Pictures of Michael Jackson watch over the crowd, the biggest compliment a beer can get this year: "Michael would have been proud." I heard this in reference to a few brews...we'll see if they medal tomorrow. I'm going to be online during the awards, posting any local boys making good. But I can tell you that Denver loves Elysian's Jasmine IPA, Pike Brewing, Baron everything, and Silver City Fat Scotch and Whoop Ass.
Matt Stinchfield from Brewers News was particularly jealous that I could drink Elysian whenever I wanted. OK, so more on judging. Am I just a nerd? I just think it's so freakin' cool, like 12 Angry Men, but with beer. I met with Matt in a new feature at the festival called "You Be The Judge." You're shown the guidelines for a beer (American Imperial Stout in my case, lucky me!), and you get to sit with an actual beer judge and go through his scoring process.
Below are transcribed bits from my sit down with Matt talking about judging practices (any non-italics are direct quotations):
"It's pretty much a cloistered event. Nobody gets to see it. It's very secretive. The beers are under strict control, and nobody knows what we're tasting. We just get a number. All we have to do, as trained palates, is compare the beer, objectively, to the style guideline that it is entered in. It may or may not be good for that style, but that's what we compare it to. Think of it like a dog show, like judging breeds."
"All judging sheets are numbered, so judges are monitored for fair reporting practices . We're under a lot of quality control. We may do anything up to three rounds to get to medal contenders. We have 6 to 7 judges per panel. We don't confer in the beginning of judging. When we taste, it's absolutely stoic, no mmms, no ughs, no faces. When we get through, the head judge leads a discussion. There's a lot of diplomacy, but in the end we all have to be happy with the decision. It is a jury. We get as close as we can to 100% consensus, as long as we keep it objective."
"Finally at the end, we decide what beers are going to go on, to another round or the medal round. If we're in a medal round, we ask ourselves if we have three beers that deserve a medal. (medals are NOT just awards to top three) We have to say goodbye to some darn good beers at this point, so we have to be extra sure of our picks. We don't know until everybody else knows on Saturday who the winners are. Even when you think you know whose beer it is, the judging heads say about 2/3 of the time--we're wrong."
The beer we judged was nothing like an Imperial stout; it was more a Mickey Mouse version of dark beer, full of sweet and butterscotch, not bitter enough and with little alcohol heat. (I asked how often beers are entered out-of-type) "Fairly often. We have 75-76 classifications, many with sub classes. We have the brewer's perception and the judges' perceptions. Everybody's trying to aim for their best chance at a medal. I had a beer today, one of the beers that is most difficult to convincingly brew, a German Alt beer. It's a brown beer, and it's slightly bitter. It's refreshing; it's sweet and then bitter. It's a normal beer; it's a session beer."
"American brewers have been trying for 20 years to make this beer. It's very difficult. I talked to someone today who's been to a german brewing school and all he had to say is "I don't know how they do it, but it's not what we do." We might know the ingredients, but if you don't put them together in the right order... And there we were judging a German wheat style, and we had a beer which was the best Alt beer the whole table had ever had. So here's this guy, he's a lost brewer." (Brewer's do get judging notes back, Matt made sure to note it.)
My conclusion: Wine critics and judges could learn a hell of a lot from these guys. Eh hem. I'm just sayin. And BTW, I am sooo lobbying to be a stout judge next year...
If you can endure the background noise that I couldn't quite shed, here's Matt going through the actual judging process with me, our assignment: American-Style Imperial Stout.