Sunday, October 14, 2007

Judging the Great American Beer Festival

"When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece." ~John Ruskin

October 9 -12: My judging responsibilities began on Tuesday at 5:00 pm with the Judges Orientation. Christopher Bird (Brewmaster at Altech's Lexington Brewery) and Dr. Gary Spedding (Owner/Analyst at Brewing & Distilling Analytical Services) both of Lexington, Kentucky lead the annual sensory review. This year's review focused on the aroma and flavor of alcohol in rising concentrations in the same control beer.

Wednesday morning at 8:45 am, the Judges assembled at their assigned tables. Back in the 1990's, for many years I was the only woman Judge in attendance. I am happy to report there are several women Judges now. The above panel of seven Judges was remarkable (and exciting) as the women Judges outnumbered the men. I am wearing black, and going around the table to my left the judges were: Carl Kins, Gwen Conley, Keith Villa, Sue Thompson, Finn Knudsen and Carol Stoudt.

How does one become a GABF Judge? It helps if you are a professional brewer and have previously won a GABF medal. Brewers outnumber all other Judges, but non-brewing judges may include beer writers, suppliers to the brewing industry, and former professional brewers.

If you are a professional brewer, have judged homebrew competitions, have passed the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program), have taken formal sensory education courses, and you have a good palate and a friendly disposition, you may apply to become a Judge and get on the rotating judge roster. Contact GABF/World Beer Cup Judge & Competition Manager, Chris Swersey through the Brewers Association to find out what the current requirements are.

If you think it's hard to become a GABF/WBC judge, Chris tells us it's even harder to become a GABF/WBC Steward! I've been judging since 1991, and some of the Stewards have been at it longer than I have. In the photo at left, Steward Jim Fixari carefully carries a tray of neutral-plastic cups marked with random numbers and filled with beer samples to one of the judging rooms.

The Judges taste the beers blind and never see the bottles or cans that the beers were poured from. At the end of my judging on the last day, I was able to take the photo below of the Steward's Staging Area. Chris gave me permission to take the photo, but I wasn't allowed to enter the room. Judges are never allowed into the room.

There is a key word and philosophy that all the Stewards and Judges are almost rabid about, and that word is Integrity. The GABF is the highest-regarded beer festival in the world because its integrity is impecable. Everyone involved in this competition is passionate about and committed to absolute integrity in every way.

That's not to say that we don't enjoy ourselves, because we definitely have a good time. It's a lot of fun to meet and work with the other judges, who are some of the top movers and shakers in the industry. It's also fun to see the same Stewards year after year, although as judges we don't generally get to know the Stewards as well as we do our fellow judges.

Judging runs 8:45 am - 5:00-ish on Wednesday and Thursday prior to the GABF, and from 8:45 am - 12:30 pm on Friday. I say 5:00-ish, because if the judging day runs long and the discussions get lengthy, the Judges and Stewards are committed to staying and working "as long as it takes."

This year 107 Judges judged over 2800 beers. My judging sessions were mostly within normal hours, but I heard from other judges who judged till 1:00 pm in the morning session, and until 7:30 pm in the afternoon session. Makes it a bit hard when you are an exhibiting brewer and have to set up and pour at your booth during the Festival!

In the evenings or when there's free time away from the Judging and the Festival, many of the Judges congregate at the Falling Rock Taphouse at 1919 Blake Street. In the photo above right, Judges Dick Cantwell, Jon Graber, Christopher Bird, and George Reisch relax and enjoy a pint at the Falling Rock.

After my last judging session ended Friday at 12:30 pm, I took a taxi over to the Falling Rock where I slammed down lunch and got settled to judge the Alpha King Challenge. The AKC is sponsored by Hop Union and probably a few other companies. The challenge is to brew an extremely hoppy beer that is also balanced. There were over 90 entries this year, versus about 60 entries last year.

The Alpha King Challenge was first presented by Three Floyds Brewing Company in honor of their extremely hoppy beer which is called Alpha King. I was put on a panel of three Judges, and the all 12 or so Judges were sequestered in the basement "Cigar Room" at Falling Rock. We judged about 14 beers, and put two beers forward to the final round. I only judged the first round. We put an aromatic and well-balanced bitter Imperial IPA forward, as well as a dark beer with excellent balance and a chocolate malt character.

Falling Rock was packed, as is usual for Friday afternoon of the GABF. The winners were announced an hour or so later, but I only heard the first two winners. First was Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing Co., and second place was Two Hearted Ale from Bells Brewing Company.

Jon joined up with me there, and Christine Jump interviewed me for a live podcast for her website, It was noisy and crowded outside on the patio at Falling Rock, but hopefully the sound turned out.

Then Jon and I walked to the festival at the Colorado Convention Center. I had a 5:30 pm appointment at the "You Be The Judge" booth. More about the festival in my next post...

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