Humility, as some idiot said, is good for the soul, and after listening to judges at Denver's Great American Beer Festival talk about taste profiles for half an hour, it's pretty clear that we have some catching up to do.
The sources of our informational kick-in-the-head are Grant Wood and Dr. Gary Spedding, who have offered to teach people about how the festival's roughly 3,600 liquid entrants are judged. When not holding court in a curtained-off square in the middle of the Colorado Convention Center, Wood spends his time much as he's spent the past 15 years: as senior brewing manager for the Boston Beer Co., one of the largest American-owned craft breweries, and makers of Samuel Adams. For his part, Spedding describes himself as a "sensory specialist," and is the owner of Brewing and Distilling Analytical Services, whose clients eventually claimed 44 medals at this year's festival.
"How many of you have been to a wine tasting or a beer tasting before?" Wood begins, after sample pours have been passed. "Well, the thing that I want you to think about is, this is exactly the same thing, but we're going to slow it down a little bit."
He holds up a laminated paper containing the technical definition of a Munich-style helles, the beer foaming in little glasses on our tables. "When we sit down to judge, the captain of our table sits down, and he reads this out loud to us."
Tonight, Wood assumes that role: "This beer should be perceived as having low bitterness. It is a medium-bodied, malt-emphasized beer, with malt character often balanced with low levels of yeast-produced sulfur compounds ..." And so on.
The definitions, all courtesy of the nonprofit Brewers Association, are helmsmen charting a judge's course through wort-infested waters.
"This is like the Bible, OK?" Wood says. "So when you look at this, you may taste a beer that's really good. It might be excellent. The problem is, it doesn't fit the guideline — just because it did not have the finish that we're looking for.
"Which kind of sucks, you know?"
Spit or ...
It's not just any devotee that gets to use the Bible, says Chris Swersey, competition manager for the GABF and the World Beer Cup. For the past several years, all GABF judges have received "formal sensory training" via the Siebel Institute of Technology & World Brewing Academy in Chicago; Doemens Academy in Germany; the University of California-Davis; or another worthy beer education program. Plus, they have received "ongoing sensory experience and training either at breweries, or in-house sensory panels, or tasting panels or competitions."
"So these are folks that are trained, and they are constantly exercising their palates," Swersey says. "Then beyond that, they've had at least three other people tell me nice things about them; they have to get references."
Swersey says he has a worldwide pool of roughly 500 judges, with a two- to three-year wait list of prospects. He picked 151 to handle the 79 different categories at this year's festival. Ten percent are new, and 10 percent are from outside the U.S.
Wood and Spedding certainly have the pedigrees to put some distance between them and the 15 or so supplicants they're tutoring here. But these Towers of Judgment are more likely to emphasize some of what makes beer-judging feel like a less-than-exclusive endeavor.
"The nice thing about beer is, we're not like wine snobs: We don't spit it out," Wood says. "As Grant mentioned, there are several zones in the mouth and the tongue, and the important thing for the bitterness here is [for it to be] captured on the back of the throat," he says, referring to hop characteristics that, as opposed to tannins in wine, the tongue can't fully appreciate. "That's why brewers have to swallow the beer and not spit it out like wine tasters."
To me, the first sample tastes pretty OK and in line with the helles Bible entry. Turns out this beer's the multi-multi-award-winning Longboard Island Lager from Kona Brewing Co. (Side note: On top of learning to judge, I'm testing my personal knowledge. This was one I couldn't ID — clearly, I failed to consider the lack of "chill haze," and the "light straw to golden" color.)
Next up are American-style pale ales. "Low caramel character is allowable. ... Aroma should be moderate to strong," etc. Mine winds up being the iconic brew from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. — and this one, I actually get right.
We close with the American-style India pale ale, which should have "fruity ester flavors and aromas [that are] moderate to very strong." Meanwhile, the information keeps pouring forth.
Esters: "It's hard to describe an 'ester,' but it's sort of the general fruitiness that you can't describe," says Wood.
Diacetyls: "A rich, buttery characteristic," explains Spedding.
Skunk: "Skunky beer comes from it being light-struck," Wood says. "That means I go out in the sun, it gets hit by ultraviolet radiation and it begins to smell like a skunk."
High alcohol mouth-feel: "That gives a little bit of a warming and a lack of bitterness," says Spedding. "That [feeling] is on the cheeks, and the back of the throat."
Speaking of the back of the throat, we finish that last beer: a great IPA from Odell Brewing Co. I was sure it came from New Belgium Brewing Co.
So it's good that we've learned a lot; to hold our booze to the light, give it a swirl, inhale deeply, check the head, douse our tongue in drink, swish, swallow, repeat. Time to take our new-found facts back to the taproom to focus on overconsumption.
As for our judges? Well, someone's got to find the best brews.
"Imagine drinking 12 of these," Wood says. "And then you have to pick out the best three to go on to the next step. Then you go and drink six more of them to pick out your medal winner.
"Turns out to be a long day."