Judgement Day: a beginners guide to beer competitions

What should you do if you’re invited to judge at a beer competition? Take it seriously. It’s not just a free piss-up – whatever some people think or say. Winning an award can mean a lot for a brewer. Not only is it nice to have your beer appreciated and recognised for its quality it’s also an excellent opportunity to publicise a beer or mention the award within publicity and other communications (including talking to publicans or other customers), on labels/pump clips and online. Plenty of beer buyers and drinkers will choose a beer they can see has won an award over one that hasn’t. Savvy brewers shout it from the roof tops when they win a medal or competition.

Judging at SIBA's National Competition

Judging at SIBA’s National Competition

As a beer judge – you are one of the people responsible for choosing which brewers get to shout. Always keep that in mind. If a beer tastes brilliant and is in excellent condition score it highly, but if it tastes unbalanced and is in poor condition then feel free to give it a low or even a zero score. Give feedback to competition organisers about any problems with dispense or beer quality during and after any competitions you judge at. Beer      needs      to      be   served    perfectly    if    it    is    to    stand    a    chance    of    winning    an    award.

All that said beer judging is also fun and enjoyable! You’ll meet interesting people, including brewers, and there’s the chance to learn by observing other people judging. Whether you’ve judged hundreds of times or it’s your first competition there is always something to be learned.

In the best competitions tasting is blind. This means you won’t know what the beer is. If you knew what you were sampling it’d be too easy to select your favourites and discard things you’ve disliked in the past – no matter how hard you try to be objective!

Samples are numbered to enable accurate recording of scores and/or comments for each competing beer. You will usually be given a score sheet and perhaps asked to mark beer out of 10 or 20 for various criteria (appearance, aroma, taste, saleability etc) or to rank the top three beers from each ‘flight’ (the group of beers you are judging – usually all of one style).

It is your opinion of the beer that counts. But in some competitions, such as the World Beer Cup, the table has to reach a consensus as to which beers deserve to go through to the next round. If this is the case you need to keep your opinions to yourself until all the judges have completed the flight. Sometimes it’s easy to reach consensus as the best beers are obvious – but sometimes it can result in heated debate about what does or doesn’t deserve to go through.

Beer X 2014
Beer judging is also an excellent way of learning about beer or keeping skills up-to-date if you’re already an expert. Some competitions only use experienced judges – some like the International Brewing Awards are judged only by brewers. Others benefit from a much broader range of skills and experience, especially when saleability is one of the criteria when it’s vital to have ‘average’ drinkers and pub-goers on the panel.

Whatever your level of experience here are my top tips for beer judging…

Be sure to have had a decent, preferably cooked, breakfast before you start (assuming you are judging in the morning – a decent meal if later in the day).

Do not wear aftershave or perfume on a judging day.

If you normally like smellies consider using unscented deodorant, soap, body lotion etc on judging days. It may sound a bit over the top – until you’re sat next to someone with overpowering scent on and all you can smell and taste is their perfume!

Sip water between each beer, eat a bit of cracker/biscuit/bread (these should be provided by the organisers) and have more water every few beers and whenever you feel your palate is tiring. This will also assist in terms of not becoming intoxicated, particularly if judging high ABV brews.

Have a decent lunch if judging/continuing to judge in the afternoon.

Form your own opinion of the beer before discussing with other judges.

Try not to share your opinion until other judges have had a chance to form their own (it helps if you have a good poker face!)

Do not let on if you think you know what beer it is you are tasting.

Trust your instincts and senses and mark accordingly – don’t be kind if a beer isn’t up to par.

If judging for saleability think beyond whether or not you would buy it. Think about how popular it might be with the average drinker and how quickly a pub might turn over a cask. I quite often give high marks for saleability to rather boring beers!

Learn from the experience, by listening to the opinions of fellow judges but don’t be bullied or swayed if you think they are wrong. Some judges are more skilled than others and the best judges know there is always more to learn.

Take it seriously but don’t forget to enjoy tasting the beers.

Images courtesy of SIBA

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Defining craft beer in the UK

I spent much of this week in Sheffield at The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) Beer X. Firstly judging their national beer competition, then visiting trade stands and attending seminars at an event which is essentially the British equivalent to the Craft Brewers Conference held annually in the USA by the Brewers Association. Indeed Bob Pease, CEO of the Brewers Association was one of the speakers at Beer X.

I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with Bob in Sheffield and we discussed craft beer here and in the US ahead of his Beer X speech in which he suggested it was ‘too late’ to declare a formal definition of ‘craft beer’ here in the UK.

I’ll be publishing an interview with Bob about craft beer – from which I gleaned he knows what he’s taking about – but I think his assessment that it’s too late for a definition of craft beer in the UK isn’t entirely accurate. Rather it’s still a case that there’s no organisation carrying enough weight that can a) agree – among all of its members and staff – what craft beer means, and b) be bold enough to declare this the official definition of craft beer – with anything else being ‘other’. (Unlike in the US where the Brewers Association defines it as made by small, independent and traditional breweries and has no qualms about the handful of really enormous breweries it deems ‘other’).

fruits_and_vegetables_and_shopping_basket_01_vectorThe beer writer Pete Brown wrote an excellent piece in The Guardian yesterday about this pegged to the fact that craft beer has hit the headlines this week because, along with e-cigarettes, it is now apparently one of the items in a ‘basket of goods’ used by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to calculate the rate of inflation each month.

So someone has defined what craft beer is in the UK. Here’s what the ONS told me when I asked how they determined which beers were craft beers.

“…the sort of beers produced, for example, by micro breweries and … generally purchased in single bottles*. They are not mainstream beers, are usually well packaged and are sometimes considered to be of higher quality. They must be UK brewed. Fruit/wheat beers, ginger beer and lagers are excluded from the collection.”

Unfortunately the ONS isn’t apparently at liberty to say which breweries’ beer is considered craft. It’s left to individual collectors to decide, presumably based on the above, but once the choice is made they have to stick with it and continue to collect that brand while it is stocked in the shop.

But at least we now have a definition of craft beer! Except we don’t… because the ONS got nervous once I started asking for a bit more detail, such as what do they mean by ‘mainstream’. They quickly backtracked, insisting, “[W]e have purposely not attempted to define a craft beer.”

Indeed in the ONS document about the how the basket of goods are selected – which includes news of the new categories – they don’t call the category craft beer. It’s referred to as ‘speciality beer/ale – bottled’ and the term ‘craft beer’ is only used incidentally in explaining why it’s been added, “… reflecting the increase in shelf space devoted to craft beers produced by speciality and micro-breweries.” No mention of mainstream there though – just micro.

In trying to get them to confirm their definition I seemed to have only succeeded in persuading them in the opposite direction as they subsequently told me the beers, “could be produced by a micro brewery or a major brewer but should not be one of the standard brands,” and the prices they were using in their calculations were for, “a single 500ml bottle* of beer.” (So not BrewDog beers then…that’s odd!)

But here’s what craft beer is NOT (and note they don’t think it is lager, wheat or fruit beer either) – according to the ONS: “Four cans of bitter, four bottles of premium lager, 12-24 cans of lager, 12-24 bottles of lager and 4 cans of stout.” These items are also in the basket but are counted separately to the new ‘craft beer’ or speciality/bottled ale category. Perhaps a definition of what craft beer isn’t would be more useful than a definition of what it is?

The crux of the problem isn’t so much the definition. It is what it stands for. The world of beer has undergone a huge and wonderful change. Sales are up; people are interested in how beer is made and what it’s made from; it’s being taken more seriously as a drink to pair with food and it is being sold in more and more outlets – both off trade and on – so there’s a choice of beers (not merely a choice of very similar lagers which is no choice at all). This is called progress – and some have dubbed it the Craft Beer Revolution.

Whether or not we agree on what the term means we need to ensure the progress made continues – so the beer boom does not become a bust. But the jury is still out on how important a UK definition of craft beer is for that…

Surely nobody really wants this?

Surely nobody really wants this?

I’ve written about what craft beer means in this month’s Great British Food magazine. Pick up a copy to read my definition of craft beer! 

*Note – this is about ‘off trade’ beer – not beer in the pub or other licensed premises where sales of cask ale and craft beer are still outflanked by mainstream lagers.

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Last minute Christmas gifts for beer lovers

Not posting my Christmas Gift Guide until now is a bit of an epic fail… but a family bereavement meant many things had to be put on hold. But let’s not dwell.

Christmas is just around the corner and in an effort to ensure beer lovers are NOT saddled with shit, pseudo Christmas beers or faux festive ales here’s a few brief ideas for what to give them instead.

Xmas beer books 2

A beer writer, suggesting beer writing as an Xmas gift? Whatever next? Ok, so I’m biased but these aren’t my own books (maybe next year!). These are new books that I rate and think are worth giving as gifts. They are all available from evil Amazon so if you’re quick you’ll get ‘em in time for 25 Dec.

Thinking Drinkers by Ben McFarland & Tom Sandham (Jacqui Small; £20)

It would be all to easy to dismiss McFarland (despite being a former Beer Writer of the Year) and Sandham as comedic bluffers but this book, which goes well beyond beer, is an engaging, informative AND funny read. If – like me – you are a dedicated beer drinker who has found their drinking horizons broadened by their developing palate you’ll find this a worthy guide to hitherto unexplored drinks. It begins with beer and includes chapters on wine, whisky, gin and more. Nicely presented book with a gift feel, but much better than a ‘gift book’ – if you see what I mean.

Wisdom for Home Brewers by Ted Bruning & Nigel Sadler (Apple £12.99)

I wasn’t convinced by this book when I first opened it – as it really is a list of 500 tips for home brewers and it uses an annoying, curly handwriting font for each tip although the details of the tips are in a proper, readable font. HOWEVER, I changed my mind when I realised this book isn’t for me! This is book of short bites of information for the sort of would-be home brewer who isn’t a keen reader – in fact it’s probably the ideal home brew book for anyone with a short attention span or who lacks time and wants to read about home brewing in succinct chunks.

Britain’s Beer Revolution by Roger Protz and Adrian Tierney-Jones (CAMRA, £14.99)

Two stalwarts of British beer writing team up to tackle the topic of the beer revolution – ’nuff said. What you want to know more? As with many CAMRA books there is much within that serves as an introduction to beer, but Protz and ATJ also highlight and mull over many of the things which have changed the face of British brewing, beer and drinking – such as craft beer, beer blogging and influences from abroad – before taking the reader on a tour of Britain’s best breweries, the people behind them and great pubs to seek out their beer. Equally enjoyable for the armchair traveller as for those who literally want to get out and explore.

Drink London by Euan Ferguson (Frances Lincoln, £9.99)

As an almost-Londoner living in exile I loved this book as much for Kim Lightbody’s wonderfully evocative photos of the city’s boozers as for the text. Whether you know the capital like the back of your hand or have never been there this is a lovely little tour of London’s pubs and bars that is also small enough to tuck in a bag as a travel guide.

Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap (Riverhead Books, £….)

I can’t tell you how much I loved this book, which was recommended to me by Pete Brown – and for which I will be eternally grateful because as well as being an excellent book it turned me back on to reading too. Reading Drinking with Men is like being alongside the author in each of the pubs and bars she’s called her local throughout her life. Buy this for anyone you know, beer lover or otherwise, who loves the pub and understands the special kind of knowledge one can gain from going there.

More gift ideas… beer and soap! 

Sheps Mash Tun 1Ban and consign crappy Christmas gift beers by buying a proper gift beer instead – like this boxed Mash Tun No 1 (7.4%) from Shepherd Neame – which was brewed to celebrate a hundred working years of … the no 1 mash tun at the brewery – which also happens to be one of the last remaining wooden mash tuns in Britain.

(For beer newbies a mash tun is effectively a huge pot for steeping malted barley to extract the sugars which are then fermented into beer).

Or if you have access to a good independent specialist beer retailer, or find an online one that can still dispatch in time for Xmas you could buy a 750ml – or wine bottle size – beer as a gift instead.

44_image_Cuvee-Noire_largeBrooklyn Brewery’s Cuvée Noire (10.6%) would make a fantastic gift. It’s a rich, bourbon soaked stout with a Belgian twist – and it is pure joy to drink. (You can find my review of Cuvée Noire in the new beer magazine Original Gravity.)

Or – again if there is still time for delivery (check with retailer) you could buy a whole bouquet of beer. A what? Well, remember my home made bin of beer from a previous seasonal blog post? Little did I know someone had taken up the idea of doing something along those lines professionally. Check out the Bro-quet website for more details. (You’ll also find them listed via Not on the High Street.) I met the woman behind the business at the Birmingham Beer Bash earlier this year and like most of us in the industry she is passionate about all things brewed and keen to share the love.

Finally, if you are looking for a little stocking filler for a beer lover then see if you can find some Proper Job SoapYou’ve heard of beer shampoo? Well this is soap enriched with St Austell Brewery Proper Job.

Proper Job Soap

I have taste tested this soap so you don’t have to. It DOES NOT taste of beer so I strongly advise against eating it or even licking it.

It is, however, a very good soap which lathers well and feels expensive. The only downside is that it comes in a very chunky bar which isn’t so easy to hold on to if you have small hands. If you have big, manly hands though it’s perfect!  It also contains some sort of grainy pieces which I think make it a great gift for beer-loving gardeners or those working outdoors who need a bit of extra oomph to clean up their hands when they come in. That said I used mine in the shower – and I’m extremely fussy about what I wash with – and it was lovely. You could say it did a Proper Job!

Once again apologies for posting this so late in the day but hopefully it might still help you out of a beery hole and save some of my beer-loving brothers and sisters from the horror of being given a nasty so-called Christmas beer.

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