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The Oscars Of Beer

Michael Donato, March 02, 2015 -   

The Academy Awards have come and gone; That magical award show where the movie industry votes on which movies and employees are most deserving of an award.

For various reasons some movies and casts have a better chance than others. Still, to win an Oscar is a prestigious thing and that accolade will remain attached to that person for the rest of his or her career. There are also many other award shows, and while none are perhaps as renowned, they all come with a trophy and a title. 

There is perhaps an interesting corollary in the beer world and that’s the medals handed out at the growing number of beer festivals. Even at the Great American Beer Festival, arguably the Oscars for beer, there are questionable choices and questionable competition.

Not every brewery enters, and breweries don’t submit all their beers. Your favorite beer may not even be submitted, just like your favorite movie may not submit a screener to the Academy which greatly reduces the likelihood of winning anything. So what exactly does advertising the gold medal you won at the GABF, the California State Fair, or any other small contest, really tell us about your beer besides that it’s not rainwater? 

The top three Bocks at the GABF for 2014 were these.

Medal

Brewery

Beer

BAR

Gold

Troegs Brewing

Troegenator

3.86

Silver

Devil’s Backbone

Turbo Cougar

1.85  

Bronze

Triumph Brewing

Winterbock

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Troegenator is technically a doublebock, so this feels a little like sneaking Darryl Strawberry onto your nuclear powerplant’s softball team. It’s 17% better than the average Doppelbock, and is 10th on the Doppelbock leaderboard, suggesting that it is in fact a very good beer. 3.86 would have it 8th on the Bock leaderboard. 

By Style+ Turbo Cougar is 15% better than the average Bock, but it’s 60th by BAR on the Bock leaderboards. Second best? 

Triumph is a local brewpub to New Jersey with two locations after closing a third in Philadelphia. Their Winterbock doesn’t seem to have been brewed for a couple of years until they brought it back this winter. Did they do so specifically for the GABF? Either way the volume wasn’t high enough to trigger a leaderboard entry. It might be very good, but how many people have ever even had it? Do volume or availability matter when picking a ‘best’ beer in a category?

The Great American Beer Festival is definitely the most prestigious festival in America, much like the Oscars, but it’s still just one festival with 222 judges who I imagine aren’t tasting all 5507 beers submitted.

Does that really represent the best there is to offer in America? According to the competition page, the judges reserve the right not to award a Gold medal if no beers really deserves it, but that still only applies to the beers submitted. Last year there was no Gold medal for Golden or Blonde Ale, with 5 Rabbit Golden Ales and Heavy Seas Gold taking Silver and Bronze respectively.

 I clearly haven’t tasted them all, but I know I’ve had Gold worthy blond ales. GABF doesn’t break down how many beers submitted to each category, so it’s impossible to tell what the competition really was, but if you’re a brewer looking for a Gold medal, this might be a category to try. 

Let’s look at another category. American-Style India Pale Ale is without a doubt one of the most popular categories both for fans and brewers. In fact it’s the most represented category at the GABF with 279 entries. Of course, there are 3808 American IPAs listed on the BeerGraphs leaderboard so this contest features less than 10% of all IPAs. 

Medal

Brewery

Beer

BAR

Gold

Breakside Brewery

Breakside IPA

4.96

Silver

Half Acre Beer Co.

Senita

5.72

Bronze

Columbus Brewing Co.

Bodhi

9.02

Breakside is a Pacific Northwest Brewery. Their IPA falls 186th on the American IPA leaderboard. I’ve never heard of it in the avalanche of IPA talk and highly regarded trade targets, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good, but is it the best? The IPA leaderboards suggest it’s 17% better than the average IPA but that’s hardly in the elite class. 

Half Acre’s Senita was formerly known as Heyoka, until they changed it at the request of the Lekota Native American community. Winning a Silver medal at GABF should do wonders for the recognition of the new name. At 5.72 it’s tied for 118th with Russian River’s Hopfather and it’s 120 Style+ says it’s a very good beer. 

Columbus Brewing doesn’t distribute outside of Ohio. Their Bodhi is technically listed as a Double IPA so it’s perhaps a ringer in this category. 9.02 BAR would put it just below Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin in 20th place on the American IPA board. On the DIPA board it falls 27th, tied with Stone’s Enjoy By 2/14/14 and two spots ahead of Lagunitas Sucks. It also was voted Ohio’s Best Beer by Aleheads, for whatever that’s worth. It’s Style+ of 120 also suggests it’s very good.

Let’s do one more; Robust Porter.

Medal

Brewery

Beer

BAR

Gold

Wynwood Brewing

Pop’s Porter

0.79

Silver

Founders Brewing

Porter

5.86

Bronze

Tapistry Brewing

Peck’s Porter

1.2

Porters are broken down differently. GABF has Baltic-Style, Brown, and Robust. Untappd/BeerGraphs has Porter, American Porter, Baltic Porter, English Porter, and Double Porter. Founders is under American, the other two are regular Porters. I combined the leaderboards for those two styles. 

Wynwood Pop’s Porter comes in at 634th. This feels like one of those small sample type issues where there probably weren’t a lot of submissions in the category. Pop’s Porter comes in with a style+ of 111 and actually 5th of six Wynwood beers. Their homepage proclaims the Award-winning Porter. 

Founders is obviously one we all know. I don’t know if I’ve ever had their straight porter, but it’s no surprise to me that it’s 17th on this combined list with a Style+ of 119. 

Tapistry comes in at 504. Their beers do look interesting, and the Peck’s Porter has a 113 Style+. I’d certainly try it out if I was in the area.  

So there were no bad beers in the sample I pulled out. This is still a legitimate competition where judges, though human, try to pick the best of the bunch. There aren’t really any ‘bad’ movies at the Oscars either, but are they the best Hollywood has to offer?

Often times the judges are watching a movie or drinking a beer for a different reason than everyone else. Do you seek out the beer that best fits a style guideline, or pick the beer that’s most pleasing to your rather subjective taste buds? These competitions and award shows are very self-serving in that they give cause to celebrate art and throw some awards around to mostly deserving candidates. The breweries get to proclaim their beer as award-winning, and get another marketing bullet to sell their product. The GABF is one way to go to try to get your beer recognized, but it’s hardly the only way. 

The BeerGraphs leaderboards provide an alternate way to rank beers. The leaderboards are crowd-sourced via Untappd and run through an algorithm. These are the ratings of your fellow beer drinkers.

I’m not saying our picks for best beer are more valid than the Great American Beer Festival, but perhaps a whole blog’s worth of discussion about beer is going to find you a tastier brew than the ranking of a handful of strangers at a festival in Denver? Perhaps you just want to watch robots blow things up and don’t really care if it has a greater sociological impact or was expertly directed. Or maybe it’s both.

People love to rank things, and beer lovers are no different. Just remember that art, and beer, are very subjective subjects. Watch, listen to, and drink what you like.

Michael can be found on Twitter and Untappd where he's a fan of movies that blow things up.  You can also email him at beer@ceetar.com.

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