The Great American Beer Festival is the ultimate test of mettle. The three-day event presents about 1,700 different beers, making it the drinking equivalent of the Tour de France or the Boston Marathon. Thankfully for attendees, tasting each of these beers is not required. But for Paul Gatza and his associates, sampling every one of the GABF's brews is a must: Gatza heads up the GABF's Professional Panel Blind Tasting panel, the group in charge of evaluating each beer entered in the GABF awards competition. On the surface, it seems like a beer nut's dream gig, but Gatza says it comes with its share of drawbacks, and an occupational hazard like no other: palate fatigue. "After so many beers, your palate loses its ability to identify every idiosyncrasy in a beer," says Gatza, who also serves as the director of the American Homebrewers Association in Boulder. "So you have to really pace yourself as you taste. Generally we limit the judges to tasting sixty to eighty beers per day."
To many people, that would be a work-related illness to die for. But when you're charged with evaluating America's best brews, a zonked set of taste buds is serious trouble. "Your average person would picture beer judging as a bunch of guys sitting around drinking beer," says Patrick Dobolek, the brewmaster for H.C. Berger Brewing and a GABF judge. "But we take this pretty seriously. You have to have a thorough understanding of beer styles and the guidelines, and a gift from Mother Nature of a good palate for judging."
During GABF week, Dobolek and his 93 beer-judge peers will sniff, swirl and swallow portions of 1,960 beers (the extra beers are competition-only brews not available on the Currigan Hall floor) in half-ounce servings. And unlike wine tasters, beer judges generally gulp down their research subjects. "Beer is more of a complex beverage in that it has carbonation," says Dobolek, whose Tower ESB (crafted when he was the brewmaster for the Bull & Bush pub) has earned gold medals in the World Beer Cup and the GABF. "The carbonation actually helps carry some of the aroma and flavor compounds, and you can't achieve them without swallowing."
Bottles of beer entered in 54 different AHA-approved categories are tasted "blind" by the judges, sampled in small cups with only a number identifying the beer. Each entry is tasted by three judges, who evaluate the beers individually and then discuss them collectively. They're judged on their adherence to AHA style guidelines and their appearance, aroma, body and flavor (off-flavors and other flaws reduce a beer's ranking). Up to three beers from each flight are sent on to the next round and another group of judges, until the best three beers are singled out in each category. In the final round, beers are assessed by a half-dozen tasters who must reach consensus on the winners of gold, silver and bronze medals. The last three beers left standing are not guaranteed medals, Gatza notes. "A gold medal doesn't just mean it was the best beer in that category," he says. "It also must meet a standard of being a world-class example of that style, excellent in all qualities."
For a winning brewer, a GABF medal offers more than filler for the trophy case back at the brewhouse. It provides prime marketing opportunities in a craft-brewing field that has become increasingly competitive, though Dobolek says the cachet of a GABF medal may not be as powerful as in the past. But breweries with national distribution, Gatza says, certainly see glitter in a gold medal. "A lot of times a brewer will spend $135 to enter a beer in the competition and spend $2.5 million dollars marketing the medal they win," he says.
With such rewards at stake, the judges themselves are held to serious scrutiny, and the GABF employs the cream of the crop, most of whom are brewers and beer-industry staffers. And becoming a beer judge is no easy matter. Aspiring judges gain certification through the Beer Judge Certification Program and earn points toward their "degree" by assisting and participating in tasting events. To be certified, they must pass a rigorous written exam that covers a whopping amount of in-depth beer know-how, from basic brewing chemistry to differentiating between beer styles, whose distinguishing traits are often minimal. The process also involves lips-on evaluations of beers under the watchful eye of a trained judge.
For the beer judge, tasting at the GABF's Professional Panel Blind Tasting panel -- the largest event of its kind in the U.S. -- requires some restraint, and the wisdom earned from professional quaffing. "There are times that you have to discipline yourself if you get an outstanding example," Dobolek notes. Judges tasting in the higher-octane beer styles are especially at risk of palate fatigue and excess consumption. Several years ago, Gatza sat in on the final round of judging in the barley wine category (these high-proof ales contain two or three times the alcohol content of typical beers) and learned firsthand the pitfalls facing judges, who were forced to analyze additional pours in order to make their final assessments. "It was funny to see the judges' skills start to deteriorate," Gatza recalls, "and have to come to a decision while they were still able to do so."