Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Behind the Scenes of the Oregon Beer Awards

We have been fortunate enough to participate in the judging panels for various beer competitions but it wasn’t until we got involved with the Oregon Beer Awards (for the first time in 2018) that we acquired an even deeper appreciation for all that goes into competitions. Last year we replied to a last minute call for volunteers, assisting wherever we could during the two-day judging. We thought we had gotten a good “look behind the curtains” then but it wasn’t until this year, when we returned in a greater capacity that we realized there were even MORE steps leading up to what will ultimately be a happy day when the awards are presented.

The Willamette Week Oregon Beer Awards is now in its fourth year and was co-founded by Breakside Brewery owner Ben Edmunds. Ben is the competition director, being hands on during all stages of it, something that is hard to comprehend especially when one understands the scope - 133 Oregon breweries entered a combined total of 1,080 beers. Each single entry consists of four to six bottles/cans of the beer being entered (depending on whether it is a 12 ounce bottle, 32 ounce crowler or something in between). That translates, on the low end, to over 4,000 containers of beer that are received by Breakside’s Milwaukie facility to be sorted into the 25 categories. We participated in one of three sorting sessions this year, opening boxes from the breweries, putting them into new boxes corresponding to their assigned judging session (Saturday AM, Saturday PM, Sunday AM or Sunday PM) and then packaging those palates back up for eventual delivery to the judging location - Maletis Beverage.

A week later we arrived at Maletis for training where the overall flow of the judging process was fully explained and details on the three steward categories (sorting, pouring and serving) duties laid out. The sorting stewards follow a reverse process similar to the intake sorting that we participated in at Breakside. From there the beers are transported to the pouring area where the pouring stewards fill glasses that are marked by a number (i.e. 2807) that corresponds to the number on the bottle it is being poured from. Those glasses, along with glasses of other entries in the same category, are then presented by the serving stewards to the judges in tasting flights. In total 165 flights were be poured and presented to 89 judges.

As a serving steward during two of the four judging sessions we were able to observe the judging process. The judges, in small groups, were presented with descriptions of the beers, each evaluated the entries individually, then discussed the entries as a group, deciding which beers got moved on to the next round. In addition to recording their discussion digitally, a comment sheet was filled out for each beer, both providing a paper trail for the judging itself and, post-competition, are sent to the brewers. Particularly for those beers that did not advance on and receive a medal, these comment sheets can be very useful in making adjustments to the beer in the future. Maybe the beer was solid but the category it was entered into wasn’t appropriate (ever had a beer being touted as an IPA but presents more as a pale ale? Or a “stout” that was more like a porter?). Maybe there were aspects of the beer that fell within guidelines (most competitions use BJCP guidelines) but weren’t as solid as other beers it was competing against. Maybe there were outright flaws in the beer (off flavor, inappropriate mouthfeel).

In addition to all of the official duties, each group of stewards is in continual clean up mode of their area. For sorters, that means moving empty boxes to the appropriate area and compiling the extra bottles of beer that were submitted but not needed, in another area for “dispensing” after the judging concludes. For pourers there’s the clean up of extra beer that is poured or extra glasses that are labeled and the laying out of new trays and glasses to be filled. For servers, once the judges they are serving are done with a flight of beer, the comment sheets and recorders are collected, the table cleared of glasses, the dump buckets emptied and the requisite water pitchers and oyster cracker supply refilled. It’s a circular process for each group, a rhythm that becomes more steady as time goes on until the end is in sight and the final clean up process can begin.

All in all, it takes a village of committed, mostly volunteer beer folks to pull off a beer competition. We are grateful to be part of this village and eagerly anticipate awards ceremony on February 26 at Revolution Hall.

Oregon Beer Awards
Tuesday, February 26 6pm
Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark
Tickets: $18 on sale now

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