This year, the Great American Beer Festival shed its youthful skin, put on its going-out clothes, and celebrated its 21st birthday.             

For one weekend a year, beer lovers from across America gather together in Denver, Colorado, to celebrate their common love: the glorious merger of grain, hops, water, and yeast. From humble beginnings fraught with consumer disinterest and logistical challenges, the Great American Beer Festival grew to become America's dominant beverage industry event.

This year's festival saw growth in several areas over previous festivals. A select group of 91 professional judges from six countries judged 1820 beers in 58 style categories in the Great American Beer Festival's (GABF) competition. The judges critiqued an average of 31 beers in each category. The least competitive category fielded only four competitors, while the most competitive category, American Style India Pale Ale, fielded 94 entries. At the annual awards ceremony, the judges awarded 172 medals. At the festival itself, 301 breweries poured more than 1300 beers for more than 21,000 attendees.

A HISTORY LESSON

The GABF held its first professional judging panel in 1987, replacing the prior consumer preference poll standard. Judges sit together in small groups and consider a range of beers in a single category. The judges evaluate the beers in a blind fashion, without knowing the brand name of the beers presented. GABF rules prevent brewers from judging categories in which they are personally competing. The judging process occurs in the days preceding the festival. The AOB assigns judges to evaluate beers in their respective areas of expertise and they typically sample fewer than 30 beers in any particular session. For categories with 14 or more entries, judges evaluate beers in groups of three per beer in the preliminary rounds. Final and medal rounds are judged by a minimum of six judges.

The Association of Brewers (AOB) defines a GABF gold medal winning beer as: "A world-class beer that accurately exemplifies the specified style, displaying the proper balance of taste, aroma and appearance." Silver and bronze medal winners are excellent beers that vary slightly from the style parameters. In truth, the medal rounds are often highly competitive with great beers fighting against other great beers.

For participating brewers, the battle for a medal is fierce and emotional, though few would admit it. While many shrug off the importance of the competition, plenty of brewers were seen shaking their heads in disappointment, or nursing beers and wounded egos at local brewpubs following the awards presentation. For the winners, however, they have reached a summit in their climb for respect in the brewing industry, says Charlie Papazian. "It means a hell of a lot for the brewers because they get a real kick out of being chosen by their peers for the recognition of the great beers they are making," says Papazian. "With those awards, they have been delegated to represent the craft beer industry for a year with their style."

JUDGING the PROCESS

In a new event this year, members of the media became the first non-judges to view the judging process. Introducing the event, GABF Judge Manager Chris Swersey admitted that the judging process was "not very transparent" to outsiders. The Association of Brewers' event brought together six well-respected beer professionals to simulate a judging of the highly contested American-style India Pale Ale category. The panel included author and journalist Michael Jackson, Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery, Teri Fahrendorf, Manager of the Steelhead Brewpub Group, Lyn Kruger, President and COO of Siebel Institute of Technology, Sue Thompson, Sensory Manager for Miller Brewing Company, and Paul Buttrick, Head UK Brewer for Stella Artois.

After a round of introductions, Ms. Kruger, the head of the panel, announced the style guidelines. She noted that India pale ales are characterized by intense hop bitterness with a high alcohol content. Brewers producing American IPA's use American hop varieties at a high hopping rate. The beers range in color from pale gold to deep copper, with a full, flowery hop aroma and a medium level of malt.

After the announcement of the style guidelines, beer stewards then set out the first round of beers. The samples were poured in a separate control room and presented in individually numbered, four ounce glasses. The judges individually began to swirl, contemplate, and taste the six samples. Some raised eyebrows after an inhale or a first sip, others concentrated deeply on the aromas or flavors. Each judge remained silent in their initial consideration.

Michael Jackson spoke first, posing a question about whether the guidelines limited the use of hops to the American varieties. Ms. Kruger noted that the guidelines so limited the category. Jackson noted that an American IPA "should be a smack in the mouth" of hop bitterness.

Eventually, the group began to argue over the characteristics of the various beers - the balance, hop aromas and clean flavors of the beers. While judges quickly agreed on which beers did not fit the guidelines, they were markedly less successful during the medal round. The panel split immediately over the freshness of the hops used in two particular beers. Some judges accused other judges of being overly sensitive to a "cheesy" or old hop flavor. Some judges wanted a brighter aromatic from the beers, while others sought out greater hop bitterness. In a striking comment, one judge admitted a particular disaffection for the use of West Coast hops, such as the Chinook variety, which are staples of the American IPA category. Other judges argued over whether a beer in this style should be balanced or whether extreme hop bitterness was the style's defining characteristic.

While watching this interesting event, one designed to highlight the integrity and effectiveness of the festival's much touted professional judging process, a wholly unforeseen notion struck me. Instead of demonstrating that trained judges can effectively evaluate one beer against another, the event confirmed for me the true impossibility of measuring beers on an objective basis. Amid the disputes and comments of the various judges, the inherent subjectivity of judging beers became obvious to attendees. The judges themselves admitted as much during and after the event. Jackson and Oliver argued after the contest over whether a beer should be judged by its present flavor or by divining a brewer's intent. The crux of the debate focused on beers which fit within a style guideline, taste very pleasant, but that show signs of oxidation, otherwise considered a flaw.

    

Amid this debate, it is important to note that the objective evaluation of beer is possible to some extent. Ms. Kruger and Ms. Thompson noted some of the mechanisms that larger brewers, such as Miller, employ in the quality control process. Miller and other large brewers employ highly trained chemists who routinely test a company's beers for defects or even the slightest deviations in hop levels. These chemists break beer down to its most basic chemical form, analyzing molecules for impurities or differences. To this extent, the breweries achieve an objective assessment of their beers. But this value of this evaluation is limited to comparing current product against a standard, objective chemical model of what the particular beer should be.

So while the highly skilled GABF judges are very adept at pulling out subtle flaws in the brewing process, there is little hope of objectively comparing beers, short of the wholly undesirable effort to undertake chemical analysis of judged beers.

THE AWARDS

After judges completed the extensive judging process, the brewers gathered on Saturday afternoon for the annual awards ceremony. The ceremony provided moments of comic relief mixed with others of poignant melancholy. Among the industry's most passionate and dedicated foot soldiers are the small craft brewers. They also make for the best stories at the festival. This year's big story was clearly Jason Courtney of the Hub City Brewery in Lubbock, Texas. When Swersey awarded the gold medal in the Munich-Style Helles category to Courtney for his creatively named "Helles in a Handbasket," Courtney and his crew leapt from their seats, screamed in happiness and briefly danced for joy. Courtney and his wife embraced and he then dashed to the stage barely able to hide his pride. It was a scene that Courtney would repeat four more times. He collected a gold medal for his Vienna-style lager, silver for his American-style Brown Ale, and bronze for his Irish-style Red Ale. At the end of the event, Hub City was awarded Small Brewpub of the Year, with Courtney taking home the award for Small Brewpub Brewmaster of the Year.

The excitement of winning a medal is not limited to the small brewmaster. However, the scale on which the success is measured is super-sized. After offering a measured response for his company's first medal, the representative for the Pabst Brewing Company pumped his fist in the air and cheered when Swersey announced clean sweeps of both the American-style Light Lager and American-style Specialty Lager categories. In all its forms, Pabst Brewing took home nine medals, more than any other brewery.

Other brewers also measured success on different levels. After he won a GABF silver medal in the German-style Wheat Ale category, African-American brewer Michael Ferguson stood up and yelled, "Yes! I am the other black brewer!" (The comment referenced brewing industry celebrity and fellow African-American brewer Garrett Oliver). After laboring for many years as the brewmaster at Barley's Casino and Brewing Company in Nevada, Ferguson's comment provided both comic relief and poignancy.

In the festival's most emotional moment, Glen Falconer, head brewer at the Wild Duck Brewery in Oregon, who passed away in an accident earlier this year, was awarded the GABF's final medal. Falconer received the posthumous GABF gold medal for his powerful and well-balanced Auld Gnarley Head Barleywine.

TAKING IT ALL IN

While subjectivity certainly creeps into the judging at America's most prestigious beer competition, it remains difficult to question the quality of the competition's results. In what is perhaps best described as a testament to the increasing quality of American craft beers, the newly minted GABF winners never failed to impress my palate. After the awards ceremony, festival attendees all dash madly towards the winners in their favorite styles. Disobeying my own inclinations, I instead opted to visit some of the winners of less flashy categories. In my sampling, the winners of categories such as Munich Helles and Kolsch beers were truly impressive. The flavors were subtle, yet remarkable, and often superior to any other beer within the style I tried. And if not for the competition, they were all beers most attendees, including myself, would skip.

The judging event and the competition's results left me in a mixed state. The judging at GABF is neither "tainted" nor is it questionable that certain well-known breweries fail to win awards. About 400 breweries enter more than 1800 beers in the competition. So while Rogue Shakespeare Stout may be a solid representation of its style, it has to compete against a huge range of other flavorful beers. Sometimes it wins, often it does not. So while subjective factors will always cast a pall on the proceedings, they are not enough to dismiss the competition altogether. If the judging process is hopelessly mired in the subjective views of a constantly changing group of so-called beer judges, how do we account for the fact that certain beers win awards year after year? These beers, such as the New Glarus Belgian Red, the Alaskan Smoked Porter and Sam Adams Double Bock are simply world-class beers. But these beers do not always win either. The level of competition is simply too great.

As for the geographic distribution of medals, California and Colorado breweries continued their dominance of the judging process. This year, southern breweries, including Atlanta's Sweetwater Tavern and Brewery, made impressive showings. Breweries in the Midwest also scored wins in highly contested categories. The most notable trend was the continuing decline of medals awarded to breweries in the Northeast.

FESTIVAL REDUX

The festival itself is little changed from previous years. The event is the largest of its kind in America and it draws a range of elements, ranging from die-hard beer connoisseurs to die-hard inebriates. The early sessions provide dedicated beer tasters the opportunity to amble from table to table, sampling a variety of beers across the greatest available range of styles. The later sessions, especially the Saturday session, packed the Denver Convention Center to its limits with belligerent drunks armed with enough knowledge to head straight for the highest alcohol beers. The one ounce tasting glasses, offered only in plastic to prevent the aforesaid elements from consistently breaking their tasting vessels, do not achieve any enviable purpose. The glasses are too small for proper tasting and offer unlimited one ounce shots for attendees.

Aside from some of the festival's lingering problems, the GABF does provide beer lovers unparalleled access to their favorite beers and brewers. Pursuant to AOB rules, brewers or brewery representatives staff the tasting booths and enjoy interacting with consumers. And thoughtful consumers truly appreciate the opportunity to sample exceptional and hard-to-find beers. At the opening of the festival, it is not uncommon to see first time attendees straggling by the door, faces awe-swept with the incomparable selection of great beer. Some stand with mouths agape, others shed a silent, heartfelt tear.

The festival is, above all else, a beer drinker's pre-eminent domestic opportunity to sample great beers. The selection of standout beers is too large to list, but here are some of the most inventive or attention capturing from my subjective point of view. Flossmoor Station rocked attendees with several great brews. Brewer Todd Ashman provided his name to Todd's Tupelo Tripel, a fantastic rendition of the style. His Old Conundrum Barleywine and Abbaye Dubbel also were superlative. Minneapolis Town Hall, one of America's best brewpubs, provided the well-balanced and palate provoking Jester's Reserve Whiskey Stout.

Above all others, Pizza Port Solana Beach again proved itself to be America's best brewpub for experimental and challenging beers. Brewer Tomme Arthur staffed his brewpub's table for much of the long weekend, pouring thousands of samples of his eclectic beers. His show-stopping Cuvee de Tomme employs a crazy grain bill, three strains of Brettanomyces Belgian yeast, along with Belgian candi sugar, sour cherries, and raisins. Arthur's Hop 15 weighed in at 9.5 percent abv, and employed 15 ounces of 15 types of hops added every 15 minutes to the kettle. The beer is seriously dry hopped, yet eminently drinkable. Finally, Arthur's Port 15 Anniversary Ale is almost indistinguishable from a loose, bold red wine (understandly so for a beer brewed in part with Cabernet wine yeast and blended in oak casks).

SIDE EVENTS

Apart from the challenges posed by the festival's offerings, Denver becomes "beervana" for a week in early October. The city fills with beer lovers, including many brewers who tote along special casks for local pubs. If the GABF's 1300 beers fail to humble you, the side events certainly will. Festival organizers, national and regional breweries, and other organizations sponsor a constant stream of beer-related side events, which include media breakfasts, special tasting sessions, and after-festival parties.

This year, I attended Realbeer.com's annual Vertical Tasting event, held at the beautiful New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins. This year's tasting event featured a vertical sampling of Fuller's Vintage Ale (1999-2001), several batches of New Belgium's experimental wood-aged beer series (known commercially as La Folie), and a variety of rare lambics from the Brouwerij Boon. Speakers included Michael Jackson, Peter Bouckaert and Kim Jordan of New Belgium, and Frank Boon. The impressive tasting opportunity doubled as a press event for New Belgium and Boon, who announced a unique partnership. The two breweries will each produce a special kriek (cherry) beer. Boon is presently producing a base kriek beer that it will transfer to New Belgium in early 2003. From there, the New Belgium team will blend another lambic beer with the Boon product.

The New Belgium event also showcased the newest culinary enterprise of Pete Slosberg, founder and namesake of Pete's Brewing Company. While Slosberg left the beer business behind in 1998 with the sale of his company to Gambrinus, he never lost his taste for high quality consumer products. After several trips to Belgium, Slosberg began to note the high quality of Belgian chocolates. He recently announced the formation of a new company that will produce high-quality, craft chocolates for the upscale culinary market. The New Belgium event offered prospective consumers and industry-insiders the first chance to sample his new products. Of the four chocolates presented at this event, the well-balanced sweetness and richness of the milk chocolate-based Maltimus Maximus was a clear crowd favorite.

Despite long days of sampling at the festival and challenging beer events, a weekend in Denver at the GABF offers beer connoisseurs a few opportunities for quiet, contemplative consideration of beer and the industry. Some connoisseurs find solace in quiet pints stolen at beer bars, others manage reflection in the heart of the beast. In the midst of a bustling, anxious crowd during the opening Thursday evening session of his GABF, Charlie Papazian looks around and takes the pulse of the industry. "I think it is a sign that craft beer and interest in the kind of things our Association of Brewers and members are involved in - promoting a positive culture about beer - I think we are on the right track."

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Article appeared in the December 2002 issue of Beverage Magazine. For information on reprinting any of the above articles, please contact Andy Crouch.

All materials, content, and articles remain under copyright held by Andy Crouch.  2002-2006 © Andy Crouch.