The seriousness of the task begins to sink in about a week before the competition. That’s when you receive an email making pointed suggestions about personal hygiene.
“Before you leave home, seek out, purchase and use unscented laundry soaps and dryer sheets, so that your clothes are relatively scent free,” says the missive from Chris Swersey, who manages the World Beer Cup competition on behalf of the Brewers Association.
“You’ll be judging in a room full of very sensitive, highly trained noses and palates. … Please avoid heavily scented shampoos or soap products on judging days. Do not use perfumes or aftershaves on judging days. Before you leave home, seek out and purchase unscented deodorants or antiperspirants so you smell like, well, nothing.”
Experienced beer judges already know that stuff. But I thought more typical drinkers out there—the ones who don’t necessarily take notes on every beer, and who wonder if that little gold medal on the label is really worth something—might like a peek at how those medals come to be.
The WBC, started by the Brewers Association in 1996, has a strong claim as the most prestigious of international beer competitions. Held once every two years, its awards—the most recent were announced May 6—tend to make a splash. It’s ideal marketing for breweries that win.
Plus, national media get to boast about how many medals their country bagged, while smaller outlets have nice stories about local world-beaters. Then the breweries get to slap those medals on their labels and websites, and hang those shiny plaques on their walls.
In the end, as usual, it’s up to you as the drinker to decide what it’s all worth.
To be of value a competition must be taken seriously, and a serious competition needs serious judges. Ideally, these judges are as good at smelling things as they are at smelling like nothing.
Let’s back up. How do you become a World Beer Cup judge in the first place? Simple: You apply. You’ll need a resume that includes your experience, especially any sensory training. You’ll also need three references from people who have judged with you, and who can vouch for your senses as well as your manners. Do you play well with others? This is important, as we will see.
Once you apply, you wait to hear if you are accepted. If so, you go on a waiting list. You might have to wait for a while, or not. The World Beer Cup only happens once every two years; on the other hand, it’s growing fast. The number of entries grew by 38 percent in 2016, over the last Cup in 2014. This makes sense, given how breweries are multiplying in many countries.
Also notable: The competition pays for your hotel room, shared with another judge. It does not pay for your transportation. So many of the international judges, in particular, fly a long way at considerable expense. (Disclosure: I did accept the lodging from the competition, as compensation for my judging work. And it is work, even when it’s fun. We’ll get to that.)
Then what? About two months before the Cup, you receive an email asking which styles you’d prefer to judge. There are 96 categories, and you give each of them a score. Marking down a “7” means that given your druthers you really don’t want to taste those awful things. A “1” means “I am a world expert in this category, or this style is native to my home country, or this is my absolute favorite category in this session.” Professional brewers also need to note any conflicts of interest—they’re not allowed to judge any categories their companies have entered.
Then you wait some more. You eventually get an email about personal odor. And before you know it, it’s time to go.
One of the first things we do after arriving in Philadelphia on April 30 is attend an orientation. We fill most of a Marriott ballroom and learn that there are 255 of us hailing from 32 different countries. Over the next few days, we’ll fill 38 tables at most times, usually with seven judges per table. For every one of us from the U.S., there are three judges from abroad.
We also learn that 2,040 breweries from 62 countries have entered 6,601 beers into the competition. That’s a lot of postage. Sorting through all those beers and somehow making the whole thing work are 155 volunteers—and they, too, come at their own expense. Many of them have been doing so for years, using their vacation time to fetch and pour tiny beers for fussy judges. They have my deepest respect.
From Swersey, we also receive a warning of sorts: “The hardest part of the World Beer Cup is not the tasting. You guys are good at that,” he said. “The hardest part is writing lots, writing fast, and keeping things rolling.”
We receive neat pre-printed notepads. There are lines on which to mark things like the appropriateness of appearance, aroma and taste in any given category. And there is room for comments. We are told that the brewers “want to see a lot of comments.” Hence the emphasis on writing.
Judging begins the next morning and continues for three days, two sessions each day. You start tasting beers (and hastily scribbling notes) at about 9 a.m., take a lunch break, and then continue until about 5 p.m. Phones are switched off and, as far as the competition is concerned, there is no communication with the outside world. We are essentially sequestered.
I’m not allowed to take pictures of the judging itself, but I’ll try to paint it for you: a series of hotel conference rooms, each one with two tables, each table with six or seven people quietly sniffing and sipping and swirling with one hand and scribbling notes with the other. It’s not exciting to watch, at first. It does get better.
The beers arrive in clear plastic cups with randomly assigned numbers stuck to them. Each judge tries to drink them in his or her own random order, to eliminate any sequential biases—the first one might taste better if you’re thirsty, for example, or another might taste better if tried after that one but worse if tasted after that one. The idea, as far as it is possible, is to eliminate luck.
But it takes more than luck to reach the later rounds—and especially to win a medal.
Obvious off-flavors or other major flaws, when present, are easily dispatched in the first round. Usually there are several beers on which judges can agree. Things get a bit more fun in the second and later rounds, as the beers that advanced make a more confident return with brand-new, random numbers. This maintains the blindness of the judging—though in a few categories the beers are so distinctive there is no mistaking them, whatever the disguise.
Inevitably, the quality of the beers on the table improves. Flaws become more subtle, and sensory thresholds vary. This is the time of polite disagreement—my favorite part, and the most educational. This is also when the volunteers tend to stay and watch, to enjoy the sport.
I suppose there is an ideal world where perfectly experienced judges are machines that can all detect exactly the same flaws. This is not an ideal world. It’s not at all weird for a judge to say something like, “I get some faint enteric in this, smells like baby shit,” and another might say, “Yep.” Meanwhile the other five say, “Oh, really?” in a rather polite way that should not at all imply that the other two judges are unhinged, since the rest of them can detect no such thing.
“In my mind, and in your mind, every judge should be treated equally,” Swersey says. “Your judging experience is unique to you, even in the same flight of beers.”
I hear horror stories about tantrums and insults at past competitions, but I experience none of that. Every judge at every table is respectful, even when I am the lone dissenter.
When I tell Swersey that I plan to write about the experience for DRAFT, he asks me to be respectful of other judges, not to name them, and especially not to single out any bad behavior or lapse in judgment. But as the competition progresses, I realize that he has nothing to fear. All the judges with whom I work are respectful of each other. Disagreements are common—it would be boring if they weren’t—but all are managed professionally. Even when we can’t reach consensus—we often can’t—a simple tallying of votes resolves things cordially, and we move on without regrets.
The last session of my last day is my favorite. I think I’m not supposed to say which categories I judged, so I won’t. But I’ll say that the three medalists in this one are world class beers, and at first we disagree on which beer should receive which medal.
As we taste and debate, the beers in our cups run low. Naturally, we ask for fresh pours so that we can judge them properly. Also, I think, we just want to savor them a bit longer.
Eventually we form a consensus, but we are the last table, the very last seven judges out of 255 to finish our task at the World Beer Cup. Our colleagues are long gone to various happy hours. I don’t think any of us envy them. Abetted by excellence and alcohol, and happy to reach the end of three rather long days, our esprit de corps runs high.
I’ll say this: There are thousands of great beers in the world that never enter the competition. But you could certainly do worse than trying the ones that leave it with a medal.
And when you sniff and swirl that beer or otherwise evaluate it in your own way, I hope you’ll think of all the judges and volunteers who made an extraordinary effort to smell like nothing.