gabf judge
Judges evaluated more than 5,500 beers at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. (Photo © Brewers Association)

Tell people about this job you have to do and you might get a smirk or a raised eyebrow, or maybe some mock sympathy. However, judging at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is serious business. In the days leading up to America’s biggest annual beer gathering at the Colorado Convention Center, a group of judges from across the brewing industry assembled in the basement of a nearby Denver hotel to cull down the more than 5,500 entries into just a few winners that will take home the bronze, silver, or gold.

For the 2014 contest I was invited to be one of more than 200 judges (and one of two dozen first-timers) who spent two and a half days trying to determine who makes the best beer in the country. It’s humbling, exhilarating, and exhausting.

“Read and reread the category guidelines,” encouraged Will Meyers, the brewmaster of Massachusetts’ Cambridge Brewing Co., during a welcome event for judges. “These are what we judge against, not what you personally feel is the best representation of a style. Pay attention to what’s allowed, and also pay attention to what is specifically not disallowed. Brewers who enter their beers spend agonizing hours analyzing descriptions and deciding if their beers fit.”

There are a few requirements to become a judge. First, one needs to have knowledge of styles, process, ingredients, and more. Second, previous judging experience is needed, and third, a prospective judge must secure recommendations from existing GABF judges before being added to the roster. I completed my application and received my invitation two and a half years ago, and then had to wait for a spot to open up. During that time I poured over the guidelines, completed practice judging at home, signed up for other professional contests, honed my palate on styles I’m not overly fond of (just in case I was asked to judge in those particular categories), learned to identify off flavors, and tasted individual ingredients.

In the months leading up to the judging I carried the feeling of giddy anticipation, like a kid waiting for that first vacation to Disney World. I solicited advice from other judges. In addition to sound advice, I was also told to prepare for just how mentally exhausting judging would be: very.

There were helpful suggestions to dress comfortably and avoid using scented cosmetic products that could interfere with aroma testing. There were unbreakable rules: cellular phones and other electronic devices were strictly forbidden (judges found with operating phones would be removed from the table and round) to protect the integrity of the contest.

At times the competition area resembled a high school campus. Before each of the five sessions began, judges were peering into folders trying to locate their tasting room and table, taking a fresh look at style guidelines, or organizing a workspace.

Then the beers hit the table in plastic cups filled with about one and half ounces of liquid. For the first half hour of each session, the rooms are nearly silent. Cups of beer are raised to the light and scrutinized, then inhaled, then sipped, swirled, and inspected again. Behavior that might seem odd to outsiders, like sniffing the skin on ones forearm to re-calibrate olfactory senses is completely normal.

Pitchers of spring water, bowls of plain bread, and boxes of matzo act as palate cleansers. The workhorses of the competition—the volunteers—move quietly and efficiently through the hallways and rooms.

During the first round, quickness is key as notes are scribbled about each beer just as more anonymous samples (each are marked with a five-digit number) arrive from a back room. Eventually a flight is completed and the debate begins.

Only a few in this contest will move on to a second round and even less for the third—medal round—so judges need to decide which make the cut. In some cases the choices are clear: beers with obvious defects, or that don’t meet the particular style, are dismissed. Those that do make the grade are compared to each other. Re-pours are requested; the tasting process begins again; debate is lively and (mostly) cordial; guidelines are consulted; passionate pleas are made; and eventually, after several rounds, three medal winners are written on a slip of paper and passed to the organizers.

There is a real sense of honor that comes with helping to select medal winners, knowing that a small panel played a big role in rewarding a brewery for their hard work and skill.

There are frequent trips to the toilet.

The GABF is a consumer event, but inside the industry GABF is called the “family reunion” or, for some who have been at it for years, its “old-timer’s week.” For its global reach the beer industry is still fairly intimate and many brewers that compete against each other for tap handles and shelf space are also great friends. There is a jovial camaraderie that hangs over the judging, especially in the hallways outside of judging rooms where jokes are swapped, technical questions are asked, and progress reports of brewery constructions and expansion are discussed.

That mental exhaustion I was warned about? Completely true. Shortly after a day of judging first rounds of Oktoberfests, the ProAm, and the first and medal round of foreign-style stouts, I was at a restaurant and could not for the life of me, while staring at it, articulate to a dining companion my desire for the glass of water just out of reach on the table. My brain was fried.

Judging ended on Friday afternoon, just hours before the evening session of GABF begins. Rising from the hotel basement there was that sense of school letting out for summer, except many of the conversations revolved around heading to a bar for a  bloody Mary, whisky, and a proper meal. That would be just a brief respite, of course, because it’d be soon time to sample on the convention center floor, and eagerly await the medal announcements, to put a name and brewery to the previously anonymous beers.

John Holl is the Editor of All About Beer Magazine.