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GABF brewers' diaries

Tomme Arthur

Pizza Port Solana Beach - Sept. 18

It's been more than two weeks since we dealt with the GABF stuff last. Once we get the beer out of our control, it's like the weight of the world has been lifted from our proverbial shoulders. In the past couple of days, we have revisited some of the bottles we sent to be judged (that's a professional's way of saying I get paid to drink beer at work). We took a couple of the bottles that were laying around and made sure they hadn't turned south on us. We know that birds fly south each winter and we hope that our bottled beers don't decide to take the same migratory route. The last two bottles we opened this week were the Hop 15 and the SPF 45. Both are in the same shape as when we tasted them last and that gives us the utmost confidence they will fare well in the judging.

There are many novice brewers, consumers and even professional brewers who really don't see what goes on behind closed doors when it comes to the actual judging of these beers. I have been judging for five years now and each session reveals more and more about the greatness of the process and the greatness of a beer as it relates to winning a medal. Simply put, there is no room for mediocrity at a final round table. Since there are a number of us who will be compiling diaries from Denver that are judging, I will give you a slight preview of how it works.

Now that we have sent our beers to the sorting center, they are put into the computer system and assigned numbers for judging purposes. This ensures that we have no idea where the beers we are judging came from. The judges arrive on Tuesday and we begin judging at 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning. This is much tougher than it sounds. While many of us enjoy beers routinely at 9 p.m., I don't profess to do much drinking that early in the morning that often (at least that's what I tell my wife).

Judging consists of flights, panels and rounds. Each year when we judge, we are given a schedule of which categories we will be tasting. This schedule takes into account that many of us brewers have beers entered into this competition, because we cannot judge our own categories. This is an important distinction as it means we cannot unduly influence the category by either selecting our own beer, or trying to sway the panel from selecting a beer which is superior to the one we have sent.

A round of judging lasts typically 2-3 hours. During this time, we sit on a panel of judges comprising one table that usually includes 6 judges. The table is split in half with each set of three judges working on one flight of beers. A flight of beers is a set of beers that is poured for the judges and makes up the set of beers we are tasting at that moment.

If for example we as a table were judging fruit beers, we might have a category with 24 entries in it. If this were the case, each half of the table would be given 12 beers. One group of three judges would evaluate the first flight of 12 beers and the other group of three judges would evaluate the second flight of 12 beers. Thus, we as a group would have evaluated all 24 beers in one sitting.

If the category was American Pale Ale (one of the largest categories in years past) than we would need to have multiple panels and flights in order to select the best beers from each flight. Typically, no matter how large or small the category is, we work to select the three best beers from each flight to move on to the next round of judging.

For the fruit beer category this would mean that we would have 3 beers from our half of the table and three beers from the other half of the table. Then, we would bring the table back into one group of 6 judges for the second and final round of judging. This means that we now as a group have selected the best beers from the original 24 and we have 6 examples we believe to be worthy of medal consideration.

The largest categories require 3 rounds of judging before a medal can be awarded. It can be very challenging for a beer to make its way through all these rounds but if it does, you can rest assured that it is one hell of a beer. True, many good beers may lose out along the way, but such is the process. The best beers rise to the top.

There are two judging sessions each day on Wednesday and Thursday as well as a morning session on Friday. By breaking each day in half, judges are given ample time to relax after judging and enough time to eat and renew their palates for the ensuing sessions.

Judges catch alot of grief about the process and the things we are tasting. Thankfully, our comments are not sent out with our names, email addresses and phone numbers attached. Our judging sheets do contain our judging numbers, which only the staff has access to. This ensures that if a particular judge was feeling nasty, his sheets could be cross referenced with a judging number. All in all, I have never seen this nor heard this to be a problem, but it is nice to know that there are checks and balances in place.

Next time, How come this great beer didn't win?