Judging Beer: What Is A Medal Really Worth?

Posted on Posted in BeerAdvocate Mag

In the shadow of George Ferris’s massive wheel at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, one of the earliest beer judging disputes brewed. More than twenty brewers vied for the top prize, with Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser and an offering from the Pabst Brewing Company splitting several awards. The competition ended in controversy, with the Pabst beer narrowly besting Budweiser. Fast-forward a century, Pabst Blue Ribbon is still milking that slender victory.

While beer competitions have long been controversial, medals and awards seem as plentiful as caps on bottles. With countless accolades slapped on the side of six-packs, consumers are wise to learn about a competition’s methods before they plunk down their money on an “award-winning? beer.

Beer, by its very nature, is an inherently subjective commodity and quality can’t be determined by simply hooking up a pint to a machine. To bring order to the chaotic world of judging beer, there are two main approaches: let everyone pick their favorite or establish some ground rules. Because the fickle results of popularity contests change frequently and provide drinkers with little concrete information, the structured competitions tend to be the more respected.

Style guidelines distinguish meaningful competitions from your local county fair by removing a large degree of the subjectivity from the evaluation of beer. Two of the highest regarded competitions are the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup, both run by the Brewers Association. GABFMedal These events deserve respect for the sheer number of entries (2400 for the GABF, 2200 for WBC) and the use of strict style guidelines by professional judges in a blind process. The Brewers Association’s 2007 guidelines recognize a mind-blowing 125 different styles, with painstaking descriptions of each category of beer. The downside for non-conformist brewers in these competitions is that style selection is critical. Enter your beer in the wrong category and an otherwise flawless beer may come home empty-handed.

But even when judges follow style guidelines, consumers can’t blindly rely on the results. For example, The Great International Beer Festival, held annually in Rhode Island oddly promotes itself as America’s largest international beer festival, although it judged a whopping fourteen imported entries from six countries last year. While the competition might otherwise be strong, it’s hardly a cage match between the world’s greatest beers.

Consumers also need to be discerning about contests sponsored by private organizations. Of these events, perhaps the best known is the World Beer Championships run by the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago. BTI’s medal-based competition is run a bit differently from other events, with less weight placed on style adherence and more on a brewer’s creativity within a certain category. In a laudable twist, the institute’s respectable panel of judges tastes products throughout the year instead of packing all beer judging into less than a week of sessions.

BTIThe way an organization awards medals can also be a telling aspect of how consumers should value the honor when choosing a beer. The BTI contest employs the familiar 100-point scale to score beers and awards platinum (96-100), gold (90-95), silver (86-89), and bronze medals (80-84). Beers that fall below 80 points receive a ‘not recommended’ finding. Of the 1650 beers in BTI’s database, only 53 have been rated below 80 points and would fail to snag at least a bronze medal. The BTI event reminds me of a little of a correspondence school where you mail a check for fifty bucks and they send you back a medical degree.

No competition is perfect though, and even the Brewers Association’s events have areas of concern. In past years, both the GABF and the WBC have given out medals in categories with as few as three or five entries, in contrast to the vast majority of categories which have more than twenty competitors. In such cases, winning a bronze medal in a contest of only three brands is not as impressive as the title may imply.

So if even the best competitions have flaws, should we ever care about medals and awards? Winning medals doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like the beer, and many great beers never win anything. But with a little exploration, you may discover that some medal winners you’ve never tried surely deserve the accolades. So when faced with a beer boasting its accomplishments, remember to first check the age and whereabouts of the win. Was it a county fair in 1989 or the WBC in 2006? Has the beer won GABF medals twice in recent years? Repeat GABF winners in craft beer styles are usually sure-fire good choices. While things have come a long way from the sordid days of the blue ribbon controversy, consumers can do their part to keep breweries from boasting about 100-year-old victories.

–A version of this article appeared in the May issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.
–For BTI’s tongue-in-cheek response to my article, view my award.

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