As I was watching the live stream of the 2014 World Beer Cup awards ceremony the other night on the The Brewing Network, I noticed in the chat room a lot of suppositions about how the competition is run. As a long time judge, I thought I might take a little time to explain how the competition for the WBC (and the GABF) is organized and how the judging process works. Special thanks to Technical Brewing Projects Coordinator and long time Competition Manager Chris Swersey from the Brewers Association, who reviewed this post and added some valuable detail about the process.
First off, the competition is blind, meaning that judges do not ever know what beers they are tasting in any given session. The only information provided is a random identification number and a description of what (if any) special ingredients might be in the beer (about a third of all beers are entered in styles allowing entering brewers to specify fruit, spices, type of wood, etc.). The random numbers assigned to each specific beer change for each round they are judged, making the process truly a blind competition.
Judging sessions are divided into a morning session and an afternoon session for each day of the judging. In each approximately 3 hour session, 6 or 7 judges are assigned to sit at a specific table, and they judge 1, 2 or 3 flights of beer (most often 3). The judges stay at the same table for each half-day session. Each round consists usually of 10-12 beers, so there can be 20-30 beers total in each session, and with 2 sessions per day, that results in 40-50 beers being judged by any particular judge over the day. Unless it is a medal round, the table is usually split in half, and one side of 3-4 judges gets one round of samples, the other side of judges get a different round of samples, though they are always the same style. Morning sessions tend to focus on lower alcohol styles; afternoon sessions tend to include higher alcohol or higher flavor styles. This is not a hard and fast rule, just a general theme. Also, at any given table styles tend to be scheduled as less flavorful followed by more flavorful – for example, golden ale followed by stout.
It is common to have 2 different styles judged in any session, though for each individual flight in a session, they are all the same style. So for example, in one session, a team of judges at a table could have 2 flights of American Pale Ale, then 1 flight of Imperial Stouts (I am not divulging what styles I judged). Categories with 12 or fewer entries are judged in one first and final round, meaning all 6-7 judges taste all the beers, choosing (usually) 3 winners.
Categories with 13-24 entries are judged at one table, but in two flights. In the first flight, the table is split in half. Each group of 3 or 4 judges evaluates half of the entries, passing 3 on to the final round. In the second and final flight, all 6-7 judges taste the 6 finalists, choosing (usually) 3 winners.
Categories with 25-48 entries are judged at two tables, in two flights. In the first flight, half of the total number of entries is assigned to each table, and each table is split in half. Each of the four groups of 3 or 4 judges evaluates their share of entries (never more than 12), passing 3 along to the final round at one table, for a total of 12 finalist entries. In the final round, all 6-7 judges taste the 12 finalists, choosing (usually) 3 winners.
Categories with 49-72 entries are judged at three tables, in three flights. In the first flight, one third of the total number of entries is assigned to each table, and each table is split in half. Each of the six groups of 3 or 4 judges evaluates their share of entries (never more than 12), passing 3 along to the second round at one table, for a total of 18 second round beers. The second round table is split in half, with each group of 3 or 4 judges evaluating 9 beers and passing along 3 finalist entries. In the final round, all 6-7 judges taste the 6 finalists, choosing (usually) 3 winners.
Categories with 73-96 entries are judged at four tables, in three flights. In the first flight, one quarter of the total number of entries is assigned to each table, and each table is split in half. Each of the six groups of 3 or 4 judges evaluates their share of entries (never more than 12), passing 3 along to the second round at one table, for a total of 24 second round beers. The second round table is split in half, with each group of 3 or 4 judges evaluating 12 beers and passing along 3 finalist entries. In the final round, all 6-7 judges taste the 6 finalists, choosing (usually) 3 winners.
Categories with more than 96 entries are judged at tables increasing every time another 24 entries is added.
Most categories have 2-3 rounds. Categories with more than 192 entries like India Pale Are are judged over 4 rounds. For most styles, the tasting flow is structured in multiples of 12 or 24 entries. For certain high alcohol or high BU styles the multiple is 10 or 20 instead of 12 or 24.
During the first round (only) comments are filled out that are returned to the entering breweries:
In rounds 2, 3, and sometimes 4, for each category, 3 of the 10-12 samples are again selected for moving on to the next round. By the time the beers make it to the final round, they have been selected and passed through as being one of the top 3 in each previous round. The final round (the medal round) can consists from anywhere from 6-12 samples that have arrived via a process of elimination. If a table is doing a medal round, the table is not split, and every one of the 6 or 7 judges tastes and evaluates the same beers to award the medals. Note that you may taste 2 rounds of a certain style, yet may not judge in the medal round, which can get sent to a different table of judges.
The judging requires consensus on the 3 beers being passed forward. It is not based on scores. No scores are given, unlike in the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) homebrew competitions (see below for their scoresheet). The 3-4 judges at WBC and GABF have to all agree on which 3 beers are the best of the round and are deserving of being passed on. This can take a fair amount of discussion, though the process is helped by the fact that each style has very specific Style Guidelines and each judge is required to use those guidelines for the basis in which they judge the beers. And if a beer is not perfect in any way with respect to the style, it will not be given a gold medal. Which is sometimes why there is no gold medal awarded in a category. It’s not a ranking contest, medals are given based on very specific guidelines for gold, silver and bronze awards.
By the time the judges get the remaining beers for the medal round, the beers are, by and large, world class examples of the particular style. And determining which get awarded medals can be tough and at times contentious. The discussions and debates that occur are always respectful, but judges are not always in agreement over which beers deserve to be awarded a medal.
This year there were 94 separate categories that were judged. All the judges have proven skills in taste evaluation of beers and knowledge of beer styles. In an impressive showing, 75% of the judges this year were from outside the United States. And no judge is allowed to judge in a category that they have a beer entered in. It was a pleasure and an honor to sit at the table with some of the best brewers in the world and judge this year’s World Beer Cup. The integrity of the competition is at the highest level, and my congratulations to all the winners this year, many of whom are good friends.