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Six GABF judges rate American beer

Oct. 7, 2002

Real Beer Six-PackDrinking beer at the Great American Beer Festival, held every year in Denver, probably is as good a way as any to take the pulse of specialty beer in the United States (despite its name, the festival does not include beers from Canada).

In the mid-1990s, when several brewpubs were opening somewhere in the country every week, it was common to taste mediocre beer from newly opened breweries. Often the brewer explained he or she thought it would be fun to enter the Blind Professional Panel Blind Tasting and "take a chance."

What was fun for brewers wasn't necessarily as much fun for the judges. At the conclusion of this year's GABF judging, Real Beer asked six judging to reflect on changes since they began serving on the panel. All of the brewers we talked to have won medals in GABF competition.

(One bit of background: Judges sit on panels of six, and beer must pass through tow rounds to reach the finals. Judges may face up to 12 beers in a round, with three moving to the next round.)

1. Jim Homer, BJCP National Judge who served as director of the first Blind Tasting Panel in 1987. He has judged nine times at GABF.

Jim: I think the quality is still going up. We're seeing a lot less of the technically flawed beers, a lot more that are close to styles. There are a lot more beers that are closer to style, and we have to argue a lot more to sort them out.

2.Chuck Skypeck, Boscos brewpubs in Tennessee (and soon Arkansas), and chairman of the IBS Board of Advisors. He has judged six times at GABF.

Chuck: I generally think it has gone down and then up. In 1996, I saw it slipping. It ties in with our expectations of what beer is. I certainly know my expectations have risen.

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3.Brock Wagner, brewer-founder at Saint Arnold's Brewing in Houston. He has judged six times at GABF.

Brock: It used to be there were a fair number of beers you could chuck right off because of flaws. This year in a flight of 12 you might have been able to get rid of two, and you had to be picking on more minor things. I judged categories where any of (the medal winners) could have received gold — the level of gold has moved up. It's a luxury when you aren't awarding a gold by default, that they all deserve gold.

4.Gregg Smith, brewer at Idaho Brewing Co. and author of several beer books. He has judged 10 times at GABF.

Gregg: There are less bad beers. Tt used to be you would throw out 4-5 beers right off. The beers rising to the top are getting closer to the standard of excellence we are all looking for. As a brewer, if we get our comment sheets back and you see you've made it to the second round then you know you've down OK.

5.Brad Kraus, brewing consultant who won gold medals in the same category in back-to-back years before Wolf Canyon Brewing Co. in Santa Fe, N.M., closed. He has judged 10 times at GABF.

Brad: The quality has really gone like this (he passed his right hand along a long flat line, then turned it sharply up). Now instead of flaws, we are discussing if a beer is outside the style guidelines. I see longer discussion in the medal rounds and the decisions are just getting harder.

6.Mikko Montonen, freelance writer from Finland. He has judged six times at GABF.

Mikko: This year has been a very happy experience for me. There have been very, very few faulty examples. Just a few years ago, for instance, the fruit beers were pretty ghastly. Even in round one (of fruit beers) this year there were mostly good beers. I think that many people have jumped off the bandwagon, and only the serious girls and boys are here now.

The results of their judging.

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