I’ve spent the last couple of weeks away from the brewery, out of my cold lonely office and in the real world rubbing shoulders with some of the best beer tasters in Australia. Although I do like to, I haven’t actually been massaging other brewers, rather I have been lucky enough to have been asked to officiate as an Associate Judge at the CBIA (Craft Beer Industry Association) beer awards and as a Judge at the PRBS (Perth Royal Beer Show).
From my understanding there are two reasons why we hold beer competitions. First and foremost, it is an opportunity for us to promote our industry to a wider audience and showcase the wonderful beers that we are producing. Secondly, it is an opportunity for professional and amateur brewers to gain expert feedback on the beers they are brewing and also to recognise and celebrate the excellent beers that are being produced by awarding those with medals and trophies.
As a beer judge, you are judging that beer against written style guidelines and how well it meets the criteria (see example of style guidelines HERE) and not whether you personally like it or would drink more than one. (I often wonder whether the amount of any said beer you would drink is actually a good measure of quality). It’s easy to fall into the trap of being ultra-critical of a beer, going out of your way to find a problem with it. It is much harder to commit to liking something in front of your peers without hearing first what they thought. That’s one of the challenges of judging and I believe that it is our responsibility to give every beer the time and attention it deserves. A brewer or team of brewers have spent a shed load of time and effort making that beer and paid a fee to enter it. We need to look at it objectively and provide relevant feedback as to what was good or bad about that beer.
It’s important to understand that everybody’s palate is different and we are able to detect different flavour compounds at different concentrations. A flavour that I personally cannot taste at all may stick out like the proverbial to the person next to me. A good judge needs to understand their own abilities and limitations to be able to look at a beer objectively.
Having judged at PRBS a number of times in the past I always find that in the lead up to a comp I have to spend some time getting my head in the right place and really dial in my palate. Although I always intend to look at every beer I drink objectively, after working hard at the brewery it’s easy to slide into the pattern of drinking your own IPA every day and not think too much about it. What I’ll tend to do to get back into the swing of things is to grab a number of different beers of the same style and sit down with them over an evening. Not necessarily taking notes but making an effort to think about the beer, what’s good and/or bad about it etc. There’s so much noise around the craft brewing scene saying that “good beer” needs to be full of big flavours and heavy on either hops or malt.
To the best of my knowledge the way most commercial beer competitions are structured in Australia is where by each beer is given a score out of 20. 20 being a perfect beer and 0 being unfermented creek water. The beers are then awarded either a Gold (>17), Silver (15.5-16.9), Bronze (14-15.4) or no medal (<14) depending on the score that they receive.
Gold – An outstanding, world class example of the style.
Silver – A very good example of the style.
Bronze – No major faults, but maybe has some element that doesn’t fit the style guidelines.
No Medal – Likely has some obvious fault or is wildly out of style.
Trophies are then awarded to the best beer in each class (i.e. Pale Ale) in one of two ways. At CBIA, all of the Gold medal beers in a class will then be re-judged by a completely new panel and the beer deemed to be the best of that flight is awarded the trophy. At PRBS, the trophy winning beers are the ones that scored the highest from the initial round of judging. This is different to the way in which the World Beer Cup in the US is structured where only one Gold, Silver and Bronze is awarded per category much like the Olympics.
I would like to say that I think it’s super exciting and a massive step forward for our community to see Little Creatures win the Champion Australian Craft Beer at CBIA with their Pilsner. There’s so much noise around the craft brewing scene saying that “good beer” needs to be full of big flavours and heavy on either hops or malt. I think we need to take a step back and try to appreciate the subtlety of beer and take notice of beers that are well balanced and expertly crafted. To have a clean, well balanced and easy drinking lager rise above all of the Imperial Stouts, Double IPA’s and other massive beers is a huge thumb’s up to hard work, world class quality standards and attention to detail. I’ll drink a Little Creatures any day.
I personally very much enjoy the process of beer judging as not only do you get the opportunity to drink some of Australia’s best beers but mainly because of the education opportunity it presents. I get to sit with and learn from the best beer tasters in the country and pick their brains about different ways to assess and taste beer. Brewers at small breweries are often not exposed to environments where we have formal taste training with repetitive fault finding from spiked samples and I personally find I learn more from judging one competition than I do in a year of drinking beer in any normal situation. I feel privileged every time I am asked to officiate and jump at every opportunity.
I believe we should all continue to promote, support and grow our competitions as they only benefit and promote our community.
Cheers and Beers
CBIA Full List of Results: http://www.australiancraftbeer.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/CBA-2016-results.pdf
PRBS Full List of Results: http://www.perthroyalshow.com.au/competitions/competition-results-2016/