Walking onto the Del Mar Fairgrounds in mid-April feels pretty peculiar if you’ve only experienced it during the San Diego County Fair. The thoroughfares, once stuffed with greasy foods and even greasier tourists, are largely idle. On this particular day, the only outward indications of life are a series of signs for a beer judging event and a lot attendant giving frustratingly vague instructions on where to park. Why are you directing me to a lot on the right when the event is half a mile to the left, Parking Saboteur? If I replaced you with nothing I’d be closer right now!
Despite the parking disinformation campaign (no doubt funded by the Macrobrewing Deep State), moments later I find myself in a hall among the Glitterati of San Diego beer. It’s stuffed to the gills with professional brewers, local homebrewing heroes, venerable BJCP judges, and one beer writer of note (if you sort the list of available options alphabetically by last name*). For the next six to eight hours we’ll endeavor to evaluate hundreds of submissions to the San Diego International Beer Competition (SDIBC).
That judging throughput is considerable, but it doesn’t fully represent the scope of the competition. More than 1,500 beers are ultimately under consideration, which requires two full days to process. It is, no doubt, a logistical nightmare. However, given that this is the competition arm to the equally gargantuan San Diego International Beer Festival (June 14-16), there’s clearly no lack of ambition to make it happen.
After checking my table assignment (and verifying that I’m not paired off with any brewer that I previously excoriated in print), I grab my seat. Each table is outfitted with a standard issue beer tasting utility pack: stacks of blank score sheets, beer style reference materials, bottled water, and mounds of the world’s most oxymoronic snack — saltless saltines. It’s a pretty drab canvas, save for the few yellow No. 2 pencils scattered about. But that’s about to change.
Every pair is assigned a specific beer style and bestowed a set of eight to 15 anonymous samples, transforming the judging real estate into a beer-hued superbloom. It’s imperative at this point to organize the cups and forms into some semblance of production flow, which has the unfortunate side effect of making the tabletop resemble an overburdened urinalysis lab (with some tragically unhealthy patients, I might add).
Though the endgame of this lengthy appraisal will be a series of awards recognizing the top three Best of Show for every beer style, the primary output of the beer judge is the score sheet. The content of these forms can vary from event to event, but for this competition the focus is on evaluating the aromas, flavors, balance, finish, and other notable dimensions of a beer with brief exposition. An appropriately detailed score sheet should always provide sufficient information to demonstrate why a beer did or did not advance further in the competition. Needless to say, hand cramping abounds.
Producing miniature sonnets to beer admittedly starts to feel like busywork after the first few samples, but it’s important to remember that content is arguably more valuable than the awards they’ll inform. These notes represent a direct line to the brewer, allowing them to see how closely their vision manifested in the glass. Crowdsourcing this information provides some additional assurance that the brewer isn’t at odds with one tainted palate or some rando who laments “it wasn’t beery enough.” Any brewer willing to expose their work to such intense scrutiny really deserves the benefit of thoughtful analysis, despite my impulse to scrawl “Shame. Shame. Shame.” for the occasional turd.
SDIBC judging may read as a largely introverted and academic affair, but that’s only because you’ve yet to encounter its second phase. Once initial assessments are complete, the two judges must gird themselves to enter the arena. Don’t worry, it’s only a metaphor — the incidence of violent beer judge on beer judge crime in San Diego is barely double that of the national average. Each judge, armed with little more than their perceptive prowess and pedantic persistence, must make the case for which brews in the group best represented the style at hand.
Once in a blue moon, the two judges find themselves in full agreement and there’s little else to do but let the awkward high fives fly, but more often a spirited discussion is needed to achieve resolution. I choose the descriptor “spirited” very specifically here, since it tends to be applied to everything from a sassy toddler to a mustang that lives solely to brain passerby with its rear hooves; the intensity of the decision-making process can vary widely. That’s not actually all that surprising when you consider that beer judging, on top of being a somewhat subjective enterprise, is a hobby often borne of superfandom. Is choosing the ideal Belgian tripel really that much less nuanced than weighing in on Kirk versus Picard?
Sadly, there is seldom time for revelry once the votes are cast. One circuit leads to another, eventually graduating to medaling rounds that play out much the same. It can feel like a Sisyphean task at times. Of course, if Sisyphus was charged by the gods to just drink his way up a hill, he probably wouldn’t have minded the backsliding so much.
*Curse you, Ian Anderson and your frustratingly alphabetical last name! A pox on your house!