The GABF and the Meaning of Medaling

Ah, the Great American Brewers Festival, whose medals always glow shiniest on brewery trophy walls. Our love, our bane. Does any fest fill beer geeks with more ambivalence? On the one hand, it has the most credibility of any awards-granting fest in the US--ensuring that any beer receiving an award is a good one. On the other hand, its very credibility conceals selection biases: the only beers that win are those entered--and of the 1,600 American breweries, fewer than a third enter beers. As a consequence, we have a hard time relating to the meaning of a winning beer,

Add to that the innate capriciousness of judged events. Enter a beer one year and it may win gold and then strike out thereafter. To take one example, did the quality of Mirror Pond really increase this year; or were the judges just off their collective rockers in past years when it didn't win? Of course, the truth is that, in a competition with dozens of beers, the palates and moods of the judges will select almost randomly among a smaller--but still substantial--group of potential medal winners. Excluding the pro-am competition, 3,448 beers were entered for judging. Coming up with medal winners from that vast group isn't totally random, but let's just say that among the 3,211 non-winners are a few decent beers (and future gold medalists).

Another issue: as a parochial blogger, I dislike how Colorado always takes home truckloads of medals, while Oregon (and particularly Washington) get a relative snub. True, we know from past years that Colorado breweries enter in far greater numbers--and therefore have lower winning percentages--than Oregon, but gaudy numbers impress more than statistical contextualizing. So this year, Colorado takes home 41 medals, more than doubling up Oregon (19) and clubbing Washington like a baby seal (7). (And I wonder, darkly, why the Colorado-based host organization gives no information this year on which breweries entered, preventing me from scoring win percentages for 2010.)

And what to make of style explosions? This year's competition features 79 categories, for a total haul of 237 medals. The chances of winning owe a lot to, well, chance, but that doesn't mean I won't get a flood of press releases trumpeting wins this week. Over two hundred medals a year, every year, thousands in total. After a certain point, what does it say that a beer has won a medal? What does it say that a beer never has? Does seeing a medal-draped trophy cabinet tell a visitor anything about a brewery?

So here we are on Ambivalent Monday, happy to celebrate the winners, but also wondering: yes, but what exactly should we make of all this?
Jeff AlworthGABF9 Comments