By Jennifer Breckner, Craft Maltsters Guild

During the last few weeks, 114 industry professionals from 24 locations across the country, such as maltsters, brewers, distillers, researchers, and Master Cicerones®, volunteered their time to perform remote sensory analysis on entries to the 2022 Malt Cup, the only competition of its kind in the world. 

Now in its fourth year, the competition enhances the quality of craft malt by providing entrants constructive feedback on their products while serving the malting industry with a recognized, credible malt flavor standard and designation of quality.  The competition helps set a standard for production. Lindsay Barr, CSO and Founding Partner of the sensory software company, Draughtlab, says that it establishes craft malt as legitimate*. 

Judge Jen Blair, Advanced Cicerone and former executive director of the Craft Maltsters Guild agrees, “Being able to say your malt won an award in the Malt Cup is a great shorthand for communicating how your malt is different from not only other craft malt but also – and perhaps more importantly – commodity malt that the industry has been using by default.”

The competition is open to Guild Member Malthouses, International Malthouses, and Allied Trade maltsters who submit their product to three rounds of judging. All entries are judged blind. For 2022, 25 malthouses submitted 58 entries spread across three categories: Pale, Pilsen, and Pale Ale—all base malts.

This annual competition is a friendly one in which each entrant walks away with in-depth feedback designed to help them better their craft. “I think that competitions in general (both beer and malt) help push everyone to produce higher quality products,” explains Malt Cup judge Loy Maierhauser, COO, of MAP Brewing Company in Bozeman, Montana.

Hannah Turner, Director of the Barley, Malt & Brewing Lab at Montana State University co-manages the competition with Barr and facilitates the Malt Cup’s first-round where entries are judged on quality by a Certificate of Analysis (COA). Barr oversees the second round of judging which evaluates entries by sensory analysis. Here, remote judges use the Hot Steep Method, the first malt sensory method validated by the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC), to appraise each entry and record their reactions in DraughtLab.

Only the best and most consistent samples make it to the last round of the Malt Cup, called Best of Show. Here they are examined within the context of both sensory and quality data, and first, second, and third place are awarded in each category. 

2022’s Best of Show award winners were slated to be revealed live at the dinner and awards ceremony originally scheduled in Portland, Maine but were switched instead to a virtual presentation due to safety concerns around COVID-19. The third round will now, instead, be judged remotely. Winners will be announced during a virtual live-streamed Malt Cup Awards Ceremony to be held Saturday, February 19th at 6:30 PM Eastern on Crowdcast, YouTube, and Facebook.  Join us in this online celebration!

Judging the Malt Cup is not only beneficial to the malthouses who enter, giving them multiple forms of feedback on their products, but it also helps build up sensory skills for those who evaluate the entries. Eric Larkin, Co-Founder and Brewer at Cohesion Brewing Company in Denver, offers that it makes him a better brewer: “Knowing what goes into our beer by developing a lexicon to understand how to describe everything from malt to hops, is helpful especially when working with a craft maltster to understand how to make our products exactly what we want them to be.” 

“The first time I judged the Malt Cup was life-changing,” explains Maierhauser. “I had never done any sensory with malt in that way, I was completely blown away with…how small differences in malt profile can create dramatic differences in the final product. [Because of my experience judging] we started…doing hot steeps of our base malts and…ended up changing…to [incorporating]…90% craft malt in our beers.” 

Jan Chodkowski, Head Brewer at Our Mutual Friend Brewing Company—also in Denver—offers that through his Malt Cup experience he and the brewers who he judged alongside realized that they all have particular preferences when it comes to the malts that they gravitate to when brewing, pointing to craft malt as a complex key ingredient capable of elevating a beer or spirit. These judges, and others in each remote sensory group across the country, often debate about the quality and characteristics of each entry during evaluation but must come to a consensus in order to push those entries that pass scrutiny to the third and final round.

The competition includes veteran judges like Maierhauser, as well as those new to the process. Both Larkin and Chodkowski are part of a group of Denver brewers who joined this year because they are so excited by the quality of Colorado’s craft malt that they want to help the industry grow. Larkin says, “Cohesion Brewing has committed to using a large proportion of Colorado-grown malt in an attempt to support our local economy and close some of the supply chain gaps that can cause issues from time to time. Craft malt has such potential from a freshness perspective as well as a capability to be flexible to the brewer’s needs.” 

At the center of the Malt Cup are the craft maltsters making quality products and the co-managers making sure that the competition moves along efficiently, but it’s rounded out by enthusiastic judges who care deeply about this community and elevating their own sensory skills. It is a unique opportunity for all involved: “Judging the Malt Cup gives you a full view of craft malt across North America and beyond,” says Turner. 

Barr agrees, “Judging builds your knowledge of malt flavors. You’ll be able to see what exists out in the market…while helping in product development.”

Do you have beer, spirit, or malt industry experience and want to use your sensory skills to help judge next year’s competition? Email [email protected] to get on the list.

*All quotes from Lindsay Barr and Hannah Turner, co-managers of the Malt Cup, come from an Instagram Live conversation on September 21, 2021, they had about the competition on the Guild’s IG account.

**Photo credit: Soc. Agr. Mastri Birrai Umbri S.S., Gualdo Cattaneo, Italy, 2021 Malt Cup Second Place Pilsen Malt Award Winner