As the competition for the Great American Beer Festival heats up, judges arrive in Denver faced with the challenge of finding the best representation of beer styles from every corner of the U.S. Over 5,000 beers compete for gold, silver and bronze medals. But have you ever thought about the heroic measures that keep all the wheels running smoothly? It takes the skills of an orchestra leader and the nerve of a disaster administrator.
Take a lesson from Danny Williams, the iconic cellar master who served at the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup for more than 10 years until his death in 2012. Organizing became such a passion for Williams that it spilled out into his personal life. In his spare time, Danny carved-out his own block-long man cave from a Boulder, Colorado mountainside, filling it with 2,500 different beers that he shelved by style, title and category. That was his own personal statement about service to the beer community. Beers that arrive for competition in the GABF are priceless to the brewers who send them. What happens to them matters.
Beers may arrive by truck, air, or ground services, and chances are they may have been exposed to conditions that are less than ideal. That said, brewers do their best to create recipes they know can withstand the extremes of travel. Experienced competitors run test batches on formulae that differ by ingredient, fermentation temperature and aging to determine which recipe shines through despite the stress.
Once the competition beers arrive in Denver, they are placed in optimal storage conditions, categorized, organized and recorded. The supporting key to the competition rests upon the stewardship of a group of volunteers who maintain order with enthusiasm and professionalism. Experienced stewards – many with over 20 years of experience – lead the pack in a role that may be underestimated by the average person. These stewards are of no less importance than the judges who assess beer during the competition. Who could possibly think that pouring and serving over 50,000 cups of beer to more than 200 judges would be a simple measure?
What this means is that every cup needs to be marked with a number to ensure unbiased assessment. The correct beer needs to be poured into every numbered cup, taking care to deliver the beer as the brewer intended, with or without rousing yeast from the bottom, in some cases. These carefully orchestrated pourings are then delivered to judges at each table simultaneously, maintaining temperature while serving efficiently. Each judge may be served as many as 9-14 beers in 2 or 3 segments within each session. The statistics are mind boggling.
Great stewards do all the tough work, seeing to it that spent cups and dump buckets are quickly removed from the tables, while dealing with the replenishment of office supplies, water, bread, matzos, or the next round of beer. They understand that judges may be affected by alcohol, too. With this in mind, the head steward ensures that all paperwork is in order, and that numbers have not been transposed when logging in the award winners.
In the final tally, stewardship is an art form that deserves respect.