It’s a Saturday afternoon in October at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, on the final day of the Great American Beer Festival. When the doors open for the sold-out members’ session at 12:30, several thousand members of the Brewers Association or the American Homebrewers Association flood in. Cups and programs in hand, they start making the rounds of the beer booths, where over 1,900 beers from 400 American breweries are available for sampling. This is the biggest, oldest beer festival in the country, and the selection is unrivaled.

A sizeable proportion of the attendees, however, make their way to the stage at the back of the huge hall. Over the next couple of hours, Chris Swersey of the Brewers Association will read the names of the award-winning breweries whose beers have taken bronze, silver and gold medals in the GABF Beer Judging competition. Delighted brewers mount the stage to collect a medal, shake the hand of Brewers Association president Charlie Papazian and pause for a photograph, as a perfectly-coordinated PowerPoint slide displays the category winners overhead.

Swersey reads with speed: there are over 200 awards to go through. The audience applauds, even whoops occasionally for popular breweries, but sections of the crowd peel off as he announces the winners in highly competitive categories. There will be a run on those award-winning beers as the afternoon wears on.

“I know those beers will be gone before I even get off the stage,” sighs Swersey, who is the competition manager, as well as the emcee for the awards ceremony.

The highest honors come at the end, though, when Swersey announces three awards for Brewery of the Year in the small, medium and large brewery categories. These medals are based on points allocated according to the number and types of medals won over the course of the whole competition.

“The coolest experience I’ve ever had here was probably first time I saw a really good friend, someone I’d brewed with, walk across the stage to accept Brewer of the Year,” he recalls.

Then it’s over until next year. The crowd disperses in search of newly-decorated brews to taste. Printed lists of award-winners are ready, as are electronic press releases and an on-line searchable database of winners. The final, public session of the festival on Saturday evening will drink the winners’ booths dry. By Sunday, the coveted medals will be generating buzz among beer lovers across the country.

And it all looks so easy.

Looking Back

“The Great American Beer Festival” was a pretty gutsy name to give to the early beer gatherings that were held in Boulder, CO nearly 30 years ago. “American” they were: greatness would wait. But these events established a new, singularly American approach to beer appreciation and, later, to beer evaluation.

The festival’s first professional beer competitions were held in 1987. Organized by Daniel Bradford, GABF festival director at the time and now the publisher of this magazine, the competitions had the same purpose 21 years ago that they have today: to educate consumers in the diversity of beer by recognizing the finest examples of different beer styles. The goal today remains to honor “three world-class beers that best represent each beer style category as described and adopted by the GABF.”

In the world of beer taxonomy, there are splitters and lumpers, as there are in any system of categorization. The GABF represents the splitters’ school, with the number of styles proliferating over the years to more than 70. European brewers are often amazed, even dismissive, being accustomed to competitions with far fewer groupings. Yet the finely partitioned categories reflect the fascination American brewers have had with the beer styles they have both borrowed and shaped: there is English IPA, for example, but there is also American IPA—a new and distinct style. The two can’t be evaluated by the same criteria.

The categories have shifted over the years as some beer styles have lost their luster and others have become the new darlings of the craft beer world. This year, for example, Fresh Hop Ale, American Belgo-Style Ale and Leipzig-Style Gose have joined the category list, just as various sour beer styles did in recent years.

The GABF judging tracks the changes in American brewing culture, sets guidelines for the widest range of styles, then aims to tell the beer-loving public where the finest examples are being made. It’s a straightforward mission—and one that requires organizational skills befitting a military commander, thousands of hours of volunteer and paid effort, and six months to execute.

The Judges’ Roster

It’s a rare month when Chris Swersey, competition manager, isn’t working towards the beer judging. During the summer months, he and his wife Mary Wright guide whitewater rafting and fishing trips on the Salmon River in Idaho. But, even during breaks between trips, he’s always on the lookout for qualified judges for the GABF competition.

“The one scheduling piece I’ve kept close to me, without it becoming so big that I have to delegate it, is the judge database and scheduling the judges,” he says. “It’s a year-round job managing the list, especially reviewing new applications and overseas recruiting.”

The competition requires the services of over 100 judges, drawn principally from the ranks of professional brewers, but also industry suppliers, consultants and writers. The main requirement is an intimate understanding of the brewing process and the parameters of style. But a good judge must also be able to advocate for a beer and work with colleagues to reach a panel consensus.

Swersey explains, “Part of my job is making sure I’m putting people on that panel who really, really care about beer; two, have closely-held beliefs about what beer means to them; and three, can talk about beer and describe what they’re feeling and tasting and seeing and smelling passionately and do it in a diplomatic way.”

Most importantly, a judge needs to provide clear written feedback for brewers. “That’s the way than entering can bring value to a brewery, even if they don’t win,” Swersey explains. “We don’t promise a full, comprehensive analysis; what we do promise is a world-class tasting by very trained palates and some manner of feedback. The brewer will get six or seven very different narratives about one beer.”

There is a waiting list of two to three years for new judges.

In the Spring

Breweries begin deciding in May if they will attend the GABF; and, if so, which beers to bring. A booth serving beer on the conference center floor entails a fee; so do beers entered for evaluation in the judging, and these do not come cheap. There are also strategic decisions. Breweries can enter as many beers as they like for the competition, but only the first eight beers listed on the entry form are eligible for consideration when it comes to tallying points towards Brewery of the Year.

The brewer has other strategic challenges. Go for glory in a huge category such as IPA (well over 100 entrants) or try for a medal in a smaller, emergent category? The minimum number of entries for a stand-alone category is six, which makes the odds of winning a medal much greater in small categories, even though the judges reserve the right not to grant all medals.

Given the importance of beer style, the brewer is also faced with the decision of under which category a beer should be listed. Does the beer match the profile of a robust porter or a brown porter? A given beer can only be entered in a single category, but beers have been known to migrate from one competition category to another in different years, searching for a stylistic home.

Once these decisions are made, competition beers travel to Colorado by a different route from that of the kegs and cases destined for the festival floor. It is the brewery’s job, not the festival’s, to get the judging beers to Denver.

“The breweries are responsible for getting their own beer to us,” explains Nancy Johnson, event director of the Brewers Association. “But what’s interesting is that, for instance, the northern California Brewers Guild may contact all their members and say ‘Hey, we’re sending a refrigerated truck to Denver. If you want your judged beers on it, you need to have them here by this time, and we’ll split the cost.’ It can save a lot.”

Mid-Summer

By early July (between rafting trips), Swersey knows from registration forms how the competition is shaping up: how many total entries are going to come in, and what the numbers are likely to be in different stylistic categories. He’s looking for a magic number that will drive the rest of his calculations: the number of tables at the judging.

“After the deadline, we have a good idea how many beers are in each category, and we map out the competition based on that,” he says. “We’re able to figure out how many tables we’re going to need. For example, this year we’re going to need 19 tables, as it turns out. That’s enough to evaluate all the beers registered in the competition over a period of two and a half days.”

This year, 2,920 beers were registered, or nearly 600 per session.

There are six judges seated at each table. Each group of six judges can evaluate a specified number of beers in a given half-day session of judging. Given that formula, Swersey can start to plan which styles will be judged during which sessions.

And that information is critical to the next two lieutenants in this campaign: Danny Williams, who has to deliver the beer, and Kris Latham, who has to deliver the staff.

September: The Sorters

By van, by FedEx, by UPS, floating in water-logged coolers, the competition beers arrive at the Anheuser-Busch warehouse in Denver, which donates a large, constantly chilled space for the entries. Imagine that a given brewery will have sent its samples of every style—six 12-ounce bottles or four larger bottles of each—lovingly packed in one or more containers. Nearly 3,000 beers—make that around 15,000 individual bottles—have to be unwrapped, checked against the registration information, and organized in a sequence that can be pulled effortlessly into the five judging sessions. This is the task of the sorting team.

Danny Williams is a contractor from Boulder, CO, who is known for the extensive collection of exotic beers he stores in a converted gold mine on his property. For the GABF, however, he leads the invisible efforts of the sorting team that Swersey credits with setting the stage for everything that follows.

Williams mobilizes teams of nocturnal volunteers, 25 or so per evening over a period of three weeks, who come to the warehouse to sort beers. Many clad in winter parkas and gloves, their job is to break down thousands of containers of beer, and reduce them to pallets that are organized by beer style, in the correct sequence for the judging.

“I tell them, there are breweries here that have been waiting all year to enter this beer and we have to make sure it get judged,” Williams explains.

The teams separate the entries by GABF category, then use color-coded dots on the tops of all the bottles, so each entry can be tracked later. “This year we have 76 categories,” says Williams. “Take category 48, the first box is 48-01, and on the 24 bottles in that case, there will be stickers of in four different colors. In theory, when I get done, and category 48 is American-style IPA, if someone wants to know where a particular entry is, I can tell you that’s in 12th box and it’s got blue dots on the bottle cap.”

By the end of the sorting process, William and his team have pallets numbered one through 76, ready for delivery to the Marriott hotel where the judging takes place. “On our final night, I’ll start doing session one first, calling out category numbers and the volunteers will collect those beers and palletize them. We’ll wrap them real neatly, and end up with two or two and a half pallets per session. Then we load them in reverse order into the refrigerated trailers, which go to the bottom of the hotel.”

Williams knows the brewers well. “Brewers call me and ask ‘Is my beer there yet?’ And I have to say ‘I have no idea.’ When I start off, I just see rows and rows off different shaped boxes of beer. And we have to take it from that to uniform boxes of beer in the right order for the competition.”

The Staff

Kristine Latham is involved in Denver’s extensive homebrewing community, and taps into this fraternity for a dedicated group of volunteers whose job it is to make sure the right beer reaches the right table of judges—in perfect condition. This cohort operates out of the staging room. “The judges get all the glory,” says Chris Swersey, “but the staging area is where the rubber meets the road.”

Starting with Swersey’s magic number of 19 judging tables, Latham builds the staff that will serve those judges: for every judging table, there are two stewards who answer to one table captain; every five tables report to a block captain; the four block captains—as it will be organized this year—report to a backstage team where Swersey, Williams and Latham are available to sort out problems, together with Jean Gatza, the acknowledged data guru who checks old information and inputs new.

Like the judging positions and the sorting team, there is a long waiting list for a place on the staging room staff. “I have a lot people who come back every year. A new person is buddied up with a seasoned veteran. We make sure they all have an experienced person to work with.”

The Final Week

On the Wednesday morning of festival week, before the first competition session begins, Danny Williams and his team pull the first pallet off the refrigerated trailer outside the downtown Marriott, where the judging will begin at nine.

Williams laughs that he may have done this job for too many years. “Sadly enough, I can almost pull a pallet blindfolded through these winding hallways in the back of the hotel, by the kitchen and down a little hill and around the turns to the freight elevator.”

The beer team delivers the session’s beers to the staging room, where Latham’s gang is waiting. There are 19 tables in the staging room, each corresponding to one of the tables in various nearby conference rooms where the judges work.

Before each session, the table captain and stewards gather the boxes of beer for their table. “The stewards first verify the beer is correct, they check the numbers, then they put the numbered stickers on the tasting cups,” says Latham. All clues to the identity of the beer are kept from the judges, who aren’t even allowed in the staging room.

Any discrepancies are referred back to Danny Williams. “Hopefully I can find a missing beer within a few minutes,” he says. “Knock on wood, we’ve done pretty well the last few years. I had one year I’ll never forget, there was a box that was missing, and I had to crawl all the way through the truck. I happened to reach down and pulled up the right box. Luckily I didn’t have to tear apart every single pallet.”

Once the correct beers are verified, the stewards start serving the judges, carrying trays loaded with samples. Stewards aim to get the full flight for that session in front of the judges quickly.

At the judging tables, each judge will be presented with up to 12 samples of beer, and be given about half an hour to taste, evaluate and make useful notes on the samples. Then, the judges talk. The goal is to arrive at six beers that deserve to be passed on to the second round of evaluation.

Jay Brooks, a beer writer and BJCP judge who has judged at the GABF for several years, remembers his first year: “As a rookie, I was pretty nervous during the first round. I hadn’t judged on that level before. But by the second round, you couldn’t shut me up.”

After the first round for a given style, the staging crew knows the beers that will advance to the next round. The table stewards rush into action. Beers that move up are assigned new codes to reduce any judges’ bias; fresh samples are pulled, and the next session begins.

When a style enters its third and final round of evaluation, Swersey has made sure of his judges. “By the time you get to that third round, there isn’t a slacker beer in there, especially in the largest categories. The final cut of the IPAs, for example, will be down to one table and 12 beers, and each judge will try all 12, You have to have people who really understand IPA, really care about it, really know their beer. I make sure that the guys who will be at that final round table really know their stuff.”

Pulling it all Together

Results of the judgings are fed continuously to a team led by Jean Gatza, which checks results repeatedly. Despite all the fail-safes, the rare blunder has made it through the meticulous process. Chris Swersey recalls a bizarre set of coincidences in 2005, when a judge’s transcription error led to the wrong beer receiving an award.

“One of the numbers they wrote down had a transposition: instead of being, for example, beer number 1234 , it was beer number 1243 for the bronze medal. And beer number 1243 just happened, by chance, to be a randomly assigned number in the very same category. If it had been from another category, we would have caught it immediately.”

It happened that an astute steward who had served at the relevant session days earlier approached Swersey, convinced that there had been an error. As awkward as it was to revoke a medal after the fact, the festival fessed up immediately, and put further checks into place to assure reporting accuracy.

In general, Swersey is proud of the integrity of the process. “Every bottle of beer that comes in represents a lot of heart and soul and expense for the brewer, and we want to make sure it gets its chance in the sun.”

The final session of the competition wraps up midday on Friday, with 24 hours to go before the awards ceremony on Saturday. Brewer of the Year names are sent to an engraver for overnight service. Staff and volunteers collate the comment cards that go to the brewers, and check and re-check the results. Other team members—the “randomizers”—sort the left-over beers into cases; these eclectic collections of beer are the only compensation the volunteers receive.

The seamless process the audience sees at the awards ceremony is a result of dedicated, invisible effort by people who, ultimately, do this for the love of beer. Thanks to them, the finest American brewing efforts are rewarded year after year in a process of scrupulous peer review, and beer enthusiasts across the country reap the benefits.

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