wondering…

Playing football with 10 men.

Just by chance, I was invited to judge at the GBBF, yes the Great British Beer Festival; that institution that draws thousands and thousands of folk to central London.   I was stoked to be there, even to judge, the bottles. I have been going to the GBBF for more years than I care to count.  Really, on a ratio of standard demographics vs. number of times than you have been to, I kinda bend that line a little bit much.  So, to come judge was a little boon, I was flattered.   But, here’s the fun part:  I have always sought to make the most of any opportunity presented, not for the personal betterment, but to get what I see as right for all across.  I was sure as hell going to make the most of it, not the drinking or “revelling”  – just to bend the ear of the powers that be within that tower of CAMRA.

Having been to a few beer festivals around the world, you know, the ones where people put in their wall calendars and plan their year around them, often many ‘000’s of miles away from home, I have always wondered what the best combine of the best bits would be, for great beer for all.  Reflecting on that, when actually meeting someone who does effect the planning and organisation of such event, they are going to get their ears warmed up. Ian certainly felt my words, I hope.   This was a year ago, now it’s time for reflection, to see if anything has changed?

Playing football with 10 men.

Now, as it stands we have a foundation of long term family brewers, a great number of micro-brewers and a couple of large monolith entities that sort of project into the clouds as mental visions of physical structures.    They get awarded by:  SIBA, CAMRA, the World Beer Cup, The IBC, Local CAMRA events right through to local beer festival events.

We have a great brewing heritage.  Grab a copy of Cornell’s Amber, Gold and Black, or read his or Ron Pattinson’s blog, you’ll see.    You’re obviously aware of IPA’s, Porters, Milds, Stouts, Brown Ales (both Northern and Southern “style”), Imperial Stout, Pale Stouts,  Irish Style Stout, London Style Stout, golden mild, west country ales, Kentish ales – any many other beers that have been and gone in the fables of British brewing.  But, CAMRA and many other awarding bodies, only give prize to: Bitter, Best Bitter, Golden Ale, Mild – and a couple of others perhaps? It’s growing I know, but still.    I do know many American friends look in wonderment why we don’t celebrate this more… to which I struggle to answer why we don’t.

Now, as some of you know, I love brewing beer.  I love making wine tooI love travelling.   Now, take my extreme somewhat geeky nature, the bungy jumping nature of my love of fermented beverages – not so much the drinking, more the passion for making – I do believe that we should celebrate what we’re damn good at, somehow we’ve forgotten. Combine all those three passions: I see beer championed in Italy, doing remarkably well against wine.  I see 75 categories of beer given awards in the GABF, Wonderful!   I see English Wine and Beer fighting an uphill battle every day to present on the global scene, plus god knows how many other things that just irritate the crap out of me.

It seems like we’re playing with 10 men.  We need to learn to play on the global field. Can not the rule makers let us have our 11th man back?

Here’s a little blueprint:

CAMRA, please change immediately your award structure, please kill the “Champion beer of Britain”

award this way:

  1. award points for the best 4, for a gold, 2, for a silver, 1, for a bronze in the categories of 3 different ABV categories for Pale Ale; then an award for Stout, Porter, Golden Ale, Mild, Golden Mild, IPA,  Wheat Beer, Imperial Stout, Brown ale, etc. The brewer and brewery of said beers, would win on a cumulative score, it would also encourage more different styles at a bar, festival and improved quality of these wonderful and diverse styles of beer; perhaps even the experimental category (Gadd’s hybrid Uberhop, showcased at Planet Thanet,would be an example).   We would then see far greater diversity and reflection to our wonderful brewing heritage.   We were the best, once.
  2. Brewers and breweries win: the brewer and the brewery to be celebrated.   The larger brewers, with multi person brewing teams and those with talented characterful and ambitious brew crews will have personnel to celebrate; “we have the most awarded brewer in the UK” plus the brewery would win.  This would alleviate all issues faced by Kelham Island,  Coniston BlueBird, etc with demand massively outstripping supply.  All breweries of all sizes will not see unmanageable demands put on their individual brews.     We need to celebrate the brewers themselves, we have characters:  Kelly, Pete, Pete, Stu, Jeff, Eddie, Mark, Dom, Colin, Tim, John, John, Martin, Justin.  I bet many of you know who they all are, with out their surnames, more people need to!     I really don’t care if Fullers win bronze, Dark Star win Silver, or something akin to that; that’s a better representation, far more marketable and far more globally forward thinking.
  3. The breweries would benefit: they can then say they are the CAMRA Brewery of the Year.  I can’t see a brewery who wouldn’t want that.
  4. The brewers would benefit: they can say they are brewer of the year.   CAMRA is all about the people, I am told.   Brewing is a bloody hard job, on a small scale.  (if you’re in any doubt, come brew with me) Brewing is notoriously underpaid, for the skill, mental and physical challenges that it requires – this would be one way, a major way, to help improve the working life of a brewer.
  5. Use the larger regional festivals to filter into the London festival; use that to bring the best beers to London.  Perhaps, a formally organised judging coordination for standards with auditing and regular updates.
  6. “Professional” – judging. Please engage with quality analytical personnel to bring a better level of judging; you have writers, retailers, personalities and celebrities – why not more brewers or qualified beer judges. We have standards to maintain, real benefits from the celebration of “that” really great ale, the brewer that made it and the quality of the complete range of beers that said brewer(y) offers; we have to reflect that upturn in quality of beer with quality in judging.   There are programmes such as the BJCP (with issues, granted), or the excellent Cicerone course.  We need to engage with our American brothers to better utilise their resources, to our betterment.  I for one, would have thrown out a fair percentage of the beers in the bottled beer awards, I know co-panel members, people I respect highly would have done so too.
  7. Reminder: we are awarding to further the beer world, celebrate the best of, help build passion,  give business platforms, and importantly educate (by giving clear pumpclip markers to) a transient beer drinking mass of people toward the wonders of what “beer” can mean; helping smaller brewers better compete with those that have far larger marketing budget.
  8. Overall, this model would I believe make brewing more competitive and far better for the marketplace as a whole.

This is what I said to Ian, the organiser of the CAMRA Beer of the Year.

That was probably the last time CAMRA will invite me to anything.

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4 thoughts on “wondering…

  1. I think the CAMRA could do something truely revolutionary when it comes to beer judging – scrap the national awards altogether.

    There are fundamental weaknesses in their current approach. Branch festivals don’t always serve as a feeder into national entries. GBBF is weighted towards spring/summer beers. And they exclude some innovative beers because of their non-cask dispense.

    Perhaps another organisation ought to take on the mantle of running a national beer competition. But who? And how? SIBA have their own comp – which is, of course, members only. We could have a GABF/World Beer Cup approach, but their cash-for-entries philosophy rankles with me. I know that’s the economics of large-scale drinks judging; still, that’s why I don’t care for their approach.

    As for multiple styles encouraging diversity, I think it achieves the opposite; stifling thought and experimentation, forcing brewers into an ever-narrower focus.

    Let local fests garner drinkers’ opinion on their favourite beers. But let’s not get caught up in a US-style pounds-for-entries-for-points-for-medals approach. That’d be worse than what CAMRA have already got and dangerously close to a scene that just celebrates itself for the sake of it.

  2. I’m with you on this. There’s a real opportunity for Brewer & Brewery of the year as well as CBOB.

    For me, the biggest ‘however’ is the nature of the beast. Both CAMRA and SIBA competitions represent a ‘pinnacle of achievement’, are seen as successful, and are rightly celebrated – no matter how the beers get there. But as a judge of both, there’s scope for a lot of improvement in the process.

    It was my first time judging the CBOB finals at GBBF last year too. I was on ‘specialities’, the beers out of the comfort zone of a majority of judges. When I produced my own specially-designed tasting glass, eyes rolled. Then I produced a box and offered them to fellow judges, “try a beer in this AND the glass they’ve given you” I said. They didn’t go back to the standard glasses. My glass enhances the ability to pick up the aromas, which can make up to 70% of the beer’s flavour.

    My argument is this, if you are going to ask people to make a decision which can influence the future financial success, or otherwise of a business, in this case a brewery. Surely you want the decision-makers to be experienced and well-briefed enough to make that decision, and to be provided with the right tools to be able to make that decision?

    I suspect those that are in a position to make the improvements are of the mistaken belief that “it ain’t broke, so why should we fix it?”. If they are up for it, I’ve got my toolbox ready.

    beer glass

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