On Beer Competitions and such

July 13, 2013 at 7:53 am


My baby brother sent me an email the other day. He was trying to entice me to visit him in Dallas, by citing an article from the Dallas Business Journal that three DFW breweries had won awards in the U.S. Open Beer Championship.

He was trying to make the case that Dallas has a better beer scene than Chicago and our surrounding region.

His arguments failed miserably. Chicagoland also had three breweries that won awards in that same competition — Lake Bluff Brewery won a Gold for its Kosmonaut Wood Barrel Imperial Stout, Finch’s won a Gold for its Secret Stache Stout, and Goose Island won a Gold for its India Pale Ale.

And looking larger, regionally, Capital Brewing in Middleton, Wisconsin (just outside Madison) was named as the best brewery, and just up I-39, Point Brewing in Stevens Point, Wisconsin was named #3.

The full list of winners is here.

But the bigger issue is — what do these competitions really mean?

(And yes, in journalistic terms, you should probably accuse me of burying the lead.)

As of March 2013, there were 2,416 breweries in the United States, according to the Brewers’ Association. The U.S. Open Beer Championship website says that over 2,500 beers were entered — not just from breweries in the United States, but also from more than 20 international breweries, and also from 30 selected award-winning homebrewers (unjustifiably, I wasn’t included). A number of breweries won multiple awards (Capital won five awards, Stevens Point won four.)

So let’s do the math. Over 2,500 beers were entered. Let’s say the number is 2,600. Since many breweries won multiple awards, let’s say that, on average, each brewery entered three or four beers, at least. We’ll use an average of 3.5 beers per brewery. So 2,600 beers from breweries entering 3.5 each on average means that 2,600/3.5 = approximately 743 breweries entering, out of the 2,416 in the country. Subtract out the 30 homebrewers and more than 20 (let’s say 22) international breweries, and you’re left with 691 US breweries who entered — and 1,725 who didn’t. So at a minimum, over 70% of U.S. breweries weren’t represented in the competition. Probably more.

Entering a competition isn’t exactly easy. Typically, you have to find out that the competition is taking place, find the entry forms, fill them out (for each beer), and send the forms along with beer samples to the judging site. Sending samples of alcoholic beverages isn’t particularly easy; the US Postal Service has an outright ban on shipping alcohol; private carriers like FedEx and UPS will sometimes allow it, especially if the contents of a sealed package are labeled as “glass bottles” or some other benign description.

And a more prestigious beer competition, The Great American Beer Festival, has experienced a kerfuffle of its own. (I’ve always wanted to find an excuse to use the word kerfuffle.)

The Great American Beer Festival has a limited number of slots for breweries to participate, so already it’s restricted to a small subset of existing domestic  breweries. Last year, over the course of two days, 580 breweries were able to sign up for their competition. Last week, over 650 breweries tried to register within a period of two hours, creating “technical problems” with their servers. Some 300 breweries were put on a waitlist. Some will get in, but “not nearly all,” said Brewers Association Director, Paul Gatza, and Event Director, Nancy Johnson. The problem is the physical space the GABF has contracted for limits the number of participants.

Locally, Off Color and Pipeworks were among the breweries who tried to enter the GABF competition, but couldn’t due to technical problems.

So, while the craft beer scene is growing rapidly, the capacity for participants in beer competitions can’t keep up. As a result, most beer competitions don’t actually give out awards for the best beers available; they only give awards for the relatively small subset of breweries and beers that choose to go through the sometimes arduous process of registering and entering

If you really want to see a less limited rating of a beer or a brewery, take a look at Ratebeer.com or Beeradvocate.com. Their ratings are based on reviews from avid beer geeks. Neither is perfect. The avid beer geeks who submit their ratings (and anyone can sign up and submit ratings) tend to favor bigger, aggressive beers.

Ratebeer, in particular, tallies up all the reviews from its members in any given year, and publishes rankings of the world’s best breweries, beers, and so forth.  But the important thing about these ratings is that the breweries don’t need to fill out any forms, don’t need to send samples … all they need to do is be in business, and be attractive enough on the shelf to get a reasonable number of beer geeks to take the time to evaluate and review their beers online. No brewery is eliminated because a server went down, or because the brewers would rather spend their time making beer than filling out forms.

Ratebeer considers four of the world’s top 100 breweries to be in the Chicago area — Pipeworks (also named best new brewery in the world for 2012), Goose Island, Half Acre, and Revolution. Actually, that’s five, if you add Three Floyds, just over the border in Indiana. Note to my brother — Texas has only one (Jester King, and that’s in Austin, not Dallas).

Maybe I should use that fact to entice my brother to visit Chicago.

Of course, the ultimate rating is how the beer appeals to your taste buds. But your chances of finding that great beer are probably better in Chicagoland, or in the greater Midwest region, than they are in Dallas.