Monday 18 February 2013

How the International Brewing Awards makes me think

Fuller’s John Keeling at the judges’ dinner on the last night 

How important is a beer competition? What sort of judges should be in charge of the evaluations being done? Does it matter, does it sell any more beer, make drinkers more aware of a beer, or is it all a big old pat on the back, self-indulgence, well done chaps, have another. Thoughts like this flit through my mind whenever I judge beer or, as was the case with the InternationalBrewing Awards at Burton last week, observe. Brewers, naturally, are cock-a-hop when their beers are recognised as quality, some on the other hand pick and choose their competitions while others don’t enter them at all (their reason — selling to the beer drinker is competition enough). These competitions have their moments of amusement —the best of which is whenever the winner at the GBBF is announced you can bet that there will be two trains of conversation amongst those in the business: a) oh no not another mild, it’s political isn’t it?; b) the winner is too small to cope with the demand that the award brings and that there should be small and big brewer categories.

At the International Brewing Competition this past week, where I and Pete Brown had been invited to observe the goings-on, questions like the ones above quickly surfaced but were just as swiftly knocked into the ground as I watched a group of judges (who included Stefano Cossi, Geoff Larson, Doug Odell, Ian Bearpark, Vaclav Berka and Hans-Peter Drexler, amongst others) deliberating over the hundreds of beers that had been sent in. These guys are serious, and all the judges I spoke with articulated the dedication and expertise they bring to their role; all of them also communicated with a commendable sense of grace (no big cheese Charlies here).

And if you asked me to try and bring to life what I saw, then think on this: in the room where the judges sat at tables and the stewards whirled in and out with the beer, I could sense at once a hush, then over there a murmur and a flurry of words and then a return to silence, concentration, furrowed brows. To my left laughter gushed briefly, followed by intense discussion; more contemplation and intriguingly I noted the blank stare that masked a judge’s thoughts as a glass was lifted and inspected. In across the room as the glasses were hoisted I caught the glare of amber and copper, the glint of gold. ‘I thought it slightly thin, the body was thin’ drifts across from one table then that’s the beer out of the running. It seems cruel, but that’s life. According to the competition’s chief judge the affable Bill Taylor from Lion, ‘the guys switch from having fun to serious within seconds, it’s fascinating to watch’.

All this makes me feel as if the judging season has started: SIBA’s National is next month, while I’m off to judge at the Birra Dell’Anno in Rimini in a couple of days. Then there’s the IBC, the WBA (disclaimer: I’m paid to define categories, recruit judges and lead a table), more SIBA and CAMRA stuff and numerous competitions for the best beer of the festival in pubs throughout the country.

This is the joy of beer, it’s both fun, initiating all manner of discourse in the pub, bringing people together and helping them remember significant events (I was drinking Landlord on the night the Berlin Wall fell down and 6X on my wedding night), but it’s also a serious thing. It can present two faces, Janus like to the world, which is what I love about it. And on that note here are the medal announcements of the International Brewing Awards here — there are some great beers there and if I was in any doubt of the cachet winners attach to these awards then the brief email that I had over the weekend from Sharp’s Stuart Howe is worth a thousand words: under the heading ‘2 golds a silver and a bronze!’ he had written ‘Boooooom!’. So how important is a beer competition? 

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