Changing The Face Of Beer Judging

May 1, 2024, by Will Ziebell

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Changing The Face Of Beer Judging

Whether you're a beer aficionado or new to the industry, judging beer can carry an air of mystery. 

Just who judges beer? How do you become a beer judge? And is it the greatest thing you can do?

Speak to anyone who's done this sort of thing a few times and answer to the last one is a definitive no: it's a great experience, but, damn, it's hard work. As for the other questions, we've explored many aspects of this corner of the wide world of beer: judging, stewarding and how champion trophies picked.  

Historically, the route to becoming a beer judge has tended to involve gaining at least a couple of years of experience as a steward and supplying strong references from respected industry figures. Over the decades, it's a system that's largely worked but, as the industry has expanded significantly, it has proved challenging for those who might have the right skills and desire to judge but whose roles exist further from beer's traditional power bases.

It's a situation that caught the attention of the Australian wing of the global Pink Boots Society, and led them to develop their Pathway To Judging. Since its creation in 2021, the initiative has helped 19 women and non-binary members of the Australian beer industry join judging panels at the country’s beer competitions.

Today, that number has risen by two as the latest round of nominees has been announced: Carla Naismith from Shapeshifter Brewing and Sylvia Gumaraes from Felons Brewing. As they prepare to join beer experts from across the planet at next week's Australian International Beer Awards judging, we caught up with those behind the initiative.


From Who You Know To What You Know

 

Among those leading the charge towards the Pathway To Judging was the most recent recipient of the Independent Brewing Association's (IBA) Services to the Industry award, Tiffany Waldron. Tif was among the small group of women who founded the Australian chapter of Pink Boots and, after becoming president in 2020, examined the areas in which she felt the not-for-profit should focus its attention.

“One of them was to kind of provide a better way for women and non-binary people to get into beer judging,” she says.

“I stewarded for about eight years before I was finally able to get an associate judge position, and I really made the point to let people know I wanted to judge. I felt like I was upskilling the whole way and skilled at that point and it shouldn’t be that difficult.”

As the industry expanded apace, the journey from stewarding awards to judging them had become slower and harder to navigate, according to Tif. So began the process of trying to move from a "who you know" to "what you know" situation: one that would allow the promotion of skilled women working in various roles across the industry. 

Tif says it was clear just how much experience there was among the Pink Boots membership; what was less clear was how they could become a beer judge.

“The idea was essentially a path into judging that was clear, transparent, and based on skills," she says. "Not based on who you know.”


Laying Down The Pathway

Tif Waldron during the most recent hop harvest.

 

To help take the next steps, they enlisted the help of one of the country’s best sensory experts, Clare Clouting, who had been developing an educational template for members of Pink Boots in WA, alongside Sarah Turner of 4 Pines, who focuses on the B Corp brewing company's environmental and social initiatives.

Working alongside fellow Pink Boots state coordinators, Sarah took Clare's considerable curriculum as the basis for a Pathway To Judging series that ran online over the course of a month.

“We wanted to offer something that could create a connection during those times since we were all locked down,” Sarah says of the course's debut during the early months of the COVID pandemic.

The program saw industry experts and some of the country’s most experienced beer judges dive into topics around beer styles and judging. Then, as lockdowns lifted, they launched an in-person session that included a mock judging scenario.

“They’re essentially held in two parts,” Sarah says. “The first is an off-flavour sensory session where your typical off-flavours are tested with a lager and then a pale ale. Then it’s mock judging that uses a 20-point scorecard with a beer and looking at the style guidelines.”

At the end of the program, some of Pink Boots’ more experienced judges put several names forward to become associate judges at the beer competition at Sydney Royal Beer & Cider Show in 2021.

Since that first round of nominees was announced, things have changed rapidly: over the last two years, 50 percent of the judging pool at the Sydney awards have been women. 


Onwards & Upwards

Sarah Turner, who has long been involved in 4 Pines' beer education and sustainability work.

 

From that launchpad, Pink Boots has continued to work closely with both that competition and the country’s two largest: the Australian International Beer Awards and The Indies. Importantly, Pink Boots also financially supports those associate judges with travel and accommodation expenses.

This year's intake welcomed 38 participants to Pathway To Judging sessions held at four breweries, while the highly-skilled Tina Panoutsos, Briony Liebich, Lauren Jack and Richard Watkins helped select the recipients.

According to Tif, paramount to the program is the need to put forward people who are well-versed in sensory and understand what’s expected of a judge. It means they look for applicants with plenty of practical experience alongside formal qualifications such as those from the BJCP and Cicerone programs.

“You can’t just walk in and not know anything about beer sensory all,” Tif says. “Judging is definitely a skill that has to be practiced.”

Results to date suggest they've chosen well.

“Every single person we’ve nominated so far has been invited back to judge," Tif adds. "In particular, in the first year our nominees were so strong because they had just been sitting on the sidelines for so long.”

Among the early Pathway to Judging graduates was Stephanie Johansson; she took the online course during lockdown and first attended the AIBAs as an associate judge in 2021. At the time, Steph was working in sensory at CUB’s Yatala brewery; she’s since made the move to brewing at Stone & Wood.

For her, the beauty the program was that when she travelled to Melbourne to judge at the AIBAs she knew others, Lindsy Greig and Eden Pink, were entering via the Pathway at the same time.

“It was really important to go down and know there were two others in the same boat and going through the same process,” Steph says.

“You get imposter syndrome. You know you’ve got all those skills but so does everyone else. The more judging you do, the more it starts to fade.”


Changing The Face Of Beer

Sensory training taking place at The Indies in 2022, with Steph on the far left, sitting with several other associate judges. 

 

Since that initial experience of judging, Steph has gone on to other competitions.

“I went on to do The Indies because, once you have the right connections and people know who you are, it’s much easier to get accepted,” she says, while highlighting a benefit that comes with bringing in fresh recruits.

“If you’re getting the same people in over and over again, it gets a bit stagnant.”

The need for a more diverse judging pool has been recognised by the competitions they’ve worked with, according to Tif.

“The more diversity you have makes for much richer conversation and feedback at a table,” she says. “That’s not just in terms of diversity but also the background you have within the industry.”

It's only three years since the first people to have taken the course started judging, yet already Pathway to Judging has quite literally changed the face of beer judging in Australia.

“We’ve seen it drastically change,” Tif says. “You can see the pool of women and Pink Boots members that are judging is getting bigger.

“It’s just such a more equal and diverse room. You don’t have to spread everyone out to make sure there’s a single woman at every table."


For more on the work of Pink Boots Society Australia, visit their website. At time of writing, there were still tickets available for the 2024 Australian International Beer Awards Trophy Presentation Dinner, which takes place on May 16 in Melbourne during Pint of Origin. Book your spot here.

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