More than 1,100 beers have been submitted for the 2011 Australian International Beer Awards. The winners will be announced at a ceremony in Melbourne on May 20, in the middle of the inaugural Good Beer Week, with 17 trophies up for grabs. Before we reach that point, there’s the small matter judging the beers – with entries coming from as far afield as the US, Japan, Belgium, Brazil and Laos this year.
The judging panel this year consists of 44 brewers and other beer experts drawn from across Australia and overseas. Many of them have been in Victoria over the past week working their way through the field. Among them is Dave Bonighton, co-founder of Mountain Goat, who agreed to answer a few questions for Crafty about how the judging process works.
How did you get involved in judging?
I love beer, and love drinking all kinds of beer. Best way to do this is to become a beer judge. You put your hand up to the AIBA, and they put you on an Associate Program – where you’ll be given a couple of years to judge, but your scores don’t count. If the Chief Steward and Chief Judge think your numbers are good and make sense you get the full judge guernsey, and your scores count.
How many years have you been doing it?
This was my seventh year.
How does the process work and how much of your time does it require?
Its generally three or four days per year. Each beer is judged by a panel of six judges, and there are three panels going at once.
We score each beer out of 20: 3 for appearance (colour, clarity, foam), 5 for aroma, 6 for flavour, 3 for technical merit and 3 for style characters. 17 and above is gold, 15.5-17 silver, 14-15.5 Bronze.
How many beers on average do you have to taste in a day?
This year we did around 50 each day for three days. There are two more groups next week as well.
Do you spit or swallow? Even with the really bad ones?
You have to swallow at least some of it. Because hops and bitterness are key elements, and bitterness is registered at the back of your palate, you have to swallow.
A lot of it is olfactory though and we generally drink less than 50ml per sample, sometimes a bit more, sometimes less!
Is it hard to maintain objectivity after a few hours of sampling? And how do you get the palate to hold up?
Not really. You just have to, to give each brewer a fair crack. I’d be horrified if I felt that I couldn’t trust the judges to be objective all the way through a day of judging. You’re judging like with like – so when you’re on hefeweizens for instance and you’ve got 20 of them, you can be pretty focused on that style to tease everything out. We break every eight to ten beers or so as well.
Did one category stand out this year?
Not for me – they’re all good in their own way.
Can you tell if one of your beers turns up in a flight?
Sometimes you can have an inkling, but it’s hard to be sure. They generally don’t count your own score on your own beer though – unless it sits neatly in with what the other judges scored it. You’re only one judge on a panel of six for any one beer.
Have you ever come across any truly awful entrants you can’t believe were submitted?
How do the judges go about separating the best from the very best?
If there’s a tie on score at the top of the table, there’s a taste off at the very end of the judging period. In this case that’s next Saturday – which I will be sitting in on. That’s a good one to get to do!
Any tips for people who would like to know more about how to taste beer?
There’s something good in that beer you’re drinking – look beyond personal preference, and focus on the style characters, and what the brewer is going for. It might not be what you personally prefer, but its been lovingly created by somebody!
Once you do this it opens up a whole new world of beer joy.