The annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver is not only about sampling countless beers from U.S. breweries. It’s also the largest commercial beer competition in the world.
At this year’s GABF, which ran late September, 242 beer experts from 15 countries (including the U.S.) judged 6,647 different beers from 1,552 breweries, representing all 50 states and Washington, D.C. 145 different beer styles within 92 categories were entered into the competition. Certified GABF judges are all experienced judges, and they include brewers, beer journalists, BJCP judges and other industry professionals.
Over three days, judges blindly evaluated beers during five different three-hour sessions (8-12 beers per session). Each table of seven judges was assigned beers to evaluate, and brewers or employees of a brewery are never allowed to judge styles that they enter into the competition.
From the start, the beers are treated with the utmost respect, from making sure they’re transported and refrigerated correctly, to making sure they’re properly poured and presented to the judges in the best possible manner. In turn, the judges treat the job very seriously, and they’re well aware of the immense responsibility.
“My No. 1 job is to create a level playing field,” says GABF competition manager Chris Swersey, “so that the biggest brewery on earth or the smallest brewpub in the tiniest little town are competing on the same field.”
Similar to other national and international beer competitions, beers are evaluated on appearance, aroma, flavor, balance, body and mouthfeel, and overall impression, plus any flaws they may or may not have. Experienced GABF judges say that judging at this level is intense and it requires an immense amount of concentration.
After judges fill out comment cards on their own, they then discuss the beers as a group and, similar to a jury deliberation, decide which beers make the cut to the second and third rounds.
“It’s peer review at its absolute highest standard,” says Swersey. “To put a beer through that panel and come out on top means a lot.”
The ultimate goal of each GABF panel is to identify up to three world-class beers that best represent each beer style category as described and adopted by the GABF. Gold, silver and bronze medals may be awarded, and they are among the most coveted awards in the industry.
GOLD: A world-class beer that accurately exemplifies the specified style, displaying the proper balance of taste, aroma and appearance.
SILVER: An excellent beer that may vary slightly from style parameters while maintaining close adherence to the style and displaying excellent taste, aroma and appearance.
BRONZE: A fine example of the style that may vary slightly from style parameters and/or have minor deviations in taste, aroma or appearance.
If judges believe that no beer in a category meets the quality and style-accuracy criteria, they may elect to not award a medal. In other words, judges may award silver and bronze medals in a category, yet not award a gold medal.
Presented by the Brewers Association, a not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American brewers and the community of brewing enthusiasts, the GABF is the largest commercial beer competition in the world, and it’s a symbol of brewing excellence. In its 29th year, this year’s competition surpassed all previous records. Below are some of this year’s numbers:
2015 Competition Numbers
- 145 different beer styles within 92 categories were entered into the competition
- Beers were evaluated by 242 judges from 15 countries
- 1,552 breweries entered the competition, representing 50 states and Washington, D.C.
- 242 breweries won medals
- 6,647 beers were entered into the 2015 competition, which was a 20% increase over 2014
- 375 medals were awarded
- Category with the highest number of entries: American-style India Pale Ale: 336 (followed by Imperial IPA with 208 entries; Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer with 179 entries; Session IPA with 161 entries; and American-Style Pale Ale with 160 entries)
- Average number of competition beers entered in each category: 72
2015 Festival Numbers
- The festival sold out in 1 hour and 17 minutes during the public ticket sale earlier this year
- Roughly 3,800 beers were served in the festival hall, which was the biggest selection of American beers ever served
- 750 U.S. breweries poured in the festival hall, which was also a new record
- There were 60,000 attendees (including ticketed attendees, brewers, judges, volunteers and journalists)
- GABF had a $7 million economic impact on the city of Denver in 2012
See a list of the winners here.
Read about Bellingham breweries that won medals at this year’s GABF.
John Holl, editor of All About Beer Magazine, wrote a great article last year about being a first-time judge at the GABF.
Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, offers tips and resources to becoming a beer judge.