of course, it’s crucial to stay hydrated, so drinking water regularly is a must.
At the end of each day, though, you can’t help but feel a bit bloated and exhausted. It’s understandable given the sheer number of beers tasted. Despite the discomfort, there’s an undeniable sense of joy and excitement throughout the event. Each year, you eagerly anticipate reconnecting with old friends, making new acquaintances, and most importantly, immersing yourself in the world of incredible American craft beers.
So, if you happen to attend the Great American Beer Festival, remember that behind the scenes, there is a rigorous judging process that takes place over several weeks, involving passionate individuals from all walks of life who come together to celebrate and honor the best brews in the country. Cheers to the wonderful world of craft beer!