The World Beer Cup is a huge celebration of quality, but what’s it really like to judge more than 10,200 beers in one competition? Lotte Peplow, the Brewers Association’s American craft beer ambassador for Europe, goes behind the scenes…
Established in 1996, the World Beer Cup (WBC), organised by the Brewers Association — the not-for-profit trade association representing small and independent American craft breweries — is the biggest beer competition in the world. The next contest takes place in Las Vegas, from 21st to 24th April 2024, alongside the Craft Brewers Conference
and Brew Expo.
Winning a medal on the world stage is huge, as Alex Troncoso, co-founder of Lost and Grounded, who won gold for their Keller Pils in 2023, explains: “For us, the World Beer Cup is not only the biggest, but also the most difficult competition in the world in which to win a medal.
“I’ve been a judge several times, and the degree of scrutiny the beers are subjected is very tough.” He’s not wrong, either. Winning beers in large categories may undergo four to five rounds of judging before they reach the final.
How it works
The integrity of the competition is sacrosanct, and the attention to detail an impressive hallmark. Judging is 100% blind, and a beer that makes it through multiple rounds is never given the same entry number twice to maintain anonymity.
Judges are advised to wash clothes in unscented washing powder ahead of arrival, and use neutral soap, hand-wash, deodorant, etc. In fact, judges should smell of nothing!
Phones are banned at the judging table and advice is even given regarding media requests and how to handle them. More delicate beer styles that might degrade rapidly are judged first during phase 1 and 2 of the competition in Colorado to ensure overseas entries are not disadvantaged.
To reduce costs and ensure quick arrival of entries, World Beer Cup entrants in the UK can send their beers to a consolidation point in Hertfordshire. Consolidation hubs in the Netherlands and Italy are available for European entrants. The Brewers Association will then facilitate airfreight shipping, customs clearance, and delivery to the competition at no additional charge.
The judging process
The World Beer Cup is judged according to the Brewers Association style guidelines, of which every judge has a copy. These are beer style descriptions and reference points for brewers and competition organisers.
Judging is intense. Over the course of each morning and afternoon session for three days each judge may taste three different flights of up to 10 or 11 beers per flight. The top three beers from each flight that best exemplify the style are pushed forward to the next round.
Detailed feedback, using electronic software, is given by every judge for all first-round beers, as well as an indication of a beer’s relative strength in the flight. After the competition all feedback is sent to entrants giving valuable insights for improvement. For many brewers this feedback is a key reason for entering the WBC, regardless of whether their beer wins or not.
Amanda Benson, sensory analyst at Deschutes Brewery, in Bend, Oregon, says: “Winning is important. We like to win medals, but it’s not the whole thing, It’s also about the feedback. We enter the competition because we know we get the feedback before the next one so we can make tweaks to either the beer or the category before we enter.”
The behind-the-scenes operation runs like clockwork, thanks to a 175-strong army of highly efficient volunteers from the local beer enthusiast community, with the exception of those from local breweries, in case integrity is compromised.
Each judging table is assigned a table captain and two stewards, who appear like magic exactly when the next samples are needed. They’re responsible for pouring the beer into tasting cups, labelling them correctly, delivering them to the judges’ tables at the appropriate time, and returning the winning numbers to the organisers. They check and re-check entries to ensure correct representation.
The judges themselves are hugely impressive. They comprise internationally recognised brewers, sensory analysts, beer sommeliers, and brewing consultants. All are experts in their fields, some have judged many World Beer Cups before, while others are first time judges. Approximately 12-15% of new judges are introduced every year to keep the panel fresh and introduce new perspectives.
Being selected as a World Beer Cup judge is a feat in itself. Potential judges apply online and require three references testifying to their sensory abilities, overall knowledge of beer and beer styles, and general demeanour. They may wait at least three years to be considered, such is the interest in gaining a coveted place on the judging panel.
Chris Williams, competitions director at the Brewers Association, picks the final list of judges, ensuring no brewer who has entered beers into the competition judges his/her beer. In 2023, 105 of the 272 judges came from outside the USA.
Silence falls as judges concentrate on analysing and evaluating the beers in front of them. Robust discussion only takes place once all judges at the table have completed their evaluation, and is led by a designated lead judge.
Long-time World Beer Cup judge Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at Firestone Walker Brewing Co, in Paso Robles, California, explains why winning at World Beer Cup is important: “Winning has a huge impact internally, and it’s a big morale booster. It gives us a lot of street cred within the brewing industry, and the feedback is really important.”
Save the Date!
Next year’s World Beer Cup and Craft Brewers Conference will be held in Las Vegas from 21st-24th April. Registration opens on 7th November. Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on the final night of Craft Brewers Conference. Find out more here.
Look out for award-winning beers in the UK from American craft breweries such as Athletic Brewing Co, DC Brau, Firestone Walker Brewing Co, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co, and many more.
In the UK, American craft beer is available from online retailers such as Athletic Brewing, Sierra Nevada shop, Beers of Europe, Beer Merchants, select bottle shops, off-licences, online subscription services, supermarkets, and many pubs and bars.
The Brewers Association publishes a wealth of resources to understand and enjoy craft beer, downloadable free of charge from www.brewersassociation.org.
About the author
Lotte Peplow is the American craft beer ambassador for Europe for the Brewers Association and is based in London. She is a certified cicerone, BDI-accredited beer sommelier, beer writer, author, speaker, educator, international beer judge, homebrewer, and beer lover.