Picking the GABF winners
Oct 9, 1999 - Before Friday, Greg Orth viewed a Great American Beer Festival medal as a badge of honor.
"You go to a place and see they have a GABF medal under their belt, you figure they are going to have pretty good beer," Orth said. That was before he sat in as the Professional Panel Blind Tasting judged the best beers in the United States.
"Now that I've seen the actual judging I'm even more impressed," he said.
This afternoon the 1999 winners of GABF medals will be announced. The contest has been criticized on more than one occasion, but beer writer Michael Jackson - who is highly sought after to join in beer judging in events around the world - maintains that few in the U.S. have any idea how rigorous the judging is or how much the winning beers deserve to be honored.
"I think it's a really fair way to judge the beers," Orth said after his rare behind-the-scenes view of the PPBT in action. He won the opportunity to see the judging in a contest sponsored by Real Beer Inc. and the Great American Beer Festival.
More than 90 judges spent the better part of three days evaluating beers in 54 categories. "A lot more went into than I expected," Orth said. "It was really a collaborative effort."
Charlie Papazian, who has judged at the GABF since the PPBT began and helps write the guidelines that judges follow, talked Thursday with media about how this competition is different.
"Our goal is not the same as if we were in a brewery, trying to get a consistent product," he said. It is also not like judging in a homebrew competition, where judges use a carefully designed score sheet and try to provide feedback that will help brewers make better beer.
Judges offer comments in the early rounds, Papazian said, but by the third they are "just evaluating beers." Even in the final round, judges remain strict about making sure a beer conforms to style but there is no point system for determining the winner. "It is the best representative of that beer style," Papazian said. "It's kind of like it's the delegate for all the other beers in that style."
"I had no idea how much they know about beer," Orth said. "Everybody knows the popular judges like Michael Jackson (who did not judge this year because of a previous commitment), Charlie Papazian and Garrett Oliver, but they all know their beer."
Orth, who is 26 and recently moved to Colorado, cares more about flavorful beer than most. A homebrewer, he made beer for guests to take home from his wedding earlier this year, and the homepage on his personal computer is the Real Beer Page. He called and ordered tickets for his first GABF the day they went on sale.
"He's been in heaven," his wife, Jackie, said during the Friday evening session at Currigan Hall.
He saw the judges select the champion English-Style (Extra Special) Strong Bitter, known by most as an ESB. Among those on the panel was Reg Drury, who recently retired as director of brewing operations at Fuller's in London. His ESB defines the style for many.
"The other judges made mention that Reg is the grandfather of the style, but they were all talkative," Orth said. When the beers reached the final round there was little discussion when it came to choosing the gold and silver. "It was hands down for those - all the talk was on the third place beer," Orth said.
They tossed out the beer they actually liked best for the bronze because they decided it wasn't true to style. "It was a great beer, but it was more like an IPA," Orth said. "One judge said he wished he'd had it when he was judging IPAs."
Orth didn't interrupt the process by tasting beers while the judging was in progress, but he was able to head back to judging central to sample a bottle of the beer right after the winner was picked.
"It was delicious," Orth said.
Today, everybody else will find out what beer he and the judges were drinking.