Behind the scenes at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival (GABF), a cadre of 264 qualified judges will taste around 7,300 beers submitted from across the country in 96 categories. Those found most favorable are awarded the ultimate taproom adornment and marketing bonanza: a GABF medal.
Before sending off their wares, however, brewers must consume the 72-page GABF guidebook. It’s a wealth of information; everything from registration and packaging tips to associated costs, shipping instructions, and quantity allowances.
Most critical to brewers is the 44-page style index. It’s a meticulously crafted document breaking down styles at an anatomical level and includes optimal benchmarks for original and final gravity, SRM (color), bitterness (IBU) and alcohol by weight and volume.
But, this isn’t some Ten Commandments-style sacred writ dusted off each year and handed to brewers from an ivory tower. It’s a living document, refined annually based on feedback; an egalitarian manual reflecting the views and opinions of those most invested in the process.
“We collect feedback from judges and brewers and beer geeks year-round about our guidelines,” explained GABF competition manager, Chris Swersey. “Most of our feedback comes from beer judges, either from the U.S. or from around the world and also from homebrewers or commercial brewers. […] They’re kind of on the front lines. We’re always trying to listen to what those guys are trying to say.”
Not every “suggestion” gets incorporated into the guidebook each year; merit is determined by festival founder and craft beer sage, Charlie Papazian.
“He makes those updates to the Brewers Association beer style guidelines that form the basis for our competition guidelines,” said Swersey. “We might make small little tweaks to color, or alcohol or OG or terminal gravity, but the real big changes are the ones you see [in the GABF guidebook].”
Some updates are relatively minor and only impact subcategories, which are not awarded individual medals but serve as a way to delineate styles that can cover a wide range of interpretation. For instance, Coffee Beer now has subcategories (Coffee Beer and Coffee Stout/Porter), and European-Style Dark Lager and Munich-Style Dunkel have become two distinct subcategories.
Others revisions are more consequential—“game-changers” as Swersey described them. This year, significant updates center around the Saison, Pumpkin and Brett Beer categories.
Pumpkin is not synonymous with spice
The worthiness (or lack thereof) of pumpkin beers in the larger pantheon of beer styles is a favorite topic in taprooms and beer forums. Criticism is often directed at the actual “pumpkin-ness” of these brews.
“Pumpkin is so delicate that it’s very difficult to perceive the actual pumpkin flavor in a beer,” explained Swersey. “You have to process the pumpkin in such a way that you can actually taste it.”
Instead, so-called “pumpkin beers” have relied on spices (cinnamon, clove, allspice, etc.) to give it a taste that is more evocative of a season than their namesake vegetable.
“So to answer that, Charlie created a totally different category, this pumpkin/squash beer category which more than anything else is really an offshoot of field beer,” said Swersey. “These are beers that you can actually taste the pumpkin or squash or whatever that vegetable is that’s in there.”
Thus 2015’s Pumpkin Beer category was bisected, begetting the new Pumpkin/Squash Beer and Pumpkin Spice Beer categories. Field Beer, any beers that use vegetables in the brewing process for flavor, remains its own category.
Embracing the funk
While changes to the pumpkin category were largely semantic, the update to Brett beers reflects the style’s meteoric rise in popularity. “Brett” was first introduced into the category lexicon in 2011 and submissions increased minimally until 2015 when the category nearly doubled in size from the prior year.
Where the category as previously defined was a catchall for any beer containing “bugs” (acid-producing bacteria) many brewers were foregoing the Lactobacillus and Pediococcus mixed-fermentation concoctions in favor of pure Brettanomyces beers.
“It just speaks to Brett beers becoming so popular among brewers and beer drinkers,” said Swersey. The popularity led to this year’s distinction between Brett Beer and Mixed-Culture Brett Beer.
What is a saison?
“This to me is the biggest of all the category changes,” said Swersey, referring to the transformation of the French and Belgian Style Saison category into two separate categories: Classic Saison and Specialty Saison.
“We had so much conversation about ‘what is a saison?’ Charlie broke out what you would think of as classic golden to pale amber saisons from specialty saisons.”
The change was a reaction to the creativity of American craft brewers who were brewing saisons with darker malts or integrating herbs, spices, and fruits, creating a flavor hodgepodge.
“Saison” in French simply means “season.” It’s not the most descriptive of beer categories, “but it kind of has a stylistic meaning in the sense of a larger basket of beers in Belgium,” explained Swersey. “It’s a tough category to put sideboards on.”
The split proved apropos as both categories were among the most entered in 2016.
“I think that our guidelines have had to get broader,” Swersey said. “U.S. craft brewers continue to explore the range of what’s possible like no one else on earth and I truly believe that. […] The U.S. beer culture is so experimental, so highly developed, so mature, that if there is a beer flavor you can’t find in the United States I don’t know where you can or what it is.”
While hearing your name called during the award ceremony by Swersey and getting a fist-bump and medal from Papazian are the lasting memories some brewers will leave Denver with, the process of whittling down the 7,300 odd submissions involves logistical prowess and palate-protecting considerations deserving of recognition.
The competition had to grow intelligently alongside the event in order to reflect the integrity and dedication that goes into the medal awarding process. Flight sizes and when they are tasted are based on style. That means no judge stares down a 12-beer flight of IPAs first thing in the morning.
“As we’ve grown we’ve added judges and tables so that the number of beers each judge tastes every day has actually gone down in the past 15 years,” said Swersey. “We don’t want our judges to over-consume or to be less than in optimal condition. That is not fair to the beers and it’s not fair to the brewers. We continue to grow the competition and not just the number of beers. We grow everything about it to maintain that high quality.”