This week, Kelly and Colin are judging at the 20th annual World Beer Cup taking place in Philadelphia, USA.
It’s Kelly’s fourth time as a judge, and Colin’s first. Kelly’s even been on the other side of the judging table when he worked for Thornbridge Brewery in the UK, and their brewing team won a Silver in 2010.
This Q&A with Colin and Kelly busts the myth that judging 80 beers in a day is a novelty-fun-time lark – read on!
Talk us through what you’ll be undertaking at the World Beer Cup.
Colin: “Judging for the World Beer Cup takes place over three days from 8am-5pm. There will be 1500 breweries from 68 countries partaking in the competition. There’s 150 style categories and around 6,600 beers to be judged.”
Kelly: “In the past there’s been around 60 beers judged per table, each day, in two-and-a-half days. But this time around, correspondence has indicated we’re going to have to go hardcore because there are 30% more beers to be judged than in previous years. So we’re looking at fitting 30% more in a half day of judging – 80 beers each day.
“It is very much like the Olympics in that there’s gold, silver and bronze in each style category. That’s the difference with these awards – it’s very clean cut, and there are no runner up medals.”
Colin: “The whole competition has a very quick turnaround. So we judge Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and the awards ceremony is Friday night.”
Kelly: “There’s around 500 medals presented at the awards ceremony – it is a really quick procession.” [Makes some joke about fist bumps replacing handshakes to speed up the ceremony.]
“I think the first time I judged there were just under 5000 beers, so the competition is just growing and growing and growing. If they’re not going to cap the number of beers entered each year, I’m sure it will just get bigger.”
Despite all the talk about ‘work jollies’, it sounds quite intense!
Colin: [with weighty emphasis] “It’s really hard work.”
Kelly: “It actually is! The hardest part of my job as a brewer is judging. The mental concentration you have to put into 80 beers, the notes you’ve gotta write, the intense conversation you’ve gotta have is f***ing hardcore. But it’s great.”
Colin: “The focus you have to maintain across three days is quite intense. And you want to give a beer that you’re judging at half past four in the afternoon, the same respect and attention as a beer that you judged at half past eight in the morning.”
Kelly: “It is the hardest part in this industry, and as much fun as it is, you’re still writing 70 words on 80 beers a day, and keeping it as fast and concise as possible in eight hours. If you still love beer at the end of that, then you should be a beer judge!”
What are you expecting?
Colin: “Personally, I am super excited and nervous as hell, this being the first time I’ve judged at this level. Judging on the international stage with the likes of Kelly, Melissa Cole [leading UK beer expert/writer] and Mitch Steele [Stone Brewing in California]. I’m also looking forward to being exposed to styles that you don’t really see in this part of the world, which I’m really excited about.
“Yup. Nervously excited.”
Kelly: “First and foremost for me, it’s about getting out of the brewery on a work jolly. No, just joking.
“I get an adrenaline rush out of judging, because you spend quite a number of years making sure your palate is good! So, it’s justification that your palate is good, if you’re getting invited to these sort of events.
“But you also get to sit alongside industry experts; guys like Ray Daniels who founded the Cicerone Programme for beer sommeliers, and Stan Hieronymous, who’s a really established beer writer.
“You’re sitting next to people that you know from afar, who you look up to, who are known for being the best in industry, you read their books. And putting your palate next to theirs, and realising you can pick up the same sort of things that they pick up – it’s that weird realisation where you go, ‘Far out – we really kind of know what we’re talking about!'”
How do the World Beer Cup organisers choose beers to partake in the competition?
Kelly: “Any brewery can enter this competition! It’s open to every brewery in the world.
“If you’re a brewer who truly thinks your beer is great, then you’re silly to not enter it in these awards. If you’ve nailed your process and ingredients, it’s perfect to style, and you’ve packaged it in such a way that it’s stable and awesome two months after you’ve sent it overseas, then absolutely enter this competition. Because if you enter it and get that accolade, it means that everything you’re doing is right!
“When I was in the brewing team at Thornbridge and we won the Silver for our Bracia Dark Ale brewed with Honey… Well, receiving one of these medals is pretty much the best feeling ever. As a brewer you’re just like, ‘Oh, my God! I’ve done it! Yay!'”
So how do they select Beer Cup judges from around the world?
Kelly: “Through a Test of Awesomeness. Kind of like the Krypton Factor – but with beer.”
Colin: “There’s around 260 judges from around the world: 25% are from US, with the remaining from everywhere else.
“NZ is fairly well represented with seven judges: Geoff Griggs [Beer Writer], Doug Donelan [NZ Hops], Shane Morley [Steam Brewing], Brian Watson [Good George Brewing], Steve Plowman [Hallertau Brewery] and Greg McGill [Brewraucracy], Kelly and myself.
“For me, as a new judge I had to get 2-3 letters of recommendation/references from people who were either existing World Beer Cup judges or in the beer industry, which supported my experience and understanding of beer, gave examples of my sensory training and previous industry history.”
Kelly: “This year I’m a judge captain for the second time around. You get that role through previous World Beer Cup experience, and basically not screwing it up the first few times!
“It means I’ll have to wrangle judges at my table, especially the new ones. I know my role is to go whip crack. There’s around 6-7 people per table. Hairs can be split in preliminary rounds, so you don’t want to get too bogged down in debate every time, and just move the process and beers along.”
Do you know what beer styles you’ll be judging?
Colin: “You can submit what beers you’d like to judge. There is a form, and you can say, ‘I really, really love these’ or ‘I’m really expert in this area’ or ‘Oh, my God, I’m gonna go green and sprout horns if you make me drink this beer’. And where they can they’ll try and fit in people’s preferences. Chris Swersey [World Beer Cup Competition Manager] – I do not envy his job: coordinating all the breweries, all the judges, everything – heaps of work to do.
[Col and Kel refrain from naming what styles they’re judging until after the comp – good judging etiquette. But can reveal they’ll be judging 15-18 styles across three days.]
Who are the World Beer Cup powerhouses?
Colin & Kelly: “The U.S.”
Kelly: “You’ve got almost 5000 breweries in the US, and there are a lot of North American styles that they just do an incredible job of, and they’re really good at reinterpreting traditional styles as well.
“But then you get instances where you get these outliers, like [at the World Beer Cup] a couple of years ago in San Diego. These Australian brewers [Burleigh Brewing in Queensland] beat the German brewers in the Hefeweizen category.
So in that way, it is just like the Olympics – you always get cool stuff like this happening!”
How will New Zealand fare at the World Beer Cup?
Kelly: “Eleven NZ breweries have entered this year. There’s Epic, Garage Project, Lion, Moa, ParrotDog to name a few. So there’s a chance for us to hopefully pick up a medal! That would be awesome!
“We’ve won three World Beer Cup medals in the past, and they’ve been won by Lion, Monteith’s and Garage Project.”
Do you think more NZ breweries will get more involved in the future?
Colin: “I think they will as more NZ breweries realise they’re gonna have to go offshore to achieve the growth that they want to maintain. And if there’s an opportunity to have a little medal that says you’re one of the top three beers in that style in the world, I would say that is one of the best routes to market.
“I was chatting with someone the other day, who was saying there are 150 NZ breweries, who are essentially marketing to 200,000 beer drinkers in NZ. So eventually they’re gonna have to cast their nets a bit further to grow.”
Is Fork Brewing entering at all?
Kelly: “Fork has withheld from entering this year. We’ll just give our expertise this year – see what the competition is like!”
Are there any bad beers at a World Beer Cup?
Colin: “You definitely get beers that are not to our taste!”
Kelly: “There are flawed beers at the World Beer Cup, like any competition. You get beers that are heavy on technical faults, and they’re actually the easy ones to judge, because you can spot them and move them along quickly.
“Eighty to 90% of the judges there are very heavily versed and trained in picking up technical faults through sensory training.”
What do you want to get out of the World Beer Cup?
Colin: “Hopefully, we’ll get some inspiration to bring back here. There are some things that will really work in NZ, and some things that it just won’t get. Niche-y things, like field beers, e.g. pumpkin ales, which might be appropriate for seasonal things like Halloween, but not as a stand alone.”
Kelly: “The amount of inspiration you get every time you judge as a brewer, it’s next level because you’re experiencing the world’s best. Every time you try a beer that’s world class, you’re immediately curious and wonder how that beer has been made so well – and I know I go, ‘Can I emulate that?’
“That’s something you get huge inspiration from.”
It’s pretty much a global convention of some of the world’s finest brewing heads in one room! It will turn into a little bit of a work jolly, won’t it?
Colin: “There’ll be heaps of double takes, going, ‘Oh shit, I didn’t realise you were here as well!’ And then there’s the three-day trade show, and craft brewers conference after that…”
Kelly: “It’s bloody amazing. It’s all the people that I’ve met throughout years of judging in this competition in the U.S., and then all the British Brigade – Logan [Plant from Beavertown], my old bosses from Thornbridge and Fyne Ales – brewing comrades from Aussie… Always heaps of people to catch up with.
“And, inevitably, conversations always end up turning to technical brewing talk: things about hop oil content or ‘How does your filteration system work in your brewery?’ You always end up nerding it out, but it’s a safe place to do it!
“These are the people you can do that with without having them roll their eyes at you.”
World Beer Cup Numbers
– 6600 Beers
– 1500 Breweries
– 450 Medals
– 260 Judges
– 150 Beer Style Categories
– 80 Beers judged per table each day
– 68 Countries
– Over 3 days