Three men sit huddled around a table, sampling beers as if they're drinking wine: They let it sit in their mouths, they shove their noses into the cups, and, as Mike Bristol is doing at the moment, they hold their beer to a light so they can classify its coloring. But so far, no one has taken the lead on the criticism.
Today is something of a unique occasion at the Bristol Brewing Co. Seated alongside Bristol, the owner of the establishment, are his two top brewers, Joe Hull and John Schneider. And the beers they're discussing are the ones they're considering sending to the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) this year.
Actually, they've already decided which beers they're sending; today's conversation will center around which batches of those beers will go to Denver's Colorado Convention Center for judging.
Though each batch created at the South Tejon Street brewery is supposed to taste identical to previous batches, there are minute differences between them, brought on by the number of influences a beer will face over the 2-week process it requires to be produced. The tiniest difference in the process, brought on by anything from oxygen exposure to the natural reactions of the yeast, can have a noticeable effect on the beer and those effects can sway a GABF judge's decision on whether to award one of the festival's prestigious medals to a particular brewery.
Hull reminds the others to keep tiny discrepancies in mind as he pours some more beer.
A moment later, the men sit in silence, allowing aromas and tastes to engulf their senses. The constant hum emitted from behind the transparent wall that "hides" the company's giant stainless steel vats from the bar area isn't that loud, but maybe it's enough to further distract them; they're so consumed in their thoughts that no one seems to notice the irony of Queen's "We Are the Champions" playing over the building's sound system.
Finally, Bristol speaks up.
"I can't really tell," he says, laughing and sounding almost defeated. He starts to critique the light color of the sample, but catches himself speaking too soon most of his observations are coming from the fact that his glass is nearly empty.
"It gets lighter when it's lower," he says, again laughing at himself. "But it still has a nice, deep red color."
The other two men agree. But, they lament, the colors of the samples are nearly indistinguishable. If they're to come to a decision on one batch or the other, it won't be based on the color.
So Hull moves on. After sipping the Sept. 11 glass, he clenches his brow and offers up his best summation: "This one has a dull, earthy flavor. The 18 is better."
Bristol backs him up: "Yeah, the nose on the 18 is better, too. That malt character comes through a little bit better.
"I think they're both good."
"But next to each other, I prefer the 18," Hull says.
"I do, too," Bristol remarks. "Sold."
Satisfied, the three men move on. In total, they'll sample 10 different batches of three different beers, and they'll take more than an hour to do so. It seems tedious, but it's the best they can come up with to mimic the scrutiny their beers will face from the GABF judges.
"Some of the stuff that we do at this stage is totally anal and splitting hairs," Bristol says. "And I don't know that everyone really does this."
A small taste
Actually, it seems as if virtually everyone does, at least locally. And it appears worth the effort. The prestige surrounding the GABF, which first took place in 1982, can legitimize a brewer's efforts.
"If we medaled, it would be relatively huge," says John Dunfee, owner of Arctic Craft Brewery. "It would be a huge push for everything, for our sales ad growth and everything. It would just be huge for our brewery."
In fact, it could single-handedly make Dunfee's brewery this year's GABF literature includes a section on how to promote a win at the festival.
But, when Dunfee uses the term "we," it's a bit of a misnomer; he's the sole person currently on the Arctic Craft payroll. Operating out of a garage unit on Platte Avenue, his brewery doesn't exactly have the local name recognition that Bristol Brewing does. Largely, people who drink Arctic beer drink it in that garage. There are a handful of Arctic taps around town, but not many the brewery has only been around for five years. But for the past three, Dunfee, hopeful and optimistic, has submitted his beers for judging in the GABF competition.
Though he hasn't won an award, Dunfee has received some positive feedback. Twice, beers he has submitted into some of the larger, more competitive beer categories have been selected for a second, more critical round of judging.
"It's actually really encouraging," he says. "But we're still a long ways away from winning a medal. There are so many excellent beers on the market right now. It's such a competitive market."
Though it's an expensive event for a small company such as Dunfee's to attend this year, after registration, room fees and food costs, he estimates he'll have spent $1,200 he says it's worth it for the exposure he'll get among attendees, whom he sees as potential beer buyers.
And, oh yeah, it's also a blast. Dunfee's explanation of the moments leading up to the event is visceral.
"Oh, wow," he says, collecting his thoughts. "Basically, they hold everybody outside until the exact time it opens. The bagpipers start playing to kick off the event, and, all of a sudden, while you're inside, you can hear everybody outside starting to scream. Some people have waited there seven, eight hours to be in front of the line. And when they drop the ropes for people to start coming in, they literally run up the stairs.
"I've seen people get trampled running up the stairs," he says, laughing. "This is the Super Bowl of the brewing industry."
The event certainly does boast some impressive numbers. This year, many are festival records: 474 breweries are competing for awards, with 2,832 different beers to be judged by the 107 judges throughout 75 style categories. On the floor, 408 breweries will showcase a total of 1,884 beers for attendance sampling. In total, 25,000 gallons of beer will flow inside the Colorado Convention Center during the course of the festival, which, including private, brewer-only sessions, will run from Oct. 11 through Oct. 13. Last year, for the three days, 41,000 people attended the GABF.
"It's an event that anyone in this industry ought to see," Bristol says. "To be standing on the floor with I don't know how many people they pack in on the one night, but it's got to be 10,000 people tasting 2,800 beers and appreciating it. When you're in the industry, it's sort of a wakeup call. Like, "This is what it's all about.'"
So maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise, then, to see Bristol and his brewers spend the time they take to decide what they're sending.
"There are a lot of beer competitions out there," Bristol says, "but what sets this one apart, I think, is the quality of the judges."
Perhaps Bristol is spoiled. In 1994, the first year of the brewery's existence and also the first year it entered the GABF, it won an award. It was a bronze medal, and it was won by just the second batch of Laughing Lab Scottish Ale that the brewery ever made. Two years later, the beer won a silver medal. Then, in 2000, the Lab, as it's called by both these brewers and its loyal supporters, took home the first of its two golds. Today, the company's flagship beer, which doubles Bristol's best-selling and most decorated brew, has seven GABF medals to its name including a second gold awarded at last year's GABF.
"The general public doesn't quite understand the significance of it," Bristol says of the event.
So he refuses to change his advertising campaigns or distribution plans based on his GABF success. But those wins do serve a purpose: They confirm he and his employees are justified in taking pride in their beer.
"We're competitive by nature," he says. "We think we make the best beer in the world. And you can ask anybody here and they'll give you the same answer. It's truly what we believe, and in our mind, any one of these should be able to win."
He points to a wall in his brewery that lists the beers currently on tap in the bar section.
"Any of those on the wall should be able to win," he says, re-emphasizing his point. "But we also know that you've got judges tasting 40 or 50 beers in each shot. Some are going to stand out, and some aren't."
On this Tuesday afternoon, Hull and Schneider are paying careful attention to the criteria laid out in their GABF manuals as they run through more tastings. As they decide which of the four aged samples of their Old No. 23 Barley Wine to submit, Hull, in particular, starts worrying about colors.
Bristol appreciates, but repeatedly scoffs at, their diligence.
Though each registered brewery is provided these criteria, Bristol warns his brewers not to pay too much attention.
"We're fine," he says to Hull. "They're just guidelines."
The Laughing Lab, he points out, even with its seven medals, doesn't necessarily fit every facet of the festival's Scottish ale criteria.
"Maybe I'm just overly cocky," he says, "but I think we make great beers and that any of them could win. If they don't, it comes down to the judges having a different interpretation of what that beer should be."
Though Bristol and the heads of the other local breweries entering this year's GABF which, in addition to Arctic Craft, include Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. and Rock Bottom Brewery's Colorado Springs location often bemoan the fact that medals are awarded based on a judge's personal preference, that's not the way the system is supposed to run.
The man in charge of the judging, Chris Swersey, explains that judges are told to keep their own personal preferences at bay and to stick to the guidelines. He understands how difficult this can be.
"Individual judges are individual people," he says. "Everyone has a unique ability to see different tastes and aromas. That's why we ask our judges to be aware of their own strengths and deficiencies. The judges take it very seriously."
To his credit, Swersey has plenty of experience: He first attended the festival in 1988, as a home brewer; in '92 he began competing as an assistant brewer for Steamboat Springs-based Heavenly Daze brewery; in '95 he began a seven-year stint as a festival judge; and in 2002, he took over the role of competition manager, which removed him from participating in the judging process but put him in charge of judge selection.
Each of the 107 judges Swersey will carefully manage this year has undergone a beer judge training course "Your palate is an organ that has to be trained," Swersey says and has been asked to participate because of an extensive beer background. About 85 percent of the judges are brewers themselves. The other 15 percent are industry suppliers or beer journalists.
"They've been chosen because they're highly respected by their peers and they're able to communicate their tastes," Swersey says. "Your peers have chosen you to tell them what you think of their beer. It's kind of brutal."
A cool demeanor is a must, Swersey says, as is adherence to a careful schedule. There are five judging sessions in total, each 3 hours in length. Over that time, each judge will taste no more than 12 brews and consume less than 12 ounces of beer.
On average, Swersey says, a judge will spend 10 to 12 minutes with each beer. During that time, judges will be expected to fill out a form of feedback to the brewers themselves.
From year to year, the judges change, meaning that the feedback to breweries is always different. That feedback, local brewers say, is the most beneficial part of the festival.
Slow reaction time
While Bristol has been able to establish itself as a decent-sized distributor along the Front Range and throughout Colorado, the other three local breweries are in various stages of infancy or, in one case, rebirth and say they eagerly await the criticism they'll receive from the judges.
None of these breweries Arctic Craft, Rock Bottom and Phantom Canyon realistically expect to medal this year. They have hopes, sure, but they realize those hopes are more like pipe dreams.
"Everyone's bringing their best," says Jason Leeman, who, after working as an assistant brewer at a Denver Rock Bottom, has spent the past year as brew master of the company's Colorado Springs location. "So, yeah, it is kind of silly to say, "I have high hopes.' Everyone does. But that's one of the benefits of going. No only do you get to try a bunch of different beers from across the country, but you're tasting their best."
Also, in a forum like the GABF, brewers are able to easily access one another.
"What I really enjoy about the GABF is that I get to see what other people are doing and ask them questions," says Phantom Canyon's head brewer, Andrew Bradley, who only took over his restaurant's top brewing position this June. "That's my favorite part about it. I don't ever max out on learning about beer."
Aside from Bristol, only Phantom Canyon has substantial history among local entrants at the festival. It won a couple medals though never a gold in the '90s. While the restaurant may not benefit from a win as much as, say, Arctic Craft might, Phantom would stand to gain quite a bit.
Recently, Bradley was told his company hopes to hearken back to its heyday, back before Tejon Street was packed with restaurants, back when Phantom was considered the restaurant and brewpub in town. Winning a medal at the GABF would instantly regain the establishment some of that credibility, Bradley says. But having only served four months as brew master, Bradley says he's focused more on earning a medal in 2008.
"I'm the kind of guy who goes through life with the glass half-broken," he laughs. "I'm keeping a hopeful pessimism. We stand as good a chance as anyone else, I guess, but it's like winning the lottery. We have good beer, but there's so many good beers out there."
Bradley includes Bristol on that list of "good beer" producers.
"I would definitely consider them at the forefront of Colorado Springs," he says. "When people think of Colorado Springs brewing, they think of Bristol."
His sentiments are backed by Swersey.
"There's a certain number of breweries you expect to see up there [winning], year after year," Swersey says. "Bristol's one of them."
Back at Bristol, with the three men continuing to go back and forth over their selections, you'd never know it.
Sure, Hull and Schneider are laughing along with Bristol, but they look nervous. Perhaps they should be: Though each has been involved in the process before, this is the brewery's first go-round with Hull at its helm.
After nearly a half-hour spent discussing the merits of each of the Old No. 23 Barley Wine variations up for consideration, the three men collectively throw their arms in the air. They settle on the 2006 the one of the four sampled that Hull was responsible for and decide it's time to stop tasting and commit to their decisions.
Bristol will submit its Sept. 18 Laughing Lab, its Sept. 18 Red Rocket, its 2006 Old No. 23 and the only two samples available for its Edge City Wit and its Skull 'n Bones Cuvee. Now, the conversation turns to the brewers' high, if still tempered, hopes.
"There've been years that I've sat here and I was convinced that we were going to win Brewery of the Year," says Hull, who worked at Bristol for a short stint in 2000 and returned in May 2005. "It's just weird. Sometimes you'll think you have a great chance to win, and you don't. I just don't like to get my hopes up about something that some guys are drinking around a table and judging."
Again, the irony is lost on him.
"As long as I'm happy with it," he says, "that's fine."
The smile on his face indicates that he is, in fact, quite pleased with the choices that he, Schneider and Bristol have made. Together, they agree that, medal or no medal this year, they'll continue to be pleased.
"We really have never been in the business of making beers for the judges," Bristol says. "We're really making beers for ourselves. I would even go so far as to say we don't even make beers for our customers. We just make beer for ourselves, beer that we like. We've never done a focus group and we probably never will."
At this, Hull breaks into laughter. Would a crowd of paid laymen really be as critical of Bristol's beer as these men are?
"The worst we are is when we're critiquing our own beer," Hull says, still laughing. "Focus group? We have one right here."
But, as much as the men from Bristol believe they're their own most helpful critics, and as much as they downplay how much it would mean to win a medal this year, they understand the gravitas of the GABF.
And in case the energy they spent choosing their samples didn't show it, they verbalize their respect.
"Having the premier event just an hour away," Hull says, "people have to know about that."
Adds Bristol: "It really is a huge deal."
Great American Beer Festival
Colorado Convention Center, 700 14th St., Denver
Thursday, Oct. 11, through Saturday, Oct. 13, 5:30-10 p.m.
Awards will be handed out at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $45-$50; visit greatamericanbeerfestival.com or call 303/447-0816.
Bristol Beer Dinner (like a wine tasting dinner, with beer)
The Blue Star, 1645 S. Tejon St.
Saturday, Oct. 15, 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: $55, not including tax and tip; call 632-1086 for reservations.
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