IN ADDITION TO copious consumption by more than 30,000 visitors, this weekend’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver features the world’s most prestigious tasting competition. In private rooms away from the commotion of the festival floor, more than 100 beer judges will snort, swallow and sort their way through 2,400 entries from 450 domestic breweries.
Tomorrow, in an hours-long ceremony, they’ll issue gold, silver and bronze medals in 69 style categories.
Pale ale, Irish stout, light lager – the classics are there, of course, along with rarities like Baltic-style porter and South German-style Bernsteinfarbenes Weizen.
It’s a daunting judging task, and a tribute to the astounding diversity of American craft beer. As recently as 1987, there were only a dozen style categories.
But with all due respect to the explosive variety, it’s time the judges picked one – just one – grand champion beer.
I don’t care which one it is (as long as it’s not Keystone Light). I just think that, after 25 years, the festival is mature enough to authoritatively decree that X Beer is the Best Beer in America.
Instead, what we get is a mess of medals – more than 200 of them. Each winner is worthy, no doubt, but inflation cheapens their value.
America demands one big winner. We play the World Series and crown one champion, not six division winners. We’ve got one best picture. One Miss America. One Wing Bowl champ.
England, which has been holding the Great British Beer Festival for 30 years, names one winner. The so-called Champion Beer of Britain is widely publicized and reaps all kinds of attention from eager beer drinkers around the world.
In its first few years, the GABF did name a single “consumer preference” winner. The award was abandoned, however, after Samuel Adams Boston Lager scooped up a few in a row, and the losers (rightly) complained about ballot stuffing.
But I’m not talking about a popularity contest. This is a job for those professional judges with serious snoots and perfect palates. Go ahead, hand out all those other medals, but pick just one as the very best.
Charlie Papazian, the Brewers Association president who has overseen the festival since its start 25 years ago, doesn’t like the idea because “it’s the antithesis of the flavor and diversity we’re trying to highlight.”
He has a point. After suffering through 50 years of identical post-Prohibition industrial lagers, Americans are now enjoying a phenomenal variety of flavors. Comparing India pale ales to smoked porters, Papazian said, is apples and oranges.
Then there’s the logistics. After selecting 69 gold medalists, Papazian asked, how do the judges narrow the choices down to just one grand champion?
Well, the logistics aren’t my problem. But I might note that, every weekend across this country there’s another group of judges who face just that task. They sort through a diverse group of styles, hand out medals in each category, then re-judge them all and name a best of show.
They’re dog-show judges.
And last time I checked down at the local doggie park, naming a grand champion didn’t diminish diversity one bit.
Victory at GABF
After 11 years in business, Downingtown’s Victory Brewing is making its first appearance at the GABF. The brewery has entered its Prima Pils, Golden Monkey, Storm King Imperial Stout and HopDevil IPA for judging.
But it’s not the first time co-owners Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet have attended the fest. In 1988, before they established their company, the partners went as beer fans.
That year, the much-smaller festival was held in a downtown Denver hotel, Covaleski remembered. “They were holding two events that weekend,” he said, “the beer festival and a Junior Miss America regional competition… . I don’t know what the event planner was thinking.”
Another local brewer, Chris Leonard of Gen. Lafayette Inn & Brewery, had a tough time deciding whether to submit his beers for judging in the GABF’s newest style category: aged beer.
For one thing, no one can be certain of the judges’ criteria, since so many different styles are likely to be entered in the catchall category.
But just as important is the cost. Besides the entry fees, which start at $315, those six rare, 2-year-old barleywine bottles he sent for judging would’ve brought 20 bucks a pop at Leonard’s restaurant.