Revolution Hall (1300 SE Stark St, # 110)
Tuesday, Feb 23, 5:30pm
$15 tickets include beer and snacks | Full details
For decades, Americans have been trying to judge their beers. The Great American Beer Festival dates back, amazingly, to 1982. Homebrew competitions predate that by four years. As the decades have piled up, so have the competitions, and there are now so many of them they're like white noise playing in the background. So many breweries have won so many awards that nobody pays much attention to them anymore. Given the history, I wouldn't blame you if you tuned out the latest awards ceremony, which will happen at Portland's Revolution Hall in four days' time. But for once, you shouldn't. The Oregon Beer Awards are something truly new and different, and they may change the way we think about this whole judging business.
A Philosophical Change
Why would you judge beers in the first place? To try to identify and laud the best ones, right? This seems intuitive enough, but the way these competitions have evolved has undermined this simple goal. When we think of "best," what pops into our minds are those beers that really rocked our worlds. We've all had the experience of trying a beer and thinking, "Holy crap, this thing is amazing." It's the experience that has given beer all this energy and excitement. But in trying to set up the formal structure for judging beers, competitions have created rigid style categories with very narrow criteria. Because beers vary so much, they've addressed this by adding ever more styles to the competitions. What you end up with are beers that "test" well in these rigid categories. Any beer that does not conform to the model has no place at competitions.
Recognizing this, the OBA founders have radically simplified everything. (Those founders, incidentally, are brewer Ben Edmunds, Willamette Week arts and culture editor Martin Cizmar, and blogger Ezra Johnson-Greenough.) There are only fourteen categories. (The GABF has 92.) This is the first year they've done this with judging, and my guess is that they'll be tweaked slightly in future years, but you can understand their basic logic when you see the list:
- "Classic styles" (browns, reds, ambers, etc.)
- Belgian beer
- Sessionable hoppy beers (6% and lower)
- IPA (6.1% to 7.4%)
- Strong hoppy beers (7.5% and higher)
- Dark hoppy beers
- Flavored beers
- Fruit and field beers
- Sour and wild beers
- Barrel-aged beers
- Experimental beers
"In general, it is not our goal to reward or eliminate beers on a technicality. In all categories, the ideal is a harmonious and delicious beer which exemplifies the category as it exists in today’s beer culture. Harmoniousness includes technical criteria such as color and carbonation as well as more qualitative elements like finesse, moreishness/drinkability, and balance."They're really trying to find beers that spark that "holy crap!" moment.
Qualified Judges/Good Competition Design
The competition took place over two days. Seventy-eight breweries entered 525 beers across the 14 categories. On day one, judges tasted flights of all the beers (usually around ten per flight) and selected three to advance. The 64 judges were an impressive group of professionals. Most were brewers--a who's who from around the state--but there were also distributors, hop growers, pub owners, and writers. I was one of the lucky judges on day one, but had to miss the second day. On day two there were prelim rounds and finals rounds.
I've judged beer probably a dozen times, and this was different. We were allowed to consult any style guidelines, basically to give us a sense of what we were looking for. But then the process was far less technical and more subjective. We just talked about the beers we liked and why. There were generally some beers the table quickly eliminated because they weren't especially interesting examples or had notable flaws. In other competitions, there's usually a big discussion about style adherence. Is beer X a good example of a pale ale, or is it really more of an IPA? I judged both narrow categories like kolsch as well as quite broad categories like the session hoppy beers and wild ales. Those were fascinating.
In the session hoppy ales, there was a broad selection of styles: session IPAs and hoppy pales, of course, but also an English IPA, two hoppy lagers, and a hoppy saison. There were a couple of old-school, ragged-edges hoppy beers, too. Tasting them all was disorienting at first, but then illuminating. Although they were not similar stylistically, they were all using they elements of the style they chose to frame their use of hops. Of the 60+ beers I tried that day, my overall favorite was the hoppy saison, and I hope I learn what it was at some point.
I have no idea if Willamette Week is going to want to continue this tradition, or if breweries will participate at the level they did this year. But whether the Oregon Beer Awards continue or not, this year's competition set a new standard for what these things can be. There will be only 14 gold medals announced on Tuesday, and for once I am really excited to know what they are. Winning a gold (or even a silver or bronze) should be the mark of very good beers.