If you have been anywhere around the beer-twitter as of late, I would assume that you have by now heard that Firestone Walker won the Midsize Brewery of the Year at the World Beer Cup this past saturday. The judging and award ceremony were held at the Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego, which had been held on the previous several days.
This is our fourth Champion Brewery award out of the nine Cups held since 2006, and comes after winning the same award at the Great American Beer Festival this past fall. We took home 2 gold medals (for Pale 31 and 805 IPA) and a silver medal for Mission Street Pale Ale–only half the number that we were awarded at the GABF, but with substantially more entrants in the WBC, they were all it took to take home the overall award.
Honestly, I’m still in a bit of shock. Pale 31 and Mission Street (our pale ale for Trader Joes) continue to dominate professional beer competition, having both medaled at GABF last year, as well as at the previous WBC in Chicago two years ago. We actually slightly tweaked the Pale 31 recipe recently, and I am extremely happy with the beer, so this is just more affirmation that we are brewing some good American pale ales! And 805 IPA (an alternate in-house name for Nectar IPA) is the house favorite for many of our brewers, so I know that one feels very good as well. I’m just so stoked to be a part of an awesome team led by an awesome Brewmaster in Matt Brynildson.
All the banter surrounding the announcement this weekend got me thinking though. How much do these competitions really matter? Jacob McKean (formerly of Stone Brewing Co. and now starting his own San Diegan brewery called Modern Times) commented on twitter that beer competitions were random and that he thought that the best beers seldom won. While I don’t completely agree with him, I think there is rightfully some skepticism surrounding the announcements of these contest results.
Beer judging is inherently subjective, and subject especially to the palates of the judges at a certain point in time. The beers in each category are held up to a set of written guidelines, but each judge will have a personal interpretation of the guidelines. Not everyone agrees on the division between “medium” and “strong” caramel (or whatever) character in a beer. In a category with over 100 entries, there are likely a number of well-made beers that fit the guidelines well enough to take a medal. Who actually ends up on top will involve some chance as far as which judges happen to taste the samples, which order they are tasted in, and any other environmental concerns. I don’t believe that a gold medal is in any way an indicator that the beer is unquestionably the best in its style, but rather a good beer that was in the top tier of entrants and made the best showing for the given circumstances. Also, it must be considered that the beers for judging were first shipped to Denver to be collected and organized before being shipped again to San Diego to the judging site. This whole process took over a month. Not every brewery that enters beers has a high tech bottling line, and some good beers probably suffered from time and transport due to less than ideal packaging. At Firestone Walker, we are lucky enough to have one of the best bottling lines in the industry, and our winning beers were pulled straight off the line from full production batches before the entries were due. In some ways, this process to get the the judging table is a test of packaging quality as much as the actual brewing process.
Do outstanding beers get snubbed for one reason or another? Absolutely, and I think it mostly just comes down to the style guidelines that the judges use. Most brewers don’t set out to brew a beer as closely to the Brewers Association guidelines as possible, and end up just entering their beer in the style that it fits best. Most of the time, I tend to enjoy drinking beers that don’t neatly fit into a style. I’m glad that brewers don’t brew just to make medal-winning beers, but at the same time I respect quality brewing and that’s what gets rewarded in the end.
Do most beer drinkers care or even know about competitions like the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival? Probably not. We still use the awards in our marketing material, and this is common among breweries that win awards. You are also likely to see wards hanging up in a brewery’s tasting room and written on a menu. When all is said and done, an award is just an affirmation by your peers that you brewed a good beer that impressed them at a certain point in time. It still feels good though.