Beverage Testing Institute
By Marty Nachel
It's Monday morning, you arrive at work just about 9:30, share salutations with your co-workers and then all sit down to a round of world-class Belgian Tripels. When you finish with these, you take a short break and return to a fresh setting of new beers. You do this five times today alone. Tomorrow you'll taste Lambics and next week, maybe barleywines . . . . And then you wake up, right? Not if you work at the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago. For a privileged few, tasting beer (and wine, and spirits) is a daily occupation.
The Beverage Testing Institute (BTI) is a unique operation in that it is this country's only full-time professional product review program specializing in beverages. It was started in 1981 by Craig Goldwyn, a former Chicago Tribune and Washington Post columnist, primarily with wines in mind. Because there were so many wines on the market, Goldwyn's mission was to provide the wine consumer with frank, unbiased information and wine ratings in order to make dependable choices. If along the way he managed to eliminate snobbism and defrock the demogogues, so much the better.
That mission has obviously been expanded to include beer and spirits, as well. BTI now conducts the World Wine Championships, World Spirit Championships, and World Beer Championships. These tastings take place throughout the year, awarding medals to the best of the beverage world, from around the world. As is commonly done with medals garnered at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, World Beer Championship awards are showing up with greater frequency on the beer packaging and advertizing of international breweries who have made the grade at BTI.
To differentiate BTI's product ratings from the dozens of writers, critics, and self-styled "experts" already flooding the industry's media outlets, BTI assembles panels of knowledgeable tasters and institutes strict procedural processes. Because it is human nature to ask if one product is better than another, according to Goldwyn, comparison tests must be approached professionally and must apply scientific principles. BTI tastings are conducted in a manner recognized as valid by the product testing community and are known to minimize procedural and psychological errors. In this way BTI manages to ensure the fairest, most accurate and consistent data possible. Further legitimizing BTI is its memberships in the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).
The tasting panels at BTI are made up of proficient individuals from various fields associated with beverage production and consumption. Though these judges are not all paid employees of the Institute, the panels are always moderated by a BTI-trained judge. Whether for wine, spirits or beer, BTI judges evaluate the product at hand using an ASTM approved hedonic scale (Hedonia was the Greek god of pleasure) in an expanded 14-point version. Using this approach, tasting "good" is more important than tasting "correct" or "typical". With an intent to "measure the pleasure", here is how the hedonic scale looks:
0-1 Extreme Displeasure
2-3 Strong Displeasure
4-5 Slight Displeasure
6-7 Not Pleasant Nor Unpleasant
8-9 Slight Pleasure
10-11 Strong Pleasure
12-13 Extreme Pleasure
After the judge sheets have been submitted, the scores are averaged and converted to a 100 point scale for publication. This is done for two reasons: 1) an intuitive endpoint (if a beverage scores an 85, one knows intuitively that it scored 85 out of a possible 100), and 2) consistency (it makes sense to use a scale with standard definitions for all beverages). The typical margin of error at BTI is plus or minus two points.
The scores awarded to beverages tested at BTI are translated into medals, assuming tested examples achieve certain minimum scores. Here is a breakout of the medals and their requisite scoring range:
Platinum 96 - 100 pts. "Superlative"
Gold 90 - 95 pts. "Outstanding"
Silver 85 - 89 pts. "Excellent"
Silver 80 - 84 pts. "Highly Recommended"
Bronze 70 - 79 pts. "Recommended"
No Award 60 - 69 pts. "Not Recommended"
Some products are given special awards, such as "Best Buy" for wines and spirits with exceptional value based on the ratio of score to price, and a "Champion" beer, wine or spirit is crowned after a taste-off of the top-scoring bottles in a given category.
Product Acquisition. Most product samples are submitted to BTI either by the producer or importer. In order to make the tasting more comprehensive, however, some popular or highly-praised brands not already entered in the competition are purchased at retail and tasted along with the rest.
Product serving. Judges do not know the names of the samples to be reviewed and never see any bottle or package. Each sample, identified only by a random 3-digit code number, is served in clean stemmed glassware. Samples are served aproximately five minutes prior to sampling; never more than seven samples per flight to avoid palate fatigue. Within each flight, samples are served in random order. Judges are occasionally served two glasses of the same sample to test their alertness.
The optimal number of judges is six, so the impact of individual scores is minimized. Judges are not allowed to confer on their scores; there is no posturing, politicking for favorites or guessing producers' identities, and opinions are formed independently, as in other forms of survey research. Panelists are allowed 25 minutes to taste each flight followed by a mandatory 10 minute break. There are never more than five flights, or 35 products tasted in one day and tasting sessions rarely exceed four hours.
There are three ways in which BTI's World Beer Championships differ from the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. To begin with, the GABF is limited to American-made brews, effectively shutting out some of the world's greatest beers. Secondly, the GABF only recognizes the top three (or fewer) beers in each category, whereas the WBC awards medals according to score, i.e. all of the beers in a given category are scored and ranked. Finally, the judges' evaluation at BTI produces not only numerical results but helpful objective taste descriptions of the product for the beer consumer not familiar with beer styles or brand names.
© 1997 Marty Nachel