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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Oregon Beer Awards Judging, 2017

Fresh from nine days in Hawaii (yes, I missed the snow), I found myself sampling beer at the Oregon Beer Awards judging on Saturday and Sunday. Though the Awards have been around for a few years, this is just the second year in which blind judging was used.

Stuff you may already know if you watch these things: There were 974 beers entered by 112 Oregon breweries this year. That's up from 525 beers and 78 breweries last year. It's the only double-blind tasting competition in Oregon.

Although the event is sponsored by Willamette Week, the competition is run by Breakside's Ben Edmunds. Judges are mostly brewers, publicans and others who work in or around the industry. They invite a few local writers just for kicks, I suppose.

One of the wise things they did this year, having learned something last year, is reduce panel size to three or four in the prelim rounds. They also kept panels mostly together. The panels were larger last year and judges switched panels a lot. The result was that things bogged down and we got way behind schedule. Much, much better this time around.

Medal round panels, at least the ones I was part of or witnessed, were larger. That also makes sense because you want more palates to draw from when you're trying to pick the top three beers from a flight of 10 or so beers that are all really good. It was very tough to pick winners in the medal flight I participated in.

A few people have asked me how drunk judges get. Not very, I'd say. The beer is served in small plastic cups and judges rarely consume all of the beer in any of the cups. Most who judged full days this year reviewed six flights of roughly 10 beers each per day. The ounces add up fast, but food and water was provided and there were breaks. I saw no stumbling.

After judging a full day last year, I opted to change things up this year. I judged beer Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon (allowing me to fully miss the dreadful NFL conference championship beatdowns). I did the split because I felt like my palate got pretty fatigued in the afternoon session last year. Avoiding that prospect seemed like a wise move and it was.

The first thing you realize in these tasting excursions is how much differently brewers evaluate beers than most of us who write or watch the industry. Jeff Alworth has a lengthy and informative post about this. In a nutshell, brewers often taste and identify imperfections in brewing processes and ingredients. They do the same thing with good beers. Their comments tend to be fairly objective.

Meanwhile, I can identify good and flawed beers. During each flight, I'd take notes on each beer and identify the ones I thought  flawed or not quite right. I'd also choose my top three or four in the flight. My choices generally jived with the brewers on the panel. But my opinions tended to be subjective, not objective. Which means I usually couldn't objectively describe why a beer was flawed or near perfect.

Thanks to the folks at Willamette Week for sponsoring the competition. Special thanks to Steph Barnhart of WW and to Ben Edmunds, both of whom worked tirelessly to make this event work. Thanks are also due the countless volunteers who helped in a variety of ways. Finally, Widmer Brewing generously hosted the judging and provided lunch both days. Thanks, folks.

Medal winners in 22 categories, as well as a host of other awards, will be announced during the Oregon Beer Awards ceremony at Revolution Hall on Feb. 28. Tickets are available here. There will undoubtedly be some surprises. Why? Because the beers were evaluated blindly and honestly. Brewery stature meant nothing. Only the beer mattered.

See you at Revolution Hall.

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