Every autumn, dozens of certified beer judges from around the globe fly into Denver for the Great American Beer Festival alongside thousands of beer geeks, to dip their noses into tiny glasses of beer, swirling the liquid over their heads, tasting it, rating it — and passing judgment. But this is 2020, and the public portion of GABF had to be canceled and replaced with online content because of the pandemic.
The competition lives on, however, bringing at least some excitement to craft beer brewers and drinkers. But with travel restrictions in place around the world, there will be no overseas judges and fewer from elsewhere in the U.S. Instead, 120 beer experts — mostly local, but some from other states — will do the tough work normally handled by 325. And they'll be judging a mind-boggling 9,000 different entries.
How is the Brewers Association, which hosts GABF, pulling this off? By making things even more complex than they've ever been, says BA spokeswoman Ann Obenchain.
Instead of lasting three days, the judging began in mid-September and will run for seventeen days, with only 35 people allowed into the judging area at one time. The same judges will have to take on multiple categories, and the BA had to work around everyone's schedule in order to accommodate them.
In addition, the contest is taking place in the BA's warehouse in Boulder County, as opposed to a downtown Denver hotel ballroom, because there is a sophisticated ventilation system and more space to spread out, since judges must remain six feet apart from each other at all times. They are also required to wear plastic face shields, while the stewards who bring beer to the judges must wear both shields and face masks.
"There are many, many layers of protocols in place," Obenchain points out.
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To make things slightly more streamlined, GABF organizers combined or reduced the number of categories from 107 to 91, though that is still a lot of beer. And breweries had the option this year of entering up to ten beers, something the BA allowed because it wasn't sure how many breweries would participate.
In the end, however, the organization received entries from about 1,700 breweries in all fifty states and Washington, D.C., and in quantities that "exceeded our initial expectations," Obenchain says. Last year, there were just over 2,000 breweries in the competition.
The 39th annual GABF takes place online this year and via a brewery passport that gets participants access to brewery specials and some special releases; access to both is $20. The online content begins October 16 on the Brewing Network at 5 p.m. with the awards ceremony and continues through October 17.