The 6 Pack 9-29-22: What it's like to judge GABF! 🥇

6 pack newsletter Sep 29, 2022


What’s up, beer geek! This is The Beer Scholar 6-Pack weekly newsletter, a short clean email featuring 6 bulleted links with brief descriptions for each.


Howdy beer geek! I just finished up with judging phase 2 (of 3) of the Great American Beer Festival! It was a huge honor to be invited to judge what is easily among the most prestigious beer comps in the world. I'm grateful to the Brewer's Association and the folks who run GABF for the invite. 

Every person I judged with across the three days was truly impressive in their sensory skills. Some of them do sensory work for sizable breweries for a living, others developed their skills over years of home and pro brewing plus Cicerone/BJCP training or sensory courses in brewing science programs. I got to rub elbows with some very cool folks I know from their beer writing, from drinking beer they brew, or from online interactions, but had never met in person. I judged with folks like Gary Glass, the former director of the American Homebrewers Association and current head brewer at Left Hand; Master Cicerone Max Bakker who does beer education full time for ABI; my pal Sandy Cockerham, one of the highest ranking Grand Master Judges in the entire BJCP...I think she's GM level 8 or something ridiculous now; Paul Anderson, a biologist and former head brewer at Buoy and who is now a Portlander; and many many others. It's a cool, fun, and passionate squad of 20th level beer geeks that judge GABF, that's for sure. I honestly wish I'd had much more time to rub elbows with them all.

The experience got me thinking about beer judging in broad terms. Obviously, there are elements of subjectivity in play when judging, especially when the field has been narrowed down to just a few potential winning beers, all of which are amazing examples with no technical flaws. Frankly, it felt like the top beers usually distinguished themselves rather readily. While judging, you've tasted loads of beers in a variety of styles and are quite dialed in, so the best of the best tend to jump out at you. There was almost always general agreement at the judging tables about which beers should move on or be honored. Still, anyone could (and will) quibble over which beers may deserve top honors, but in general it was clear to me that with a world-class group of judges like these, you can rest assured the top beers in any category will end up being among those that are honored with medals. It's also a sure bet that there aren't going to be any profound mistakes made in the judging. That was heartening to see, considering that winning GABF medals in certain categories can make an unknown brewery famous overnight, so the stakes is high

Another thing that was clear in early rounds of judging, is that even many pro craft breweries lack a single person on staff with the sensory training to be able to distinguish serious flaws in their beers (otherwise, presumably they wouldn't have sent them for consideration). I don't want to dwell on the negative or talk trash here, the point is really just that the job of educators and entrepreneurs in the biz is never done. With something like 10,000 breweries in the USA right now, it's no surprise some don't have it together. There are literally not enough skilled sensory folks to go around. It's also not exactly something small breweries have the budgets to pay for - but what a disaster to think of it that way, right?! Lots of money and years of effort go into building a brewery, it seems insane to overlook having the ability to know whether or not the beer is flawed...not to mention whether it is overall a great beer. 

One other thing I was vaguely aware of but which was put into stark focus for me is that because I'm a small biz entrepreneur and not an employee of a larger operation, I'm not regularly running in this crowd like many of these folks who judge or attend all of the major beer competitions and industry conferences. I need to make more of an effort to put myself in a position to rub those elbows. That said, I was heartened by the fact that damn nearly everyone I introduced myself to knew who I was thanks to Beer Scholar. Several, upon finding out who I was, thanked me for helping them pass the Certified Cicerone exam! Very freaking cool. 

This was my first time judging GABF, so I'd be lying if I said I wasn't anxious walking into it. I was worried that maybe I wouldn't be up to snuff, but that wasn't the case at all. Coming out the other side of this experience I'm more confident than ever that I'm most definitely not an imposter beer judge, ha! That feels good. 

I celebrated the end of my GABF judging last night by hitting up Trve Brewing, where I consumed several wonderful beers and ate some very spicy Nashville style hot chicken. I'm sticking around in Denver until after the first session of the festival...I've got to see it in action. At some point, after missing GABF repeatedly in earlier times, I determined that I wouldn't go until I actually judged it, and here I am!

Beer of the Week: I had a couple winners at Trve Brewing last night in Denver, including Bloodaxe, a 7% ABV "Nordic" witbier made with orange peel, grains of paradise, and fermented with an unnamed kveik strain I would guess to be Hornindal. The other winner of the evening was Suffering Soul, a 4.5% ABV mixed fermentation sour ale made with ginger, black pepper, grapefruit, and lime. I love a great low ABV sour that isn't overly acetic and this one went down real easy. 

No 6-Pack links this week, I haven't had much time for reading. Have a lovely weekend, y'all!


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