Can a Pils have an American accent?
Judging at the world's best beer festival
It was some time after the 100th beer that troubled started. I had thought we were home and dry. Well, not dry (anything but...). Home free, as they say in America. One more set of medals to award - gold, silver and bronze - then we could go for a beer (to drink, not judge).
Who would have thought that we would fall at the last hurdle: tangled in dissent over something as familiar as "Pilsener Lagers in the Czech and German Style"? We had, after all, successfully negotiated March and Octoberfest Beers in the Munich Style; Golden Ales in the Style of Cologne; and several Belgian styles: "White" Wheat beers (ie, in the style of Hoegaarden), strong ales (like Duvel), Tripels (like the ones made by Westmalle and Leffe), and Lambics (the style of Brussels, not easily emulated). We were judging at the Great American Beer Festival.
This is in view the world's best beer festival. It offers more beers than any other. Much more important, it has a greater number of beer styles. And it always has an impressive array of innovative brews, some of them very robust in character.
Why is the festival not better known? Partly because most of the world thinks that all American beer is light lager; perhaps also because the event takes place in one of the less obvious American cities.
As an all-American festival, it should ideally be held somewhere central. While Manhattanites are notoriously hesitant to venture beyond the Hudson, most geographically-aware Americans nominate Kansas City as the most central city in the continental United States (ie, excluding Hawaii and Alaska). To be precise, there are two Kansas Cities, one in the state of the same name, the other in Missouri. They face each other across the river, once the dividing line between East an West. Neither hosts the GABF (as it is affectionately known).
Perhaps one day, the city of Denver, in the state of Colorado, will be regarded as the center of the U.S. In the brewery map, it already is.
As the population of the U.S. has shifted West, the newer dividing line is the Rocky Mountain range. Perhaps one day, the city of Denver, in the state of Colorado, will be regarded as the center of the U.S. In the brewery map, it already is. The country's biggest brewery, Coors, is in the same state; so is the newest Budweiser brewery, Denver blossoms with brewpubs; and the state of Colorado leans toward the West, where Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, are the country's new beer capitals.
Some Easterners do cross the Hudson. After Woodstock, some of that generation "retired" to the Rockies to mellow out. Charlie Papazian, a nuclear physicist, found himself home-brewing in Boulder, Colorado. When President Carter deemed home-brewing to be a human right, the activity boomed, and Charlie wrote a book on making your own beer. He became a guru.
Young Americans who had tasted Irish Stouts, British Ales, Belgian Wheat Beers, German and Czech lagers while in Europe (on vacation; at college; doing military service) brewed in order to have something tastier than Bud, Miller or Coors. Will we British have to do that one day?
Three or four amateur brewers turned professional. Charlie organised a conference, in Boulder, on alternative brewing, and asked me to give a seminar on different styles of beer. Then he asked if, later in the year, he could stay at my place in London for a few days. He wanted to visit the Great British Beer Festival.
After that festival, he inquired: "Do you think we could do this in America?" I encouraged the idea, but wondered where we would find sufficient American beers.
The first Great American was a one-evening event, in Boulder. At the time, few Americans could have named more than four or five U.S. beers; Charlie had assembled 35, from 20 breweries, largely traced from the first edition of my book The World Guide to Beer. Most of the breweries were regional, and unknown to Americans at large. Seven hundred people attended. Boulder, a college town, is the size of Salisbury, Durham or Inverness. This year, the 20th GABF took place. It is now held in Denver, and showcases more than 300 breweries, offering 1,250-1,500 beers.
On the Monday or Tuesday of the festival week, about 100 judges arrive. Most are brewers, but there is also the odd highly-knowledgeable publican (most years including Mark Dorber, from the White Horse, Parson's Green, London), and several writers on beer (since the beginning, I have missed the festival only twice). We all stay in the same hotel, and the judging takes place in a series of conference rooms, over three days, starting at 9.0 each morning. A lunch is provided (nothing too spicy), and we continue until mid or late afternoon.
The brewers, especially those from the big companies, are relentless in excluding beers with technical defects, but the knowledge and appreciation in the U.S. of a wide range of beer-styles is incomparable.
The brewers, especially those from the big companies, are relentless in excluding beers with technical defects, but the knowledge and appreciation in the U.S. of a wide range of beer-styles is incomparable. In Germany, I have met Munich brewers who had only a sketchy understanding of beers from Cologne or Dusseldorf, let alone British or American ales. In Australia, I sat with a judge who had never before encountered a Munich-style lager, and wanted to exclude it on the grounds that it was dark. In Britain, I have judged with brewers who has no understanding of Belgian styles.
At the Great American, there is no "Best of Show"; medals are awarded for more than 50 styles. The judges are grouped into panels of six, sometimes sub-dividing into threes for a preliminary round. These sixes and threes are re-formulated every day. This amoeba-like division occurs where a category is especially large. This year, there were more than 100 American Pale Ales; almost 100 India Pale Ales; 84 German-style Wheat Beers; 65 Robust Porters. A category with 100 entrants might be judged by six or seven panels of three.
Each panel would see 15 beers, eliminate any that had obvious technical faults, or were not in style, then choose the best three to go forward. Three from each panel would then be shuffled, re-numbered, and brought back. The divided panels would have re-integrated.
This is the toughest judging I know, and I have taken part in many, from Burton to Bavaria, Moscow to Melbourne. The argument about Czech and German-style Pilseners? The printed parameters with which we were supplied described such a beer as being well-hopped, with the aroma and flavours of Czech or German varieties. One of the judges felt that there was an American hop character, albeit moderate, in a beer that several of us felt worthy of a gold medal. Others judges had the same suspicion, but no one was sure.
The accusing judge felt that the American hop character should be a disqualification. I argued that the style description was merely a guideline. This led to a robust split between purists and liberals, three against three. There seemed no waverers in either camp, and therefore no prospect of movement. When we ordered our third sample, we were told it would be our last. After that, there would be none left. Fortunately, the re-tastes had taken their toll. The three purists finally agreed that, if there were American hops, they did not dominate. This issue apart, we were unanimous that this beer was the liveliest in the category.
The purists engaged in a volte-face, and voted with us. When the results were announced, the beer turned out Tupper's Hop Pocket Pils, from the Old Dominion Brewery, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. It does employ some American hops, albeit of the delicate variety Mount Hood. It has long been on of my favourites, but I had not recognised it. In blindfold judgings, I try to avoid guessing games. They are distraction from the manifestly difficult job of comparing the merits of medal-worthy beers. If I do fall into the trap of guessing, I get it wrong.
The results are announced, and the medals dispensed, to much whooping and cheering, at the festival itself. This is a public event on Thursday and Friday evening and all day Saturday, in the Colorado Convention Center. Around 25,000 attend. Visitors pay to enter, and the beer is "free". Each brewery has a booth, and servings are restricted to one ounce, in a vessel resembling a shot-glass. For me, these small servings are another of the attractions of the Great American. This system means that a member of the public can sample dozens of beers in one evening while ingesting the alcohol that he or she would normally encounter in two or three pints. I much prefer this to the halves and pints at the Great British and the 50cl or litre servings at the Oktoberfest (where only half a dozen breweries are represented).
Some visitors complain about the tiny tasting samples, but there is a separate bar where a limited range of six-ounce servings is offered. After 20 years, most guests understand that the variety of beers to taste is the point of the event.
Published Online: NOV 27, 2001
Published in Print: NOV 1, 2001
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