Ask the Brewers #3: Beer Judging and Awards

by: Todd on 01-05-2003
Professional beer judging and award competitions, such as the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), World Beer Cup or similar, have been a pet peeve of mine ever since I really got into beer. On one hand they provide the winning brewers a marketing angle and promote the beer industry, while on the other they often mean absolutely nothing at all. The judging is often times infected by much subjectivity and the inexperienced palate, with an unfortunate "if you don't enter, you won't win" mindset by their organizers, many of whom actually charge the brewers to enter the competitions! And, even though these events are mostly positive for the beer industry as a whole, I still find them to be flawed and misleading.

I also believe that both the consumers and brewers can get much more out of the comments posted on BeerAdvocate.com (from its thousands of users and years of comment gathering) vs. the outcome of a competition (conducted by a handful of beer "experts," writers who are often inexperienced with judging and opinionated brewers ... in a single sitting with small samples and over-worked palates).

In an attempt to find out what others thought, we conducted a poll on BeerAdvocate.com and asked our user base of thousands, "Do you care about pro beer judging and awards?" The results were surprisingly more in-line with my views than anticipated ... 26% voted yes, 52% votes no and 22% voted that it depends on the event.

(View the forum comments:  http://beeradvocate.com/forum/read ... 64/#45664) 

But what do those who actually enter these competitions think? To get a rounder picture, I asked the brewers ...

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Well let me put it like this: I love to win but don't mind if I don't. The reason? Let me just say that by some of the tasting notes I've gotten back from judges in the GABF weren't very astute. I've gotten things like "this Pilsner is really more of a Helles Bock". Huh? So it's a crapshoot. When I was a brewer at North East Brewing Company we were awarded a silver for our Pils. In this case we beat-out brewers like Budvar. It was a coup! No, it was a crapshoot and I won.

Dann Paquette
Rapscallion Artisanal Beers / Concord

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/59/ 

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While the quality of judging is always open to criticism (I once submitted a beer to the GABF where the judge responded "American hops?" The beer contained 13 oz/barrel of cascade, and anyone who couldn't tell that was clearly in the wrong room), I believe that the process of blind elimination in flights, generally used in many competitions, works. Having said that, I find that very often beer writers and "critics" are included in judging , and these people are collectively the least well trained in sensory analysis. Michael Jackson is clearly excluded from my criticism ... his palate is unbelievably good.

As per awards, I personally place a lot of value on them... there is little to separate one beer from another in the minds of consumers. They simply like most beers equally, or only have a vague sense of one being better "because I like it". While "I like it" ultimately does carry a lot of weight, rightly, it doesn't placate my wish that flawed beers were pointed out to the general public, and that's where competition victories come in... if you make bad beer, you won't win. further, many of us are introduced to beers from far away, or from regions where we have not traveled. When someone presents me with a beer from Arizona made by a brewery with 3 GABF medals, I'm on full alert. Medals work.

Having said that, it should be pointed out that some competitions are bogus. There is a Chicago based competition (shall remain nameless) that gives awards to 86% of entrants when I last saw statistics. This sort of gratuitous self-aggrandizement is clearly an effrontery to all. Brewers advertising their achievements in this particular venue are shameless. If I see a brewer marketing their achievements in that competition, I know their products suck.

Ray McNeill
McNeill's Brewery

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/100/ 

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I value an award like a pat on the back. I'm fine without, but it's nice to get from time to time nonetheless.

I've judged in enough professional (and homebrewing) competitions --- including the GABF --- to know that the judging process itself is tough. You gotta make a call based upon only a few ounces of beer. I believe that the judging methods and practices in such competitions are generally as good as they can be. When I have given awards in competitions, the recipients have deserved their awards as they were the best when judging side-by-side, an ounce or two at a time when sitting at a table in a judging atmosphere.

But would I make the same decision when experiencing the same beers in under different circumstances? Very hard to say, but I doubt it strongly. Why "strongly?" Because I have sampled many, many beers that were wonderful in the first two or three ounces, but started to show flaws further into the pint glass. As you work through a full serving of a beer, negative aspects such as cloying characters can surface. Conversely, a beer that seems unimpressive in a one or two ounce format can sometimes shine after a full serving so much that it calls loudly for a second pint.

Not that the two formats need to be mutually exclusive. I've tasted many beers in judgings that were flawed and I know I would not need to have a pint to know that they would still be flawed past the third ounce. I've tasted other beers in judgings that won in a competition that I have later enjoyed immensely by the pint.

Generally, professionally awarded awards are deserved. They are usually awarded to beers of quality. Would the judge give the same award if they had the chance to have all the beers in quantity in their fridge over a year? At the end of the year, what beer would they then judge as best? Hard to tell of course.

And that is why the BeerAdvocate and RateBeer models are so cool. It brings the "judging" into a different and heretofore unseen perspective. Now people CAN judge a beer over the course of a pint. Or two. Or three. Or over the period of months and years. And instead of the opinions of a few judges over one concentrated period of time in a protected environment, there are the opinions of thousands developed over years in a natural environment.

Cheers,

Greg Koch, CEO & Co-Founder
Stone Brewing Company

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/147/ 

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I am impressed when I hear of breweries winning awards. You, obviously have to discount certain categories that allow ice lite dry low carb beers to win. However, when you hear of one brewery winning consistently for a beer or one brewer who wins for different styles of beers, especially in the same year, that is really something.

Eat, drink and be merry,

Jon Hill
Maine Coast Brewing Co.

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/348/ 

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We typically enter our beers in National (GABF) and International (World Beer Cup, World Beer Championship) judgings. In the past we entered our beers in State and local judgings but we are now backing away from that. I think that it is good to have our beers judged by other brewers and I enjoy hearing their comments. With the beers that we have won gold medals with, which is most of them, we put that on our bottle labels. We will also do a print ad noting that our beer won another award.

We have always had a difficult time deciding which categories to enter our beers into. For one reason or another, most of our beers are outside of the recognized "Style Guidelines". They are usually too high in alcohol, too bitter or too much hop aroma. It now seams that many small breweries are brewing to "Style" or brewing special batches to be entered in judgings. We no longer have that option, being a full scale production brewery.

Brit Antrim, Head Brewer
Anderson Valley Brewing Company

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/193/ 

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What value? I guess that depends on how much you're willing to pay for one of our medals!

Seriously, we don't put a lot of time and energy into competitions, for a few reasons. One, entering lots of competitions can be very costly and time-consuming, at least for a small pub like CBC with no bottling facilities and a small petty cash drawer. Two, we rarely do any advertising, and few competitions receive significant recognition from the general public. The most important aspect of winning awards to most companies is the ability to convey their success in competition, via advertising, to the public as representative of the fact that their product is better than their competitors. For us, it doesn't strongly apply. Three, several well-known competitions are judged, not solely by professional brewers, but by a wide range of brewers, homebrewers, media representatives, and other industry-related representatives (I'm thinking specifically of the GABF, among others). I'm not calling any judges unqualified, but the combination of subjective tastes and the overwhelming number of beers entered into these competitions results inevitably in palate fatigue, burnout, and mis-classed beers qualifying for final rounds over more appropriate entries. Four, the majority of beers that I produce don't fit very neatly into categories, and I believe in brewing interesting, often unusual beers which will interest my patrons and satisfy my own curious palate, not beers that will blandly suit themselves to some committees guidelines. Nevertheless, we do regularly enter the GABF with hopes that we will bring home something more than a beer coaster collection and a hangover.

That being said, one must admit that the recognition, in someone's opinion, peer or otherwise, of your product as being exceptional can make your toil and passion feel as worthwhile as a good month of production numbers. I'm quite proud of the medals we've won over the years, despite the fact that the above paragraph may indicate otherwise.

Peace,

Will Meyers, Head Brewer
Cambridge Brewing Company

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/14/ 

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This is not an easy question to answer, but I'll try to be brief. Every company has a different philosophy on the importance of beer competitions. Some feel it is a wonderful marketing tool and enter every competition under the sun, others feel they are completely irrelevant and enter none. We (John Harvard's Brewhouse) take a middle of the road view and enter three competitions as a group-each brewery sends a beer to the GABF, the Chicago Real Ale Festival, and the World Beer Cup. We feel these are the best run, best judged and most prestigious competitions, and so have settled on these three. Some John Harvard's locations may enter smaller local competitions as well, and these can be good for local visibility and beer scene vitality. John Harvard's as a company feels that these competitions are a worthwhile marketing effort, and can contribute in a positive way to the public's perception of our beer.

For myself personally, I am my own harshest critic- I do not base my opinion of my beer on awards, but on what I think of it. That being said, it is very gratifying to win an award, and I've been lucky enough to win a few in the last few years. I say "lucky" because luck is an element- I think a lot of good beers do not win awards (though I feel very few bad ones do win awards). Also, most awards are based on "beer styles," and many great beers do not conform to styles, and thus do not fare well in competition. Finally, I get just as much gratification from seeing a guy order a Coors light at our Brewery, having to "settle" for our Colonial Kolsch, and saying to his friend, "hey, this is pretty good!" as I do from getting a Gold Medal at the GABF. Brewing beer is not a competition.

Hope this helps and is not too wordy. Keep up the great work with the site.

Cheers,

Geoff DeBisschop, Head Brewer
John Harvard's Brewhouse

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/1548/ 

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Excellent question!

The value is in the consumer and professional recognition of accomplishment. Essentially the warm, fuzzy glow of success is good for those who get to bask in it.

Too many contests exist for consumers to make hard decisions over what beer is best based on a medal or award. Besides, who wants a customer that makes their buying decisions based on the opinions of others?

Taste and appreciation requires the use of the tongue. We avoid most contests but do feel that professional judgings are not a bad thing. Two other considerations to a successful judging would be adherence to style guidelines (so that IPA's don't win pale ale categories for example) and controls so that judges don't suffer palate fatigue from attempting to analyze too many entries. Considering the caveats above, there is no festival that covers all bases to our satisfaction, though there are some hard-working folks trying, we'll readily admit.

Though not a professional judging, we really admire the work of the United States Beer Tasting Championship. Those guys actually buy their beer samples if breweries do not send to them. A dramatic contrast from this model is the Beverage Testing Institute. In case the consumers did not know, BTI charges breweries to analyze entries and then has the audacity to publish the results (in All About Beer) as if they are a comprehensive picture. Their crime is that of omission. It is never published that relatively few breweries are even considered by this process. When so many great breweries decline to get involved with this convenient consumer 'service', it really is far from comprehensive or objective.

All said and done, the guy at my bar enjoying my beer is more important than 1,000 media representatives clamoring to 'get your name out there' based on some award. We brew for the beer lover in ourselves, not for the roar of the crowd.

Cheers,

Bill Covaleski, Brewmaster & President
Victory Brewing Company

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/345/ 

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A high value. As a professional brewer, I respect the views of professional beer judges.

Paul Ambler, Head Brewer & Director
The Black Sheep Brewery plc

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/1417/ 

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None. Although "professional" beer judging and the resulting awards can be beneficial to marketing and sales, they have no room on the production floor. We must continue to brew beer to our own exacting standards and not be distracted by awards.

Bill Russell, Production Manager
Buzzard Bay Brewing, Inc.

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/52/ 

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Yes, I believe judging and awards are an important part of the whole beer picture. Most importantly, the parameters and the judging guidelines are what keep the traditional styles alive and allow for the "pushing of the envelope". However there is a lot of crap being brewed( if you can even call it brewed)and I'm not sure if it should be included. The whole "malternative" sector is a huge joke as far as I'm concerned. It is obviously not made for the true beer enthusiast(sp)and then there is the whole light beer issue. What the hell is the world coming to? I understand 60% of the beer drinking population has sold out to the guise of light beer. How about Ultra? What happened to us? I am concerned about the issues we are not in control of because the "big guys" are the protocol makers. Why ask why? Remember that? It is what killed real beer. I am sorry about that and all I can do is pray for our salvation thru hard, dedicated brewers that don't crumble to the ways of the median.

Cheers,

Tod Mott
Haverhill Brewing Company / The Tap

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/3185/ 

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If I had a packaged product for sale outside of my pub brewery I think an award does help sell your product. However flawed the judging may be it still has some merits, feedback and shelf life.

Thanks,

David Wollner
Willimantic Brewing Co./ Main Street Cafe

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/477/ 
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I like beer competitions, not only because as small brewers we beat big brewers, but it is a voice of the awarded consumers. About the results of such competitions, there is much skepticism with Belgian brewers. They are, in my eyes, somewhat misleading simple beer lovers with the fact they had the first place in such or another competition and make publicity for years. Just as if this [beer judge] and his judgment is good for eternity. Another problem is the variation in taste of refermented beers. What kind of beer did the tasters get? Do they ensure the beer drinkers get the same quality? Or do the tasters get some special brew hidden for the occasion?

I must admit that I have some problems with some ways of judging, more precisely the "categories" in which beers are brought together. Another pain point comes into my mind. Of specialty beers, some are brewed with decoction methods, using just hop compound, some with all kind of adjuncts, and boiled with steam heating in an installation designed for brewing lager beers. Eventually filtered, flash-pasteurized halfway and eventually refermented. These beers miss the roundness and the complexity of the infusion method and the color and taste of the copper kettle. This should be appreciated by the beer connoisseur and the jury unless this jury is crowded by brewers using the first methods. I read in an article handling on an American contest that German brewers had won 40% of the medals, delivered by some 40% of the jury. They all seemed happy. Isn't that a good reason to do beer competitions, to get everybody happy?

Kris Herteleer
De Dolle Brewers

 http://beeradvocate.com/beer/review/201/ 
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