The European Beer Star: a high-workload family reunion
Three days for 74 jury members to taste 2036 beers across 70 categories... and all that during the COVID-19 pandemic? Think that’s not possible? It was! The jury at the European Beer Star competition in Gräfelfing managed to complete all tastings between 8 and 10 October 2020. It was made possible by having a well-devised hygiene & safety policy and perfect organisation, as well as the fact that the number of infections was still manageable at the beginning of October. Andrea Kalrait, Executive Director of BrauBeviale, was present at the competition as a Table Captain.
Jury tastings at the European Beer Star
Tasting sessions for the European Beer Star competition are already a masterpiece of logistics during ‘normal’ years, but in 2020 there were some additional challenges. Thanks to Doemens and the private breweries, the 17th European Beer Star jury tastings managed to go smoothly.
Entries from 42 countries
“Contrary to all expectations, we received 2036 entries this year. After a good 2400 last year, this is a remarkable success in view of the pandemic. The beers were submitted from 42 countries around the world,” explains Kilian Kittl, European Beer Star manager. Therefore, compared to last year, there was only a moderate drop of 18% in the number of submissions. This year, however, the jury consisted of only 74 beer experts, instead of 145 as last year – so that’s almost 50% less people on the panel. First and foremost, that means a lot of work for the remaining jury members.
The job of a Table Captain at the European Beer Star
Andrea Kalrait, who has been a jury member at the European Beer Star since 2014, tells us in an interview about how the tastings takes place, what was different this year and how the quality of entries is changing.
This year was the first time you were responsible for a table as a Table Captain. How do you get to be a Table Captain and what does the job involve?
Andrea Kalrait: I have been co-captain a couple of times before, but this time was my first time as the main Table Captain. As a Table Captain, you don't necessarily have to be the best at tasting – contrary to what many people think. Of course, it helps if you know something about tasting, but it's more about moderating the group, getting a handle on the different characters and balancing the more dominant jury members with those who are quieter.
How exactly do the tastings take place?
Kalrait: The teams were smaller this year: only six people sat at the table – instead of eight to ten people as before. As a Table Captain, you have a different group every day, so you always start with a round of introductions, so that everyone knows who is at the table, what the others’ experiences are, and you all get to know each other a little. Then the beers come to the table, with just the Table Captain getting their flight first. The first step is for the group to evaluate the following criteria together: foam, colour and clarity. After that, everyone else at the table gets their beers and we start individual tasting in silence. Everyone tastes each beer by themselves and makes notes on it. You get between six and eleven beers per flight, so there’s quite a lot to do at this stage...
How do you separate the wheat from the chaff as you progress from the preliminary round through to the final round?
Kalrait: When everyone at the table has finished their individual tastings, the Table Captain has some secretarial duties in the preliminary round, i.e. you have to add up the points to get a ranking of which beers have a good chance of advancing to the next round. Finally, of course, we will talk as a table about whether the points totals are okay with all jury members. There are certainly situations in which opinions differ, but the preliminary rounds are actually relatively benign.
In the intermediate rounds, things get a bit more exciting, because you know that decisions on medals are now taking place. When beers are scored quite close together, the group discusses their individual impressions again.
The final round is where things get really exciting. The beers in front of you are no longer awarded points at this stage; instead, personal rankings count. As a Table Captain, you then have various opportunities to delve deeper into how opinions are being formed. First, you might ask the individual jury members which beers were at the lower end of the scale for them, or which beers were outstanding. In this way, you can bring the discussion closer and closer to the final result. Each Table Captain has their own strategy for reaching a result with their respective group.
When does evaluating the beers get tricky?
Kalrait: When it comes to beer styles that have a broader range. With sour beers aged in wooden barrels, for example, you have very different beer styles as a basis to work from, and then different barrels for ageing. Things you have to discuss at the table include: How well does the beer come across? What were the brewer’s intentions? Was it created by accident? (laughs) Because there are so many variables, we try to show the range in the medals, so that consumers can see how varied this category is.
A quiet working atmosphere, a well-devised hygiene policy – the European Beer Star 2020
74 jury members tasting 2036 beers across 70 categories – that sounds like a challenge...
Kalrait: Yes, it is. This year, because of the distancing rules, each of us really had a lot of space at the table and there was only one group per room, so there was an eerie quiet to the atmosphere. This helped us to stay highly concentrated on the work over a very long period. It was actually a positive side effect brought about from the coronavirus situation.
How many beers did you taste over the three days?
Kalrait: I can't say exactly how many individual beers there were, but on Thursday there were nine different categories to try, on Friday there were eight, and on Saturday – which only involves final rounds – there were three different beer styles. Fortunately, the rounds are mixed up, so you don’t always taste the same beer style. As the tables and categories are both mixed up every day, it is extremely rare to taste the same beer style twice.
How do you judge the quality of the beers submitted? Has anything changed in recent years?
Kalrait: Definitely. This certainly doesn't apply to every category, but in general, the quality of the beers is continually improving. It's becoming increasingly rare for us to have real outliers. There might be a beer with a defect, but that occurs less and less frequently. We have very decent beers at the table.
How do the organisers react to changes in submissions?
Kalrait: If we notice changes, we give the organisers feedback from the jury tastings. For example, a question about which categories should perhaps be divided because the beers in them are still too different. Sometimes great beers can't win because of the general conditions stipulated in their category – but in a separate category they would win a medal. These kinds of points may lead to adjustments being made in order to define the categories more clearly.
This year we had five new categories. Among them was Bohemian Style Session Lager, so that lighter beers are also given a chance. There was also a new category for dry-hopped non-alcoholic lagers, as dry-hopped non-alcoholic beers naturally steal the show in terms of sensory perception, but that has nothing to do with quality.
Surely there could be new categories where even beer experts don’t have much experience... How can you evaluate these beer styles?
Kalrait: That's right. That's why Table Captains always arrive one day earlier – for them to undergo special briefings. The new beer styles and categories are discussed in great detail during these briefings so that you know what range you can expect and what the possible dicussion points are, and so that Table Captains all follow uniform guidelines.
You spoke earlier about the quiet working atmosphere – what else has changed this year because of COVID-19?
Kalrait: Yes, it has been much quieter. That was very pleasant. We were always able to keep the required distance from each other. Doemens had a one-way system for moving around, where it was also compulsory for masks to be worn. There was regular ventilation of the rooms, there were enough buses for the trips, mealtimes were staggered, and there was an additional tent in the courtyard for break times. Of course, as jury members, we discussed the current situation, but thanks to the hygiene policy that was put in place, the bottom line was that nobody felt uncomfortable.
However, it was a real pity that many international jury members couldn’t be present this year due to the circumstances. We did have colleagues present from Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Finland, but of course it wasn’t as international as in previous years.
All in all, it was good to see the many familiar faces in person again and to see that they are doing well. The European Beer Star tastings have always been kind of like a family reunion.
The winning beers are presented with awards by the Association of Private Breweries as part of BrauBeviale@stage. You can follow all the action live online via www.myBeviale.com.This year as always, the awards go to breweries from all over the world – and there’s sure to be some surprises!