TRiNiTY BREWiNG COMPANY recently did something that sent a slight tremor through the craft beer world. They did something a less scrupulous brewery might not have done. Not to sound too dramatic, but they did something with the potential to change the public’s entire view of beer competitions. They returned the silver medal they’d won at Chicago’s Festival of Barrel Aged Beers (FoBAB).
Most brewers would be elated to have won such an illustrious prize and, under normal circumstances, TRiNiTY’s Jason Yester would have been, too. Going on 12 years and featuring 90 breweries and 300 beers, FoBAB’s no rinky-dink festival, an award won there would go straight onto the brewer’s resumé. The problem was this: Yester accidentally submitted the wrong beer. Intending to register Easy Swinger into the Wild/Brett category, Yester mistakenly sent in Swing Se Pliser, a beer with lactobacillus but absolutely no brettanomyces.
A beer without brett won second-place in a category explicitly for brett beers. It’s an outcome that has people scratching their heads. Not Yester, though, who wasted no time wondering how the blunder was made. Instead, he got busy setting things right by returning the ill-gotten silver medal. By refusing to accept the award, Yester hopes to undo a misconception he feels his gaffe helped propagate. “With the Swingline project we put together in 2014, our core goal was to educate about the distinct differences between brettanomyces and lactobacillus,” says Yester, “this kind of confusion ruins the entire intent/direction of that project.” He adds, “I am very passionate about both sour and brettanomyces beers, but they are not one in the same.”
Yester’s no rabble-rouser and he’s not looking to shake-up the system; his actions were motivated both by a desire to educate and at least a little bit by guilt: “This act had no intention of compromising judging results and was specifically an act of penance…after all I was raised Catholic,” he says.
Inadvertent though it may have been, this incident does have implications. FoBAB’s website claims the beers are “judged by a panel of industry experts.” The experts really whiffed it this time. The inability to detect the absence of brett in beer—which sports easily recognizable funky, rustic, goat-rolled-in-wet-hay flavors and aromas—is akin to the inability to notice the lack of wheels on a car.
In these situations, people tend to assign blame. Is it the judges’ fault? The festival’s? What about training programs like Cicerone and BJCP? The problem is more metaphysical. What’s to blame is the beer community’s belief that beer can be judged.
There are two main arguments against the notion that beer can be assessed with any real accuracy—an artistic argument and a scientific one.
Brew day is full of math, science, and art. Creating a recipe is a mix of science and art. On brew day, it’s about measuring gravity, extracting sugars and alpha acids, sanitizing, and other clinical and precise practices. Then, something magical happens. Once the beer flows from the tap and into the glass, it transforms from science to art. It’s the same with photography; knowing where and how to compose a photograph is art; when light enters a camera, burns an image onto the film, that’s science. The resulting portrait, however, is again art. Beer’s no different. When the judges taste beer, they’re tasting art and art is subjective. There’s no fair and accurate way to assess it. True, most people would prefer Picasso’s Guernica to a toddler’s finger paintings but, hey, there are still weirdos out there who favor the latter. Those beers that’ve won awards over several years at several different festivals are the Guernicas of brewing; the general public considers these beers among the best but even crowd-pleasers have detractors. That’s how art works; different strokes for different folks. An obvious exception to the rule being a beer that, like, literally tastes like dirt. That really is just a bad beer.
In art, there’s the matter of inherent biases. Judges can mitigate their prejudices through proper training but such thoughts cannot be completely eradicated, they only move to a more subconscious level. A judge who’s penchant for grapefruit-y American IPAs over pine-y ones could, conceivably, tip the odds in favor of a certain beer.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume it possible to wash the mind clean of subjectivity. Let’s assume beer judges are fleshy robots. Let’s take art out of the equation and focus on science. The human palate is like a fingerprint in that it’s unique to each person. We all taste flavors differently. Give ten people one beer, ask them to describe what they taste in one word, and you’ll hear ten different words. Granted, the judging results are usually an amalgamation of several different people tasting the same beer thus alleviating a single judge’s shortcomings in the taste bud department; they find the average, in a sense, cutting out the outliers. That doesn’t, however, guarantee an error-free judging session. In the case of TRiNiTY, all the judges were outliers; the power of suggestion over-rode their trained palates. They expected a brett beer and their brains made them taste a brett beer.
Judging beer’s always been imprecise but, in light of the FoBAB incident, the extent of its inexactitude has been made overt. Where does the craft beer community go from here? As the problem was born from a collective mindset, so, to, is the solution: don’t change how beers are judged, change how we view the whole idea of beer judging. Understand that it’s capricious, the results don’t really mean anything and, by extension, medals don’t mean anything. They’re nice pats on the back for the brewers, they look pretty cool hanging in the taproom, and they’re great bragging rights for beer writers like me who like to rub it in when Colorado cleans up at GABF. But that’s it. To assign them any more significance is foolish. When a beer wins awards over several years and at several different festivals then maybe there’s something to it. In any other situation, it’s basically luck of the draw.
If there’s one thing to take away from all this, it’s don’t hate the player, hate the game. The onus is not on the judges. They’re asked to perform the impossible—to rate the unrateable. And for facing such a Herculean task, they do well at it. They’re not perfect, of course, and never will they be perfect but they get as close to perfection as is humanly possible. As Yester says, “judges get more heat than they deserve, and they do a righteous job.” Maybe brush up on brett beers, though.
We only need to remember to take the verdict with a grain of salt; the judge’s word is not the end-all and be-all. Mediocre beers will continue to earn medals, great beers will continue to get snubbed, and, sometimes, a miscategorized beer will infiltrate the winner’s podium. It’s okay that it’s arbitrary and it’s okay that it’s flawed so long as we enjoy beer judging for the simple fact that competition is fun. Just don’t bestow upon these awards any more importance than they deserve.