Local beers continue to earn medals at the Great American Beer Festival—with a new crop of winners announced in early October.
Beer lovers rejoice! It’s time for the annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver. But, don’t get too excited—tickets sold out in about an hour months ago.
This three-day tasting festival, October 6–8, is open to the public, but the real action is behind the scenes where the GABF serves as the world’s largest commercial beer competition. Now in its 35th year, the GABF—produced by the Brewers Association, a trade group dedicated to promoting America’s craft brewers—is the most prestigious annual competition for American brewers.
I’m happy to report that our area breweries have a history of success at the festival—a history I expect will continue.
From the Early Days
At the GABF’s inaugural year in 1982, with fewer than 100 breweries in the country, the competition awarded simply first, second and third place in a Consumer Preference Poll. Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing were winners. In 1986, Philadelphia’s own Dock Street Brewery took third place for its Dock Street Amber Ale.
By 1987 the competition format used today was born, with judging for basic styles—such as porter, stout, wheat, American-style lager—in addition to the Consumer Preference Poll.
Fast forward to 2015, when 1,552 breweries entered 6,647 beers for judging in an industry that, as of a few months ago, boasted 4,656 breweries. Last year 285 GABF medals were awarded across 93 categories. In addition to hosting a Beer Geeks bookstore and Silent Disco, the GABF now recognizes competition categories such as chili beer, experimental beer and arcane styles, such as historical beer.
Interesting, but where did all that beer come from and how were those beers chosen to compete? Some award-winning area brewers shared their insights on the process—good background as we wait to hear the 2016 winners on October 8.
Go Ahead, Judge My Beer.
Today countless opportunities exist for commercial breweries to have their beers judged in competitions by accredited judges. From small, local competitions to media-driven, blind-tasting competitions, a brewery can get feedback from far beyond its own tasting room.
That said, most brewers interviewed for this article focus on the two most significant U.S. competitions—GABF and the World Beer Cup (WBC), held this past May in Philadelphia.
Ken Buonocore, co-founder of Conshohocken Brewing Company, said “The GABF and WBC bring a sense of credibility in both their judging process and their logistics, and are recognized by breweries and consumers alike.”
Philadelphia-based Nodding Head Brewery’s founder Curt Decker agrees. “We’ve only ever entered GABF and WBC. There are a lot of competitions that don’t have the wide range of entries. I feel that GABF and WBC are the most prestigious and respected for American brewers.”
Most brewers interviewed concede luck as well as brewing high quality beer are needed to shine at the competition, but they all strive to do their best. Mark Edelson, Iron Hill Brewery’s director of brewery operations, said, “When putting Iron Hill together, one of my personal goals was winning a gold medal at the GABF. We won it our very first year with our Lodestone Lager in the Helles category! So early on we looked towards GABF as validation that we were making some of the best beer among our craft brewing peers. This continues to be our motivation today.”
What Makes an Award-winning Beer?
Beers judged at the GABF are shipped to Denver two months before the judging and awards ceremony, making lead time and shipping distance considerations for choosing what to enter into competition.
Brewing unique batches of beer strictly for competition is not something this group of brewers does, save for minor tweaks of a recipe for a year-round brand. This sentiment is underscored by Chris Trogner, co-founder of Tröegs Independent Brewing, based in Hershey: “Competitions get the same beer our customers get.”
Brian O’Reilly, brewmaster at Sly Fox Brewing Company, in Phoenixville and Pottstown, sends the maximum submissions allowed—five beers—and says he and his team choose beers based on what they think will stand out with the judges. They’ll choose from two to four different recent batches of the same beer trying to determine “if one is more appropriate to send than another.”
Head brewer and production manager of Stoudts Brewing Company in Adamstown, Brett Kintzer has a similar approach. “We usually try to pack and ship beers that were recently bottled, since beers will always be best when fresh—with a few exceptions, such as entries in barrel-aged and sour categories that might do better with some aging.”
Adherence to style guidelines, which judges are expected to follow, is an important factor in a brewery’s choice of which beers to send to competition and which category to enter in.
Nate Walter, head brewer at McKenzie Brew House (Devon, Glen Mills, Malvern), said this: “In determining the best beers for submission, we lead with sensory evaluations first—sight, aroma, then taste. We want to enter the best beer possible. For specific style guidelines, we want to make sure the beer is suitable given the competition and category.”
Iron Hill has a long track record of winning awards—75 awards since 1997 from Iron Hill’s 12 locations—and their success is no accident. “To put our best foot forward, we never enter a beer we haven’t brewed and tasted before. We enter many of our house products, some of our tried-and-true past winners, and throughout the year we note some standouts when we’re doing our regular tasting panels. Each location’s brewer submits a list of beers they think will be standouts, and we vet the lists to see what we think will be competitive,” said Edelson.
The GABF judging process is as professional as most brewers will find. Care is taken to ensure the integrity of the competition—from intake of the beers to blind serving by trained stewards.
At the 2015 competition, 242 accredited judges tasted their way through multiple three-hour sessions over three days. Judges are not permitted to participate in style categories their brewery had entered, and participants are encouraged not to discuss in the media which beers were entered before judging.
In large categories—such as American-style India Pale Ale (IPA) where 336 entries were submitted in 2015—these precautions may seem like overkill. But other categories—such as American-style dark lager with only 24 beers—caution is more understandable.
Nodding Head’s Decker has great respect for judging in these two major competitions. “Most styles have multiple rounds of judging, and you may have your beer at a first-round table that appreciates your take on a style, and it advances and eventually wins. Or, you may end up at a table with a judge or two whose taste and interpretation are different, and the beer never gets past the first round to the medal round. Many great beers never win medals.” Nodding Head’s biggest award-winner—Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse—scored three silver and two bronze medals since 2003.
And the Gold Medal Goes To ...
After thousands of beers have been judged by hundreds of judges over three days, awards are presented. At Tröegs, Trogner recognizes that “Awards are a nice way for everyone at the brewery to give themselves a pat on the back for all the hard work. It also helps breweries gain a little credibility among our industry peers. The success of Troegenator has been a key to the success of Tröegs,” winning six gold, two silver and three bronze medals since 2006.
Kintzer at Stoudts has a similar view. “I hope consumers realize the importance of brewing consistent quality beers year after year and for such a long time, in our case almost 30 years. It should be a testament to our products, and the tried-and-true methods of achieving that quality.”
At younger breweries such as Conshohocken Brewing, started in 2014, head brewer Andrew Horne adds, “It’s a great way to get our name out there, build our reputation, and validate the quality of our process.”
By the time you read this, the GABF for 2016 may well be over. Yet many brewers interviewed cited being proudest of their first major award— “You never forget your first” was a common refrain. Iron Hill first won for its Lodestone Lager at 1997’s GABF; Conshohocken Brewing’s Puddlers Row ESB (extra special bitter) debuted at the 2016 World Beer Cup; and Tröegs began its winning ways for Troegantor Double Bock in 2006.
Other brewers point to more recent wins as sources of pride. McKenzie Brew House took home silver for It Was a Dark and Stormy Night at the 2013 GABF; Stoudts had success with Oktoberfest winning in 2004, 2007 and 2015; and Sly Fox earned medals in the last three consecutive GABFs for its Grisette.
For 2016 GABF, will Iron Hill’s Russian Imperial Stout continue its dominance? Can Conshohocken’s Puddlers Row or Stoudts’ Maibock add another medal? Will Sly Fox’s Grisette show up on stage for year number four?
The next time you’re at your favorite brewpub, ask if they have some beer with new medals to show off.
Or ask for a GABF winner by name. Cheers!
Bryan Kolesar, local to Chester County, has been writing about beer for over ten years and maintains a blog, BrewLounge.com. His book—Beer Lover’s Mid-Atlantic—is available online and in physical bookstores. It’s a complete 416-page guide to breweries, brewpubs, beer bars and homebrew of PA, NJ, MD and DE.