What It’s Like To Judge The World’s Largest Craft Beer Competition

I’ve been an international beer judge for almost a decade now, having judged on five continents but there’s no event I look forward to more than the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), which is one of the largest beer festivals and competitions in the world, put on annually in Denver, Colorado by the Brewers Association. Being ask to judge GABF is a huge honor and one I take very seriously. To judge, you have to submit a formal application and have three recommendations from current or former judges or people in the beer industry.

How I Start my Day

Since you’ll be drinking a LOT of beer during the day, I start with a big breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit and an iced coffee (hot coffee can burn your mouth and all coffee can affect how you taste so I only have a very small glass). I always stay at the lovely and serene Queen Anne Urban Bed and Breakfast that makes a delicious breakfast highlighting local businesses and fresh ingredients. Cooked by the owner Milan Doshi, this breakfast is delicious and one of the many highlights of staying there.

How the Day is Structured Over Three Days

Each morning you judge 2-3 rounds of beers, followed by lunch and then usually three rounds of judging in the afternoon. Judging is all day, from about 845 a.m. to 430 p.m. You sit at a table of about five or six people, all of whom are judging the same beer style as you. The table captain, a veteran judge assigned by the Brewers Association, will split the table into two pairs so you usually judge with one or two people. You judge with one group in the morning and then switch tables in the afternoon so you’ll have new judges to work with.

You all read the style guidelines for that particular beer together. Each beer style has written guides that tell you what the beer should taste, smell, and look like. You are judging to these parameters, not if you personally like the beer. Phones are turned OFF and are not allowed to be seen at all in the room where judging happens. No personal photography is allowed as well.

Then the stewards (there are 300+ volunteers who are the nicest people, many of whom come back year after year) bring you all the beers at one time and you get to judging. A large category like hazy IPAs may have you judging 11 beers per round while a smaller category like oatmeal stouts would be eight beers.

Silences quiets the room as you all try the beers at your own pace. Everyone has their own style of judging and I’ve seen judges fly through panels quickly while some judges go slower. One of the important things about judging is not to feel rushed but also not take too long.

In the first rounds, you provide ample feedback that will be sent to the brewery about what you tasted, what you thought, and if it advanced to the next round. Breweries pay to enter this competition ($175 a beer for Brewers Association members, $405 for non-members) so it’s important to give them solid, well-written and thought out critiques of their beer. Saying “I like this” or “good” doesn’t cut it. Not giving enough feedback can get you not invited back to judge.

Once you and your judging partners are done, you talk about each beer. The beers are labeled with numbers as judging is completely blind. You don’t know what brewery you are drinking so there is no bias. Usually you start with the beers you don’t like so you can eliminate them quickly. Sometimes a judge will love something you dislike, so a discussion will take place. It’s always good to be amenable and listen to the other judges’ rationale for why they enjoyed a particular beer or not.

You then pick the beers you thought exemplified the style best to move to the next round. It may not be the best beer you liked but it needs to be the beer that is most true to style. One year, there was a tasty hoppy beer in the U.S. wheat category but it was too bitter so we had to get rid of it as it was out of style.

Second round judging there’s no feedback given to the breweries and these rounds are usually much quicker as you take some notes for yourself to remember which ones you liked and which ones you didn’t like. All you need to do is pick the best three of what you were given to send along to the next round. In big categories like German pilsners, there could be four or more rounds before a medal round while in small categories, there are only three rounds.

Medal rounds are done by the whole table. Since you are deciding who is going to win a medal, it’s very important to be ready and focused. Again, all the beers are brought out and you take notes for yourself. Then, all of you discuss the merits and flaws of each beer. I have been on panels that have taken a couple of hours to decide who wins a medal due to small, cordial disagreements and the need for a majority of the judges to decide the winners.

Judging takes place over three full days per session, with three “phases” happening over three weeks of judging. There are around 250 judges that come from all over the world drinking around 9,300 beers from over 2000 breweries! Winners are announced before the third session of GABF to a packed theatre in downtown Denver.

At the End of the Day

Every day I drink about 60 or so beers. You read that right but you only take VERY small sips so it works out to about five beers over the course of the day. I never feel drunk or tipsy since everything is spaced out and the buffet lunch they provide is ample. I also drink a LOT of water throughout. You mainly feel bloated and pretty tired at the end of the day and it can be uncomfortable. Despite the exhaustion and bloat, it’s a lot of fun and I always enjoy every year looking forward to seeing friends, meeting new people and trying some amazing American craft beers.

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