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Monday, September 20, 2010

The GABF and the Meaning of Medaling

Ah, the Great American Brewers Festival, whose medals always glow shiniest on brewery trophy walls. Our love, our bane. Does any fest fill beer geeks with more ambivalence? On the one hand, it has the most credibility of any awards-granting fest in the US--ensuring that any beer receiving an award is a good one. On the other hand, its very credibility conceals selection biases: the only beers that win are those entered--and of the 1,600 American breweries, fewer than a third enter beers. As a consequence, we have a hard time relating to the meaning of a winning beer,

Add to that the innate capriciousness of judged events. Enter a beer one year and it may win gold and then strike out thereafter. To take one example, did the quality of Mirror Pond really increase this year; or were the judges just off their collective rockers in past years when it didn't win? Of course, the truth is that, in a competition with dozens of beers, the palates and moods of the judges will select almost randomly among a smaller--but still substantial--group of potential medal winners. Excluding the pro-am competition, 3,448 beers were entered for judging. Coming up with medal winners from that vast group isn't totally random, but let's just say that among the 3,211 non-winners are a few decent beers (and future gold medalists).

Another issue: as a parochial blogger, I dislike how Colorado always takes home truckloads of medals, while Oregon (and particularly Washington) get a relative snub. True, we know from past years that Colorado breweries enter in far greater numbers--and therefore have lower winning percentages--than Oregon, but gaudy numbers impress more than statistical contextualizing. So this year, Colorado takes home 41 medals, more than doubling up Oregon (19) and clubbing Washington like a baby seal (7). (And I wonder, darkly, why the Colorado-based host organization gives no information this year on which breweries entered, preventing me from scoring win percentages for 2010.)

And what to make of style explosions? This year's competition features 79 categories, for a total haul of 237 medals. The chances of winning owe a lot to, well, chance, but that doesn't mean I won't get a flood of press releases trumpeting wins this week. Over two hundred medals a year, every year, thousands in total. After a certain point, what does it say that a beer has won a medal? What does it say that a beer never has? Does seeing a medal-draped trophy cabinet tell a visitor anything about a brewery?

So here we are on Ambivalent Monday, happy to celebrate the winners, but also wondering: yes, but what exactly should we make of all this?


  1. "ensuring that any beer receiving an award is a good one"

    Oh, really? Will you be cracking open a Miller Lite tonight?

  2. "I dislike how Colorado always takes home truckloads of medals, while Oregon (and particularly Washington) get a relative snub."

    Wow, Jeff. You walked right into the NW model from my GABF article. Nice! Thanks for proving my point. BTW, the GABF Comp is judged by a collection of judges from around the US and the world.

    SNUB? Ya think it's like a childs sporting event? Everybody has to get an award so no one gets their feelings hurt. Ribbons are given for merit not participation! :-O

    Did ya ever think those Ribbons won by Colorado and California are legitimate and those beers are just that good? ;-} Maybe I should say... Those beers are appreciated by a larger selection of the populous. You know where I'm going with this....

  3. wait, don't we grow most of the hops that California and Colorado just used to clean up the hoppy categories?

    Not even a single placing in any of the main "hop" categories.

  4. @DA

    Are you stirring Jeff's pot?!

    Are we to believe that locally grown doesn't always equate to an award winning product???? Oh my, I'm feeling dizzy..... :-O

  5. Oh, Jeff, be a gracious loser, please, while I drink my delicious Colorado medal-winning beers. Maybe I'll have a Steamworks Backside Stout with my steak tonight.

  6. Kevin, you highlight a different, but relevant, point. The spread of categories means certain categories represent existing styles--but not styles we necessarily need bother with at a GABF-type event.

    Ah, Doc, your praise of those judges is well-placed; after all, they disproportionately award Oregon beers with heavy metal. (This comment also known as "bait not taken...")

    Soggy, enjoy your stout. No doubt it's a praise-worthy ale--you know, for a Colorado beer.

  7. I'm less concerned with who won as much as the public confusion as to what a GABF gold, silver, or bronze medal actually means. The reality is that this is a industry PR event both at the GABF and afterward for the "winners".

    I recall repeat gold medal winning, triple hops brewed Miller Lite had television spots last year that mentioned the number of breweries at the 2009 GABF juxtaposed with winning a gold. The wording was clever in that they never said they beat all of the breweries but definitely implies that their accomplishment was more significant than beating the handful of light lagers in their category.

    Let's face it. If you walk into a brewery you've never visited before and you see medals on display for particular beers, you're probably prone to have an elevated sense of the quality of their beers. Unfortunately, I've had a few medal winners at the brewery and found them to be underwhelming.

    This also makes me wonder about whether the beers judged are the same beers served under the same name. I have been told that some breweries often go through painstaking measures to brew a special batch and time it with GABF not only so it arrives fresh but also tweak the recipe for that extra zip. What I am saying is that they beef up the body with extra malt or add more hops for a bigger pop so that it is more likely to stand out and be noticed. I can't substantiate this other than to say I was given this information from a professional brewer.

    The GABF is also flawed in that it is cost prohibitive for the smaller brewers to enter and ship as many enteries as they'd like if any at all. Is it a wonder the Miller Coors took home 11 medals including 6 golds (Hamm's included)?

    If we acknowledge GABF for what it is then we shouldn't need to concern ourselves with who won how many medals. The proliferation of categories only seems to support the notion that it increases the chance of more breweries to take home hardware rather than truly recognizing the best beers in the US. I know what beers I like so I'll stick to those that have I have enjoyed time after time.

  8. Perhaps what we need is not an award ceremony, but a "Michelin/Zagat" rating system for breweries that reviews them on quality of beers, mastery of style/technique (including new), flavor, value, and consistency?

    Let the festivals be about brewers then showing their chops in a brew-off.

  9. Anonymous: historically most of the breweries that tweak recipes for judging at GABF are dumbing them down, to have less "pop".