For the past 21 years, Iron Hill has attended the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver, Colorado—a prestigious three-day beer festival and competition that boasts “the largest collection of U.S. beer ever served.” Brewers from around the country come together to sample each other’s creations and enter their best beers to be judged by a panel of industry experts from around the world. Not only have we attended the festival 21 years in a row, we’ve also won 21 years in a row, bringing home a medal every year since we first entered in 1997.
Our winning streak is a testament to both our amazing brewers and the extensive tasting and elimination process they go through to decide which beers get sent to the competition. To begin, each Iron Hill location submits samples of assorted beer styles to be judged based upon style descriptions from the Brewers Association. Then, the tasting panel—made up of brewers from all locations—convenes to evaluate a mixture of house and seasonal beers. At the panel, our brewers sample anywhere from 10 to 20 style rounds containing 3 to 17 samples each. To avoid bias, the samples are kept anonymous so that no one is aware which beers came from which brewer or location.
During each round, all participants are presented with 2-3 ounces of every beer that was entered for that style. The brewers are also provided with water, buckets for disposing excess, matzah to cleanse the palate, and a pen and paper for notes. The brewers examine and sip each beer and consider things like color, clarity, aroma, mouthfeel and of course, taste. During this time, concentration levels are high and noise levels are low. Once everyone has gone through each entry, the conversation begins.
Brewers give their notes about each beer, voicing critiques such as, “This one has a good nose but it’s flat on the finish,” “I like this one but there’s better beers on the table,” or simply, “Meh.” Once everyone talks it out and agrees that a beer will not advance, it is dumped into the buckets. If more than one beer remains on the table once all have been discussed, the brewers will then taste and examine the samples again before taking a final vote to decide which will be sent to GABF.
The process lasts the entire afternoon and the brewers end up sampling anywhere from 80 – 100 beers. To maintain their palate and to limit consumption, each person is asked to sit out from at least three tastings, with reasons varying from someone just not liking a certain style of beer and thus not feeling as though they can accurately judge, or because after sampling so many beers, it’s sometimes best to pass on a high ABV round.
Listening to everyone’s notes about each entry really highlights how much our brewers truly know about beer, and the debates back and forth about which should advance show the passion they have for what they do. This year, 14 lucky beers were chosen from the panel as entries into the 2018 Great American Beer Festival. The festival will begin on Thursday, September 20, and medal winners will be announced on Saturday, September 22.
This article was contributed by Sophia DiPersio. Sophia is the Social Media & Marketing Coordinator at Iron Hill Headquarters.