28 October 2022

New competition director talks about World Beer Cup

Special competition | As from this year, the World Beer Cup, organised by the Brewers Association, is moving from annual to bi-annual and has appointed a new competition director, Chris Williams. Lotte Peplow, Brewers Association American craft beer ambassador for Europe, talks with Chris about his new role and about what makes the competition so special.

The World Beer Cup is often called the ‘Olympics of Beer’ and is the largest beer competition in the world. It grows by an estimated 10 % every competition cycle, making it extremely competitive. The competition celebrates international brewing excellence and in 2022 attracted 10,542 entries from 2,493 breweries representing 57 different countries.

New competition director Chris Williams joined the Brewers Association as a sales and marketing intern in fall 2008, after graduating in Psychology from the University of Colorado in 2008. He moved up through the ranks of the event department until becoming competition director in May 2022. He was ranked as a BJCP Beer Judge in 2011 and gained the title of Advanced Cicerone in 2018.

In the following interview, Lotte and Chris talk about the World Beer Cup and Chris’ new role.

Hi Chris, can we start by asking you why the World Beer Cup is moving to an annual competition?

Chris: It’s all about answering demand. We were getting a myriad of enquiries from breweries all around the world asking when does registration open for the World Beer Cup, and we would have to tell them it’s only every other year. By moving to annual we’re looking to meet this demand and we’re excited to see how it can grow and move forward. Organising a bi-annual competition was easier from an operational perspective, but going annual helps keep the competition at the forefront of people’s minds and they’re less inclined to forget or miss deadlines. It’s exciting to see where it will go from here.

There are many beer competitions around the world. What’s so special about World Beer Cup and why should brewers enter?

Chris: By being the largest competition in the world it’s also the most competitive, which means taking home a medal or an award shows that, globally, your brewery is doing something right and you’re making world class beer. Yes, it’s difficult to win because it is so competitive, but success shows how amazing your brewery is at making beer and that’s highly valuable. It’s interesting to see breweries from all around the world competing with international or regionally focused styles which may lead to a brewery from a far flung corner of the world winning an unexpected category, for example, in 2022 a Columbian brewery won gold in the speciality saison category and a Mexican brewery medalled in English Ale.

Audience at the World Beer Cup 2022 (Photo: Brewers Association)

Brewers often say the quality of the feedback is reason alone to enter the World Beer Cup. Please explain how feedback works?

Chris: Comprehensive feedback is another highly valuable aspect to the World Beer Cup. Every beer goes through multiple rounds of judging, and in the first round every judge (usually 2–4 of them) fills out an evaluation card focusing on aroma, appearance, flavour, balance etc., and gives comments, stylistic descriptions and a summary of how the beer stood up to other beers in the flight. This means that in a category with hundreds of entries every brewer will know how their beer performed and this is highly valuable feedback for those brewers. In addition to feedback cards, brewers also get a summary of how far their beer advanced through the rounds. For example, in a large category with five rounds a brewer will be told how far their beer progressed and brewers find this very worthwhile information.

How do you choose the judges?

Chris: We have a very large judging panel of about 800 individuals which we rotate through every few years between World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival (GABF, held in Denver, Colorado every autumn). We aim for 12–15 % of new judges every year to keep the panel fresh and bring in new perspectives, new palates and to ensure we reach the most highly acclaimed judges in the world. Of course, not all the 800 judges are active and we need between 250–300 for World Beer Cup. In my new role as Competition Director, I’m responsible for selecting the judges from a list of internationally recognised brewers, sensory experts, suppliers, writers and consultants, and they’re selected on the basis of a) formal sensory training; b) experience evaluating beers on flavour panels or competitions; c) judging demeanour; d) knowledge of beer styles and the brewing process; and e) industry and peer recognition.

In 2022 judges came from 28 countries which was 32% from outside the U.S., down slightly on previous years due to travel restrictions caused by the pandemic. Pre-pandemic we saw the number of judge countries rising and I’m pushing for that to increase once more to about 50–60% over the next few years because the international perspective and palates of our judges is invaluable, especially judges from countries from where a beer style originated.

My biggest challenge is having the right number of judges from around the world. For the last two years it has been difficult for people to travel, but that is changing now.

Recruiting judges starts at least three years prior. They apply online and require three references testifying to their sensory abilities, overall knowledge of beer and beer styles and general demeanour.

How do you avoid palate fatigue?

Chris: To avoid palate fatigue, the maximum number of beers each judge is asked to evaluate in a one-hour flight is 12, but the actual number is usually between 9–11. For bigger alcohol and higher IBU styles, we decrease the maximum number of beers per judge to avoid fatigue and for IPAs and DIPAs we never schedule more than nine beers per judge per flight and these flights are always the last in a given session.

Exited winners at the World Beer Cup 2022 (Photo: Brewers Association)

How many countries enter the World Beer Cup and how do you reach every corner of the brewing world?

Chris: Pre-pandemic we had an impressive country number of 65 countries, but it dropped a bit in 2022 due to lingering pandemic restrictions or logistics being difficult, but we’re hoping to get up to 65 countries and maybe expand into the 70s in due course. We’ve got a great plan for targeting different markets and we’re excited to bring that count up. We’re re-doubling our efforts with marketing campaigns, social media, partnerships with international publications, activities undertaken by our Export Development Programme and more to get the message out there.

What criteria is used for judging the World Beer Cup?

Chris: World Beer Cup is judged according to Brewers Association Style Guidelines. These are beer style descriptions which are used as a reference point for brewers and beer competition organisers. They are reviewed and revised annually and celebrate the diversity of beer around the world. I work with the Brewers Association’s Technical Committee to decide on the competition guidelines. We review after every competition cycle and adjust were necessary, for example, we may have a category with very few entrants and decide to roll it into something else. Some styles make it into the competition guidelines based on interest and popularity and some on industry trends. The decision to add or remove a style is not undertaken lightly and has nothing to do with brewer interest (or lack of) in the style.

Will you be doing anything differently in your new role?

Chris: Not right away. I want to ensure we’re operating the best we can and at the moment we have a great competition model in the way it/s been structured and operationally it works superbly. However, I know there are always areas we can improve on and that’s probably my biggest goal over the next one to two cycles of World Beer Cup and GABF. I’ll be keeping an eye on what can be done to improve and enhance the competition.

Online and digital judging is an area we’re looking to progress. We’ve been working towards it but progress slowed during the pandemic and now the intention is to fully convert to digital judging by World Beer Cup 2024. We don’t want to move too fast, especially with the size and scale of the competition – everybody needs to be ready, but it’ll be exciting when we do!

In addition to organising and selecting the judges I also build out the competition schedule which is a bit like a giant jigsaw puzzle in terms of what beer is judged by who and when, and I also oversee the operations team. Our cellar manager, Mike Aronson, helps secure a team of volunteers who receive the beers, unpackage and sort them into 103 individual judging categories, and the assistant competition manager, Kristine Latham, helps secure our competition team of stewards and table captains responsible for getting the beer to the judges’ tables. Volunteers perform a crucial role in the smooth running of the competition. Recruitment begins three years prior with the local homebrewing competition the usual first port of call. There are between 10,000–11,000 entries and over 60,000 individual bottles or cans which must all be sorted by hand and the entire sorting process takes over 6,000 volunteer hours. We use a barcoding system which brewers attach to each bottle or can and shipping box to allow volunteers to scan information into the table app faster and with increased accuracy. Organisation at sorting is key to ensuring all entries reach the judges at the competition and our systems are rigorous for both judges and staff. Everyone is expected to know what’s going on and be savvy and dedicated.

After four weeks of sorting and consolidating entries at the Brewers Association’s refrigerated warehouse in Denver, Colorado, beers will be transported by refrigerated truck to Nashville for judging. All beers are numbered but no number is used twice, volunteers are not allowed to come from local breweries in case integrity is compromised and entries are checked and re-checked to ensure correct representation.

Chris Williams, Competition Director for the Word Beer Cup (Photo: Brewers Association)

What were you doing before?

Chris: I’ve been with the Brewers Association for the last 13 years and started as an intern. Within two years, I moved into the event manager side and my previous role for the last five years was as senior event manager. This allowed me to interact with breweries by helping them manage their entries into the World Beer Cup and GABF. I have a lot of experience working with breweries so it was an easy transition to step into the competitions director role and I felt I was uniquely suited for it.

And what would you like to do next?

Chris: When I have more time, I’d like to judge more beer competitions around the world and complete my Master Cicerone exams. I used to homebrew, and I’ll pick that up again one day too.

Chris, many thanks for talking with us today, it's been a pleasure!


How to enter the World Beer Cup

Registration for World Beer Cup 2023 closes on 14 November 2023. The awards ceremony will be held in conjunction with the Craft Brewers Conference in Nashville, Tenn., USA, on 10 May 2023.

European Brewers interested in participating at the 2024 World Beer Cup in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, on 24 April 2024, should enter in November 2023. International consolidation hubs are set up in Rotterdam, the Netherlands or Milan, Italy for European brewers where beers will be palletised and air-freighted to the USA at the Brewers Association’s expense. The Brewers Association will handle all Customs clearance and paperwork. The average number of entries per brewery is 4.16.

For more information on the World Beer Cup visit www.brewersassociation.org.

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