The International Brewing Awards, formerly known as the Brewing Industry International Awards, have been running since 1886. Colloquially known as “The Brewing Oscars”, they are unique in that only practising brewers are allowed to judge. Which always makes me think about the word “practising”; should you worry about a practising doctor, and where did the name GP come from? But I guess we are always practising, as we are always learning. Anyway back to these awards, held this year in the Brewing town of Burton upon Trent. 30+ brewers from 16 different countries assembled here in the depths of February, for the judging of over 800 beers. The criteria for judging is commercial acceptability, and beers are judged by consensus and discussion, rather than just point scoring. With such an array of styles now in the beer market, and boundaries being pushed, it made for a very interesting few days. Purist European lagers up against well hopped American ones; session ales with drinkability versus ales with lots of hop; dark beers with chocolate; barrel aged beers with a symphony of aromatics. It was hard, but a pleasure, and having been fortunate to judge at these awards in 2011 and 2013, it really did show how the whole beer scene is changing so much. We know this from experience, and frequent consumer research, but I never cease to be amazed. My father always said there is no bad beer, just some is better than others. The specialist Belgium beers always cause an eyebrow to be raised; in the past, I think I may have brewed the odd beer that was more reminiscent of a gueuze, but the British public at the time weren’t ready for this sort of flavour from a handpull.
The opportunity to sample and judge these beers with professionals from around the world is something I will treasure forever. This competition is also unusual in that there are not specific style guidelines – we are not hampered by beers having to be of a certain IBU, alcohol, or other analytical standard, but what we feel is commercially acceptable.
So how and who should judge beer? It will of course always have a large element of subjectivity, but by learning, sharing ideas and knowledge, and knowing something of the market, hopefully some great beers were duly awarded medals. There are many beer competitions, and everyone loves to win a medal. Especially when it has been judged by professional brewers, even if they are still practising.
I came away with a number of new ideas, and our Pilot Plant has been working hard since then; the challenge is to get some sort of order, as we could happily brew and brew and brew, and still have new ideas. People may be drinking less, but more people are drinking beer, so I will keep up the practice.