Brewers and beer connoisseurs gathered Saturday to sample dozens of cold ones in a bid to crown California's best craft beers.
The 40 judges spent their afternoon at a West Sacramento warehouse sipping beers, occasionally slipping in a cup of water and some crackers to refresh their palates.
Panel members are the arbiters of the California State Fair's 18th annual Commercial Craft Brew Competition.
In recent years, craft beer has taken off, with numerous breweries opening in the Sacramento region. About 25 commercial craft breweries operate in the area, according to the Northern California Brewers Guild, one of the organizers of Saturday's event.
"The industry has grown incredibly," said Steve Swinford, executive director for the organization.
Evaluating a beer isn't easy. The taste and quality is largely subjective. For the competition, beers are judged on flavor, bouquet/aroma, drinkability and overall impression, body and appearance.
"I look for consistency," said Steve Gonzalez of Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, near San Diego. "The taste can't be too intense."
Brian Ford, owner of Auburn Alehouse and a lead judge, started commercial brewing in 1996, after six years of brewing at home. Today, his company produces nearly 2,000 barrels of beer a year.
Nationwide, craft brewers sold an estimated 13 million barrels of beer last year, up from 11.5 million barrels in 2011, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association.
Because beer tasting is so subjective, head judge Tom Dalldorf of Celebrator Beer magazine brings in a wide variety of beer experts, including journalists, industry types and brewers.
"We look at taste, smell, color and more," said Dalldorf, 71.
Over the three-day competition that began Friday, judges will try 700 beers from 87 breweries across the state. The beers are placed in plastic cups to protect the integrity of the contest.
Winners in 28 main categories, from light lager to strong ale, will be announced by July 1. An awards ceremony will take place July 20 at the State Fair, followed by a beer festival where the public is invited to sample the winning brews.
So why is beer so popular?
"We don't have the attitude of wine," Swinford said. "I like to call it an affordable luxury."
Call The Bee's Richard Chang, (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.