Ed Westemeier, a grand master beer judge and brewery consultant from Cincinnati, was one of 185 beer experts who judged entries at this year's Great American Beer Festival. (He was one of three Ohioans. Jeremy Roza and Joe Waizmann were the others.)
Westemeier has traveled extensively through the the U.S. and Europe to learn brewing techniques. He used to be a beer writer for magazines and newspapers. He also has designed the recipes for a number of microbreweries, some of which you may have tasted. (But he's not allowed to say which ones.)
Question: How did you get involved in the beer industry?
Answer: I started homebrewing about 25 years ago. The brewing process is a wonderful blend of art and science, so there's always more to learn. I found it so fascinating that I began reading every book and technical article I could find on the subject, which I still do. After a while, people started to realize I knew a lot about it, so I got asked for advice, which led to a sideline of consulting with brewpubs and microbreweries.
Q: How did you get to be a judge at the Great American Beer Festival this year?
A: I've been judging at GABF since 2002. There is a pool of judges, and we get invited (or not) each year. The Brewers Association tries to rotate us in and out, to maximize the experience for as many of us as possible. There's a random factor, so we can't predict it, but I've been invited the last three years running. Once you build up a bit of a reputation by judging at many competitions around the country, you can apply to be a GABF judge. They ask for your judging resume, along with recommendations from several current GABF judges who know you. They currently have a waiting list that's several years long, so there's no shortage of prospective judges.
Q: Describe what it's like to be a judge at such a big event. How much of it is fun vs. work?
A: Honestly, it's a blast. This year, we had 185 judges to deal with 4,345 beers from 675 breweries in two and a half days. That sounds like a tall order, given that each beer is evaluated by at least six and as many as 12 different judges, depending on how many entries are in its category. But the process is very smooth, due to all the practice; this is the 31st year of the GABF.
It varies by category (beer style), but typically each judge tastes about 50 beers a day Again, that sounds as if it would produce "palate fatigue," but it doesn't. In the first place, that's over an eight-hour day, with a good lunch in the middle. Second, we're all so experienced that we don't need to sip more than a quarter ounce at most. I'll do the math for you: that works out to about one bottle of beer during eight hours. We also drink plenty of water during the process between each taste.
The other thing that makes it fun is that the serious beer judging community is fairly small. Many of us already know each other since we've judged together before, and let's face it, it's easy to make new friends while sharing a beer. And there are a lot of side events going on in Denver during GABF week, so it's a full but fun schedule.
Q: With so many breweries opening in Ohio, what the best piece of advice you can give future brewers to be successful?
A: The one thing I've noticed consistently is that despite the formidable startup costs involved in opening a brewery, the single most important factor that will determine ultimate success or failure is the quality of the beer. It not only has to be better than the average beer, it needs to be considerably better because you need a premium price for it. I think the critical thing is to have great recipes and an extremely careful brewing process.
Q: Which beer -- any beer in the world -- do you wish that you created/invented/brewed and why?
A: What a great question! I could give a variety of answers to that, so I'll just pick one at random. I'm a big fan of Belgian beers, and many people are familiar with the Belgian Trappist monastery breweries like Chimay, Westmalle, and the others. The one I think is the most drinkable on a daily basis (as if any of us could afford to do so) is Orval. It stands out among all the other Trappist beers for its refreshing, hoppy quality. Definitely one of my top five beers in the world.