Last weekend I had the honor of judging the 2017 Best of Craft Beer Awards in Bend, Oregon. I had been invited last year, but wasn’t able to make it due to a prior commitment (judging another competition actually). This is the fourth year of the competition, which has steadily grown. Wanting to recognize craft brewing but use actual blind judging rather than a people’s choice or “best of” list, similar to GABF and World Beer cup, is the goal of the event. Based on shipping and judging location the contest was heavy with Pacific Northwest and California beers, but there was a good number from the Midwest and East Coast, including a couple from North Carolina.
The judging was held at the Mt Bachelor Resort in Bend. The weather was cold, but the hospitality was quite warm. They fed us breakfast and lunch both days during the judging and took care of pretty much anything else we would need.
This was my first experience in judging commercial beer and it was both similar and different to judging homebrew. The first way that it was different was instead of one sample at a time, they brought us flights of ten to twelve all at once. They also had very short, checklist style scoresheets. No long winding feedback here, just a few words and on to the next sample. It was rapid fire judging. The beers with obvious flaws were weeded out right away and then we would debate amongst the good ones which deserved to move on to the next round.
The second major way it was different was the sheer number of styles. The BJCP recently updated their style guidelines up to 32 styles, but this competition uses the Brewers Association styles (same ones GABF uses). The BA has over 160 styles, which if you’re curious you can find HERE. These guidelines are much more narrow than BJCP, and since this is commerical beer a lot of it is based on alcohol percentage and IBU (bitterness), something that is usually not known for homebrew. For example, two of the styles I judged were American Style IPA and American Style Strong Pale Ale. What’s a Strong Pale Ale you ask? Well, that’s a beer with slightly more alcohol and bitterness than a Pale Ale, but not as much as an IPA. Plus some overlap. Confused? Without being told, these two styles would be indistinguishable, but Strong Pale Ale ranges from 5.6%-7.0% Alcohol and 40-50 IBU, while American IPA ranges from 6.3%-7.5% alcohol and 50-70 IBU. Stuff like Pliney the Elder at 8.0% and 100IBU? That’s a different category.
Beyond that it was pretty much just like judging homebrew. Taste the beer, give it a score, write some feedback, move on. One of the things several people remarked to me as a similarity to homebrew was that there would be just as much bad beer as good. Shockingly they were right. It startled me how many of the beers were bad, and I don’t just mean low quality or something I didn’t like. These beers had serious production flaws that indicated they had been rushed, not given enough time, bottled too soon or crashed (chilled) too soon. Off flavors like diacetyl and acetaldehyde that the yeast will eventually get rid of but it needs time. On the first day I judged 49 samples, most of them before lunch. Thankfully the second day I only judged 16.
After the judging, they brought out the half empty bottles (which would get dumped anyway) so that we could taste some of the samples from categories we hadn’t judged and also see the labels and find out what we had just judged blind. Some people would match up entry numbers and walk around with a bottle letting people try it and saying “This took first place in stout, you gotta try it!” I took a few sips of things, but realized quickly at the end of the first day that I was “beered-out”. No matter what bottle I picked they all started tasting the same. Starting the day on IPAs and finishing with sours, my palate was wrecked.
Just as a demonstration of the widespread nature of the competition, I went back and looked at my Untappd check-ins over the course of the two days and I logged 25 unique beers from 12 different states. Representing Wisconsin, Alaska, Mass., Colorado, California, Oregon (of course), Minnesota, Texas, Missouri, Washington, Nevada and North Carolina. Counting the bottles I took home, you can add Ohio and Alabama to that list as well.
There were at least 12 members of my homebrew club, the Oregon Brew Crew in attendance as judges and stewards so there were plenty of people I knew there. Other none OBC judges I recognized from other competitions as well. You start to get to know people when you see them 6-7 times a year. That’s the fun part of being a judge!
At the end of the event was what had enticed a lot of people to make the trip, the bottle grab! Commercial breweries often send twice the amount of beer needed for a competition, for fear of breakage, spillage, etc, so there was a lot of unopened bottles left at the end. Since the beer was donated for samples it can’t be resold and is expensive to ship back, so rather than dump it down the drain, they lay out the boxes and let the judges have at it!
A lot of people took home three and four boxes worth, but I decided that I didn’t need that much at home, and to try to move it, carry it all wasn’t worth it, so I limited myself to one box and tried to be very particular about what I picked. I’ve tried about half of them and they’ve all been good. So far all winners.
My small, but impressive, personal haul. Beers from all over, including California, North Carolina, Alabama, Colorado, Washington and more. The two cork and caged bottles are Sugar Creek from Charlotte. I visited there on our massive east coast trip a year ago, so I had to grab those when I saw them. Can’t get those out here normally for sure. The wax topped bottle is a Bourbon barrel aged Stout, so I managed to snag at least one “fancy” beer as well.
Overall, this was a great event and I had a lot of fun. The first day felt like “work” based on the sheer number of samples, but otherwise it was OK. Looking forward to doing it again next year! The 2017 awards results are posted HERE.