GABF and the process of judging beer

The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) just took place and every year the beer industry swoons over the award ceremony where thousands of beers compete to see which ones are considered the best in the nation. Judging beer is a complex process and measures a brewer’s ability to hit a target, namely, a beer style. These styles are defined by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and the Brewers Association (BA) and are considered the industry standard for numerical and characteristic definitions of a beer style. Becoming a beer judge takes more than just an aptitude for drinking and requires years of palate training and study. While beer judges enjoy joking about what a difficult job it is judging beer, it does actually require a great deal of focus, knowledge, and follows strict guidelines.

Serving conditions

Since multiple beers are being judged at any given time a judge is usually only given 2-4 oz of each beer being judged. It is more common for beer to be poured into plastic cups than in actual glass. Real glass is preferable but with five or more judges commonly filling a panel and a judging sometimes containing twelve samples or more (albeit rare since a palate will get fatigued after dozen or so beers in a single sitting), the quantity of glassware needed will quickly escalate and plastic is the more reasonable option (overlooking the obvious environmental issues associated with this). The type of plastic being used matters. Flimsier plastics like polysterene (think red SOLO cups used in beer pong) often cause excessive foaming, changing the flavor and carbonation levels. Hard, stiff plastics like acrylic will allow a tighter foam structure to form than their weaker counterparts. Drinking water and unsalted water crackers are placed on the table as palate cleansers. Brewery sensory panels can be incredibly complex with isolation booths and controlled climates and lighting, however general judging sessions are held at tables with ample space between judges and an implied “cone of silence” upheld in the area. In the BJCP, each judge is given a score sheet that separates a beer out by Aroma (12 points), Appearance (3 pts), Flavor (20 pts), Mouthfeel (5 pts), and Overall Impression (10 pts) for a total of 50 points.

Judging a beer

While it might be a first impulse, to jump at the glass and take a swig of beer, there is an order in which beer is judged. Some aromas can quickly dissipate so the first step in judging beer is to smell it. There are several breathing and tasting techniques used by beer analysts however the most common one used in a judging setting is where the individual places their hand over the glass and lightly swirls the beer. This can often look pretentious and goofy but it does have a real purpose. The swirling motion helps release aroma particles and the palm placed over the glass concentrates these aromas. A beer judge is required to have a detailed understanding of the style being judged and the expectations of that style (although the written style definition is often provided to the judge). Certain aromas may be appropriate in one style of beer but not another and the judge is expected to know when particular aromas are typical, and when they are considered an “off-flavor.”

The next step is to observe the appearance of the beer. In America, color is most often measured by the Standard Reference Method, or SRM scale. A pale lager will have about 2 SRM, a red ale will be around 15 SRM, and a stout will come in at 25 SRM or more. The color of the beer deepens based off of the width of the glassware however a judge will often tilt the glass to compensate for this. During this time they are also looking at the clarity of the beer and observing the bubbles. The bubble size, frequency in which they form, and how they pack into the foam head can relay how the beer was made and the ingredients used.

Finally, the judge gets to drink the beer. A judge rates the beer on “flavor” rather than “taste.” Flavor is the combination of aroma and taste. The palate has a limited range of tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, etc.) but when combined with different aromas there are countless flavors. During this time they are also looking at the mouthfeel and body of the beer. If the beer is too thick or too thin, it can indicate an incorrect recipe design and ingredients or poor process control. The judge lastly gives an overall impression score that considers the beer as a whole and ties together these different categories.

The number of beers entered into a category matters too. If there are a small amount of entries and none, or few, of them are up to par, than judges can decide to only award the deserving beer(s). That happened this year in the Pumpkin/Squash Beer category where there were only ten entries. The judges must have felt that only one beer was worthy of an award since only BTU Brasserie out of Portland, OR, received a bronze metal for their Butt-Ah Nut.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, October 19, 2016

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