Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Great American Beer Fest: On Awards

The Great American Beer Festival. I've written about it before; mainly as a one-off to list the winners of various prizes. So, that should tell you something about what it is. It's a beer festival (duh), but there is also a competition component to it. A brewery can participate in either, or both, of the events.

Mathematically, 70% of all breweries participating in the competition, win at least one medal. Of course, many breweries enter in many different categories, so it's not just for a particular brand. But 70% of all breweries win at least one prize. Which shouldn't be that surprising. There are 133 styles of beer to be judged in; at 3 awards per style, that is 399 possible awards. There are approximately 460 breweries participating. Sheer numbers dictate that most breweries are going to walk away with prizes of some sort.

Add in the fact that even the best tasters can't distinguish between Paulaner and Great Lakes Oktoberfests. Most of the tasters (professional judges, by the way) taste multiple categories for long periods of time. It means that it's, in my opinion, a fool's errand to judge beer on this sort of scale. In fact, we could argue, not facetiously, that it's a fool's errand to judge beer at all.

Really, is your "best" even remotely similar to my "best" even when we take into account the often broad specifications within style? Can you even explain how one might reconcile New Glarus' Olde English Porter with O'So's Night Train, both porters, in a blind tasting? Can Leinienkugels' Fireside Brown even remotely stand up to Grand Teton Extra Special Brown? How do you put Central Waters Glacial Trail, a fine malt-nuanced IPA, into the same category as Old Schoolhouse's Ruud Awakening IPA, a 100+ IBU monster that is, somehow, not an Imperial IPA and determine who the "winner" is?

Winner of what? How close you can get to "average"? Is that really a goal? Let's see how average we can be? You want to be the most average brewery in the US? You want to brew the most "average" beer in a category? Congratulations?

So, I think it's fair to say I fall on one side of the "awards" line. So, I posed the awards issues to Brewmaster Kirby Nelson of Capital Brewery. Kirby and Capital will be at the Great American Beer Fest, and, incidentally, have historically done very, very well there. So, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, Kirby Nelson:

Interesting that you are asking me to take the “pro” side of an argument that I am more towards the neutral/con side myself. Which I know sounds like I am trying to talk bullshit to a bullshitter but I have always been somewhat skeptical of many of the competitions that are out there. For a couple reasons. One, I am not an official/certified/nerdified/what have you beer judge. And I don’t wanna be. And I don’t have to be because I know what I am doing and tasting and it has served me very well. Yet I have met many “judges” who I really felt really weren’t what I would consider super capable or impressive when it came to tasting from what I could see. I would like to add that the overall sophistication of judges and consumers has greatly increased since Capital began to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Another reason is that I know better when it comes to a gold, silver, or bronze type contest. I believe is no such thing as the “best” beer. It is in the eye of the beholder and just like music, you have to seek out what you enjoy and not let some compromise laden panel of “experts” make your decision for you. It also has amused and puzzled me that one year at a given contest a beer like Fire can do well, be out of the running the next, and then come home with a gold the following. Same beer, brewed consistently the same, dependably excellent from one year to the next, yet erratically medaled. This is the nature of these types of contests and I just have no desire to be part of the judging in these events. It would lead to violence.

With that said, we enter a number of contests and have been fortunate enough to do relatively well in them. And I plan to keep entering them. And the reason is we are in a very competitive industry. Walk into a good size retailer and you are facing a wall of beer of many different varieties, producers, claims, and other pick this beer hyperbole. One way to try to stand out is by having awards to show off. And if your brewery has a variety of these awards to brag about it certainly adds to your credibility of whatever claims to greatness you are stating. We certainly have taken advantage of the aura awards can add to our marketing efforts. With that said I sometimes have to wonder how effective that’s become because I can’t help but notice almost every brewery out there uses “Award Winning” as a descriptor. In fact I see it more than “Nothing but the Highest Quality Ingredients Used” type of thing these days. Or “Craft Brewed” for that matter. And don’t even get me started on “America’s #1 Rated Brewery”…………………………………..

I will add that I do believe when a brewery has consistently done well in contests over the years it does show that they can consistently produce products that are well made, excellent examples of the category that particular beer (or beers) represents, the erratic nature of these types of contest notwithstanding. It demonstrates the brewery in question knows what they are doing. And the most legitimate judging that I have been part of and is objective and very fair and highlights a brewery’s competence is the Beverage Testing Institutes approach to scoring beers. And it is interesting of how Bengston’s (sp?) or Kramer’s Tables never enter into any discussion of what beer is better than others. In fact, it’s been so long since I utilized these tools I would have to refresh my memory of how to use them. If you have any desire to fond out why BTI’s system is the way to judge beers or what Bengston’s and Kramer’s tables are all about you’ll have to come out here and discuss over beers.

So to sum up this mess I would say that contest results are to be taken with a grain of salt. And of course it feels good to see one of your beers listed as a medal winner in a contest, that’s human nature. And if your beers do well, take advantage of the results. And if they don’t, the judges are fuckin’ morons.


  1. Thank you Jeff and Kirby - great post!

    And, I'm eagerly awaiting the full results of all 133 style categories from this years GABF. Once they are posted I can start compiling reasons why I need to try, or not try, each and every winner in each and every category. Then I can piss and moan that most are not available in my area and start ranting about how the TinyTown brewpub should distribute nationwide (cause you know they'd make soooo much money by doing that).

    I'll stick with drinking mostly local and exploring beer in the areas I visit. If I like it - it must be a good beer - and if I don't like it "the judge is a fuckin moron"


  2. New Glarus brewery is one of the best in the world. They only win medals on a consistant basis with their fruit beers. Because of there innovative and going "outside the box" mentality, beers like the cow don't win awards. The cow doesn't fit any style. I gave up homebrew contests because of the "style Nazi demands". Being free of other's constraints has freed up my homebrewing personality.

    Leinie's is one of the most award winning brewery around, but the beers they make are bland and boring. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.


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