It’s the sort of thing you don’t see that often but when you do it’s something you know you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Doug Odell hesitantly, maybe even a bit nervous, opens a bottle of an imperial stout that’s been aged in oak with peaches, Brett added as well. We’re sitting around a low table in the hotel bar, late in the evening — Pete Brown and I the only non-brewers. Around the table, sitting casually, but all interested in what Doug has to offer, a selection of global head brewers: Vaclav Berka (Pilsner Urquell), Dimitri Staelens (Duvel), Geoff Larson (Alaskan Brewing), Ian Bearpark (Thwaites), Sean Franklin (Roosters) and Uwe Euchert (Menabrea) — heavyweight guys. The bottle goes round, a splash in the glass; a sip of beer, reminiscent of Malmsey or Madeira, rich and heady, a pleasing acidity. Would pair well with cheese perhaps. Murmurs of approval from the assembled brewers, Doug looks pleased. Now another, an experiment we are told, a cherry kriek — sour, fruity, complex. The brewers show their appreciation, questions asked, comments made, bouquets handed out. You may brew in Alaska, Pilsen, Lancashire or Flanders, but there’s a brotherhood, a sense of fraternity about the way these guys are sharing, sipping and contemplating a beer that they would probably never make.
This feeling that brewers are a band of brothers has been all too evident throughout the past couple of days that I have spent in Burton observing the comings and the goings of the judging process at the Brewing Industry International Awards. Hundreds of beers, in keg, bottle and cask, have been evaluated, discussed, argued over and agreed on amongst a group of brewers who come from different areas from all over the world, and brew all sorts of different beers. It’s been a valuable learning curve.
Lion Nathan’s Bill Taylor (chairman of judges) — an affable Aussie — led an excellent tutored tasting for the press. Three beers: Hahn Premium (refreshing and bitter), Schneider Weiss (bring on the banana custard!) and Sierra Nevada’s blend of oak-aged Bigfoot, Pale and Celebration (chewy, spirituous and complex). He talked about the awards, how professional working brewers were the sole judges who assessed beers according to their commercial worth (how well it was made in whatever class it was entered — and it was scrupulous blind tasting). Would you recommend the beer to your friends, would you buy it? There were over 800 beers, across 32 classes of nine categories with beers divided into ABV bands in their category rather than beer styles. So for instance you got packaged small-pack beers (bottles or cans) divided into the international Lager Competition and the International Ale Competition; further division was by abv.
Watching the tables of judges working is to spy on intense discussion (though fisticuffs were visible by their absence) and a laser-like focus and concentration as the stewards scurried about with jugs of beer. On one table, Thornbridge’s Stefano was engaged in debating the merits of one beer, while elsewhere Sean Franklin seemed almost in a meditative state as he contemplated his drink. Later on I had a quick chat with Fuller’s John Keeling: ‘You get a lot of interesting people here who have a different perspective. It’s great because you’re widening the perspective on what beer is. It’s a good example of how the world is changing — it’s my first time and it’s intense all the time, but it’s good fun.’
And as for the backdrop, the National Brewery Centre was the ideal place, even though you’d think that they’d put leaflets for the place in the hotel in which we stayed (that’s a different subject on which Pete Brown might be saying something on soon). The judging came to an end sometime around Friday lunchtime and then the nominations were announced; and after that the centre is hosting an International Beer Festival, which if you’re in the area, I would recommend you visit. You might even spot a few brewers wondering around — buy them a drink I think they’ve deserved it.
It’s a rubbish pic I know but it was late and I was tired — Doug is in the middle on the
right left, between Vaclav and Dimitri