Dick Cantwell (Elysian Brewing) and Kim Jordan (New Belgium Brewing) at today's awards ceremony. Photo shamelessly lifted from Elysian's Facebook page.

Great American Beer Festival Results – How Did Washington Beer Perform?

You may have noticed a bit of an earthquake on Saturday morning at about 11:30 a.m. local time. The shaking earth was the result of hundreds of thousands of hipsters simultaneously jumping for joy when it was announced that Pabst Blue Ribbon won a gold medal at this year’s Great American Beer Festival (GABF). No kidding. They won a gold medal for best American light lager, or something. When the news was announced, Twitter completely exploded.

The Great American Beer Festival is more than a beer fest. It is a judged competition. In fact, it is the largest competition of its kind in North America. The competition awarded 254 medals to some of the best commercial breweries in the United States. Presented by the Brewers Association, GABF is the largest commercial beer competition in the world.

Today, while the crowd filled the festival hall, medals were awarded in more than 80 different style categories. At first blush, it seems that Washington breweries got the cold shoulder from the judges this year, bringing home just seven medals. In 2011 the Washington medal-count was an even dozen. However, to say we got snubbed would be a gross over-simplification. Washington beer lovers, do not despair. Our brewers did us proud.

Consider This

Not every brewery submits beer to the competition. The judges can only award medals to beers that they taste. Your favorite IPA may not have even been in consideration. Recognize that this is a triple-blind tasting. The beers are judged based on style guidelines and not the popularity of the brewery. There is no favoritism. They don’t know what they’re drinking. It’s all about the beer. That is why Redhook consistently brings home medals. Apologies to you Redhook haters, but they make good beer.

It is a numbers game. For example, there were 203 different beers entered in the American-Style IPA category and there were 128 beers entered in the Imperial IPA category. In other words, the competition is not only stiff, but it is massive as well. Trying to stand out amongst 200 IPAs is no easy task. Determining the beer category into which your beer best fits, and has the best chance of performing, is an art unto itself.

There are currently about 2,000 breweries in America. Compared to just a few years ago, that is a staggering number. It is great to bring home medals from the GABF, but the competition just keeps getting tougher and tougher.

The following Washington breweries brought home hardware this year:

  • American Brewing, Edmonds – Bronze Medal, Polska Porter. Category: Baltic-Style Porter.
  • Chuckanut Brewery, Bellingham –  Silver Medal, Chuckanut Kolsch. Category: German Style Kolsch.
  • Chuckanut Brewery, Bellingham – Silver Medal, Chuckanut Vienna Lager. Category: Vienna-Style Lager.
  • Elysian Brewing, Seattle – Silver Medal, Men’s Room Original Red Ale. Category: Ordinary or Special Bitter.
  • No-Li Brewhouse, Spokane – Gold Medal, Crystal Bitter Ale. Category: Extra Special Bitter.
  • Redhook Ale Brewery, Woodinville – Silver Medal, Redhook Pilsner. Category: American-Style or International-Style Pilsener.
  • Redhook Ale Brewery, Woodinville – Bronze Medal, Winterhook. Category: American-Style Amber/Red Ale.

If you’d like to see the complete list of GABF winners, Click Here: 2012_GABF_winners (PDF).

You can also view the winners on the GABF website, but it is getting pounded right now and may fail to load.

Dick Cantwell (Elysian Brewing) and Kim Jordan (New Belgium Brewing) at today's awards ceremony. Photo shamelessly lifted from Elysian's Facebook page.

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  1. Kendall, while the competition is indeed blind, I think that the judging is influenced in a very different way, and perhaps popularity, or at least familiarity has something to do with it.

    I think it is no secret that compared to breweries in other states – especially those with strong medal showings, Washington beers aren’t widely available outside of Washington. Certainly PNW ales and particularly IPAs differ greatly from those found in other states or beer regions. San Diego-style IPAs are a good example of that contrast, and yet we’re lumping them all into the same category to be judged together.

    With breweries outside Washington aggressively marketing across state and country lines, the perception of what an IPA ‘should’ taste like becomes more homogenized. I think both beer drinkers and judges become unconsciously trained to think that they all should taste like the ones that have done a better job marketing their wares to a greater/wider audience.

    With Washington beers not having the same penetration as say, California or Colorado beers, they’re often the odd man out at the competition.

  2. Good points Jason. I still think a lot of it is a numbers game. The more beers you submit, the better your chances. I did some counting. Might not be exact, but here are some state-by-state numbers in terms of medals won:

    California 50
    Colorado 36
    Oregon 24
    Pennsylvania 19
    Wisconsin 10
    Utah 8
    Washington 7
    North Carolina 4

  3. Even Wyoming had more medals than Washington. That’s crazy. Washington always gets the cold shoulder there.

  4. Thai Me Up and Snake River are two very good breweries. Together, they took home over half of Wyoming’s 8 medals. As much as I love my home state, I think it is pretty cool that there are so many great breweries in America these days.

  5. Just to clarify something on blind judging at the GABF, it’s done in a round table “discussion” format with a team of 3 or so judging flights to discuss which ones move on. The table captain will read the BA style guidelines so everyone is thinking along the same lines for that particular style. While judging the medal round last year for American Wheat we all determined that the best beer on the table didn’t fit the style and was way too hoppy; we kicked it out. (though I did write a note on the comment sheet for the brewer that it was the best beer, different category next year?) Only the first 8 beers submitted on your brewery submission form will count towards Brewery of the Year awards to avoid “stuffing the ballot box”.

    While I agree with some of the points above I’d like to point out that the 6 most popular IPAs right now (as in volumes sold/marketing $$) didn’t win a medal; SN Torpedo, NB Ranger, RH Longhammer, Lagunitas, Deschutes Inversion and Stone.

  6. Kendall, do you have any stats on the number of Washington beers entered? If your theory is correct the number of winners per state should be generally proportional to the number of entries from that state.

  7. D.Richter, I agree that popular or well-known styles didn’t medal, but I wouldn’t think that they would. They are after all being judged by beer geeks and aficionados who tend to look for and praise different and notable qualities in beer. Of course style guidelines are supposed to be adhered to, but most ‘notable’ beers are the ones that often push the boundaries of accepted style guidelines. While the aforementioned breweries all make great IPAs, they don’t stand out like some of the winners do.

    Really my point was more based on regional style differences and expectations on what an IPA is than anything, so I guess I shouldn’t have mentioned ‘popularity’ first – it is the less important of the two.

    The American IPA and Imperial IPA winners are predominantly from California this year, taking 4/6 medals. Certainly San Diego has an IPA style unto itself, and northern California has some of its own flair as well. Beers from these two places are available all across the country, so my general feeling is that beers from these areas sort of influence what people think of as being acceptable for the style.


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