What is that Medal Worth?

by George de Piro

How many brewery ads mention that their beer is “award-winning?” The percentage is quite large. It can lead one to wonder if awards are sold, or even given away, so that brewers can have something to brag about.

Some have argued that there are so many contests that the meaning of brewing awards has been greatly diluted. This may lead consumers to dismiss all claims of “award-winning beer” as marketing hype. This is sad, because awards from some brewing contests have great significance.

How can the consumer know which awards are important? The number of entries and the manner in which they are evaluated are two major factors that determine the value of a contest. The first point is pretty simple: the higher the number of entries in a given contest, the wider the competition and therefore the more valid the awards.

Evaluation standards are of critical importance. The tasting must be blind; the judges must have no knowledge of the beer’s origin. Of equal significance is that the judges be qualified to evaluate beer. This may seem like common sense, but there are contests in which the judges either know the entrants’ identity, are not erudite beer judges, or both.

If the above criteria are met, the contest may have some credibility. To make an award truly meaningful, the contest organizers should adhere to some other standards: The judges should not be overworked; one should evaluate no more than 8 beers per flight. Next, the beers should be judged according to style guidelines; this removes a large degree of the subjectivity inherent in the evaluation of beer. Finally, the judges must be qualified to recognize technical faults in beers, and the organizer must make it clear that technical flaws are not acceptable.

So which contests meet these stringent guidelines, and which ones do not?

The Great American Beer Festival®, GABF to industry insiders, is the largest and perhaps best known contest in the country. Victorious brewers often brag loudly about their GABF medals. A quick look at how the contest is run will allow you to decide the validity of these awards.
The GABF is organized by the Association of Brewers, a non-profit organization devoted to educating the American people about the marvels of beer. It is held each autumn in Denver, Colorado. Aside from the brewing contest, it is also the largest beer festival in America.

The judge panel is composed mostly of professional brewers. There are a few beer writers, brewing industry experts and advanced homebrewers, too. To become a judge at the event, one submits their résumé, along with three letters of recommendation from people in the brewing industry. The contest organizer evaluates each applicant’s qualifications and invites the best to participate.

There are published style guidelines for entrants to follow, and these are modified each year to allow for the addition of new beer styles and maintain accuracy. There now 65 different styles recognized by the GABF, and one of them is a catch-all “experimental” category to allow the entry of unique malt beverages. The judges are completely ignorant of the entrants’ identities, and evaluate beers based purely on technical merit and how well the flavors adhere to the style guidelines. They do not have to award all medals in a category if they feel that none are deserving.

In this way, a technically flawless beer may win nothing because it does not taste like the style should. For example, a beer displaying significant hop aroma and bitterness is highly unlikely to win a medal if it is entered as a malty Oktoberfest. This adherence to style helps consumers: if you see that a brew has won a GABF medal as an Oktoberfest, you can be pretty certain that it is a good example of the style, not just a good beer (assuming the brewer makes consistent product).

Although the GABF organizers strive to achieve the highest standards, there is some room for improvement. Judges are often required to evaluate up to 12 beers in each flight. This is very fatiguing and may lead to a bias for beers brewed to the extreme end of the style guidelines.

The World Beer Cup® is another contest organized by the Association of Brewers. Like the GABF, judges are highly-qualified brewers and brewing industry types and beers are entered and evaluated according to style guidelines. Unlike the GABF, there is no beer festival associated with this event. It also differs from the GABF in that beers from all over the planet are eligible to compete, not just those made in America. It is a biennial event, and its location is variable.

The Beverage Tasting Institute, in Chicago, uses brewing industry personnel to rate about 1000 beers each year. The beers are from all over the world; the only requirement is that they be bottled beer from a commercial brewery producing over 200 kegs per year. The beers undergo blind evaluation by judges who are not allowed to speak to each other about the beers. They are scored on a 100 point scale, and all beers deemed worthy of a high score receive an award.

Although the Beverage Tasting Institute uses beer industry experts as evaluators, it instructs the judges not to disqualify beers for technical reasons. This means that a beer calling itself a Hefeweizen but tasting like a much blander American wheat beer could get a very high rating. This kind of system lends itself to confusing consumers by not holding brewers accountable for the appellation on their label.

Closer to our home, there are two contests each year at the Hunter Mountain beer festivals, one in the spring and the other in the fall. The fall event, bearing the simple moniker, “Hunter Mountain Beer and Wine festival” is the easier to explain: people attending the festival vote for their favorite beer. At the end of the weekend, the votes are tallied and the victor declared. The brewery that receives the most votes, which is not necessarily the one that made the most popular beer, is also recognized.

On the surface, one may conclude that the winning beer tasted best to the consumers and is, therefore, a fine beer. This may be the case, but it is just as likely that the winning beer is the one that was pushed most successfully by the brewery representatives at the booths. Using a combination of techniques, from flashy displays to over-pouring samples, creative brewers can find themselves on top.

In springtime, Hunter Mountain hosts the Tap New York™ beer and food festival. Like the other fests, a contest is included, but it is much different from the other two. There are style guidelines, but they are very loose, categorizing beers by color. This means that super hoppy pale ales will compete against malty Oktoberfests. Beers of the same color can taste as different as apples and oranges!

The judging is conducted in two stages. The first uses homebrewers of various skill levels as the beer evaluators, while the second round uses “lay people” chosen from the festival attendees and perhaps a chef. These people are not evaluating beer with regard to style guidelines, nor do they have formal training to recognize defects. There are awards for the best beer and the best brewery of both the state and the Hudson Valley.

Interestingly, one of the festivals largest sponsors, for which one of the awards is named, is also a competitor. While the competition is probably run with complete integrity, this does not project a good image. As we Americans all know, image is everything.

There are myriad other contests strewn about the country, but most use one of the above evaluation techniques to decide awards. As the astute reader has realized, I do have an opinion about which judging techniques yield the most valid results. I believe that consumers looking for a good beer will seldom go wrong if they can get a fresh example of a medal-winning beer that has been evaluated by professional brewers using specific guidelines. This is especially true of beers that win multiple awards: it demonstrates consistency.

Lest any readers think I may be a sore loser of some sort, I have won many brewing awards at myriad contests, both as a hobby and commercial brewer. I have won gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival® and a bronze at the World Beer Cup®, as well as top honors at the Hunter Mountain Beer and Wine Festival and The Saratoga Battle of the Brews. I have also been a judge at many dozens of homebrew contests, as well as the Great American Beer Festival® and the Tap New York™ fest.

Readers interested in learning more about beer judge qualifications and beer style guidelines can check out the following websites:

http://www.beertown.org (Association of Brewers)
http://www.bjcp.org (Beer Judge Certification Program)
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