Monday, March 18, 2013

Beer competitions

The subject of judging at beer competitions came up on that twitter again.  There are valid concerns about the credibility of these things which get raised from time to time, as well as the broader question of "what's the point of them anyway".  First some specifics:

How are beers tasted blind?

Speaking from personal experience as one of the organisers of the SIBA North Beer festival / competition, "blinding" the judges (as far as possible - and I'll come back to that) is something that's taken very seriously. While the actual organisation of the competition is down to SIBA's professional staff, the logistics are the joint concern of the "central powers" and the regions.  The way it works is this: A load of judges are  assembled in a big room, and a load of beer in another one. A further area is reserved for beer handovers. One bunch of people (the cellar team) draw the beer from the (easily identifiable) containers, take it out of the cellar, and hand it over to the volunteer runners who carry the jugs (labeled with a code) to the judging tables.  The SIBA central staff (behind a screen) hold the key and can (later) figure out which beer is which.

Now, short of active cheating, or marked incompetence, this system ensures that no judge can know which container the beer they're tasting came from. 

So you have a table full of judges sniffing and tasting beers, holding them up to the light, pulling faces, passing comments, holding forth on what makes a great beer, asking the self-appointed experts what they think, trying to sway each other, etc, before marking down their scores for a bunch of predetermined criteria. Munge all these scores together and you can pick the highest scoring in each category, which can go on to be judged in another round, and so-on, until you get the top 3, and award them Gold, Silver and Bronze in their classes.

All the gold winners can be judged against each other (tough job, depends how you do it) and a supreme champ and a couple of runners up can be decided upon. 

That's one way of running a blind tasting beer competition.

What's wrong with this picture?

In a sense, everything.  Firstly, the judges. Someone who drinks a lot of beer, and who has a fair idea of what the beers entered might be, can probably recognise some beers.  So they're not 100% blind.  Of course we can also include (and we do) some people who don't necessarily drink a lot of beer.  Which you might think would be a disqualification for judging.  But there you go. 

Blinding isn't the big problem that some people seem to think it is.  I don't think cheating is a significant problem, and I believe most of the judges would indeed score a great beer higher than a merely fair one that they happen to be familiar with.

I don't know where you, dear reader, stand on CAMRA,  but it's worth mentioning that a fair percentage of our judges are selected from among CAMRA activists.   Many of these will be trained tasters with a lot of experience,  highly qualified to judge at this sort of thing.  Some will be utter gobshites.  Same goes for judges from the licensed trade.  You could argue that the same could be said for the brewers who judge.

And of course, there's a tendency (in all of us, I suspect) to prefer the things we're used to.  So there's probably some bias in the judges toward the kind of beers that they're more comfortable with - which gives us a tendency to conservatism.  Far-out beers need not apply? Beers in less popular styles might not do as well as an aficionado might think they should.   It's a beauty contest judged by fallible humans who bring their own prejudices to the table, not an objective test of beer greatness.

Consider also (he said, donnishly) the dynamics of small groups.  There's always some tit who wants to "lead" the group. And sadly, perhaps, there are those happy to be led. So instead of a hundred independent judges we might end up with a few loudmouths commanding votes disproportionate to their expertise (but in line with their sense of self-worth).  N.B.  I say "might", I have no personal experience of this happening in a beer competition. 

Why do we need so many judges? There are only so many respected beer judges in the world and many of them would at least want expenses to swig and sniff for a day for us.  But a judge can taste (and swallow) only so many beers before falling over.  So a lot of beers need a lot of judges, which means the quality of the judging pool isn't necessarily as high as you'd like. We have some great judges, of course, and a number who are less great. 

And then there's the judging criteria.  We score beer on things like "appearance" (including clarity?) and "sale-ablity".  What about hazy beers?  What would it mean to have a beer scoring well on everything except  "sale-ablity" - is this a trap placed in the way of stronger beers?

The award system itself is problematic - are only three beers (the medal winners) any good?  Are the others, which didn't make the cut, therefore crap and not fit to drink?

Who is the competition for?

We love awards.  Validation. Confirmation that it's not just us who think our beer is lovely - See my awards!  I'm a real talent!  My beer is great! That other beer isn't.

When a brewer wins an award they tell the public.  There's an idea that it'll help us sell beer.  Our customers must surely know that because it won an award it's good beer - better than other beers they could buy. We might get a bit of press for it.  Drinkers might have heard of it before they see it on the bar, or on the shelf, so retailer risk is reduced.

Drinkers can order a pint (or buy a bottle) of an award-winning beer secure in the knowledge that it's going to be better than mediocre, or even, really good.

Or is it just (and particularly for a trade organisation like SIBA) a mutual back-slapping exercise.   Brewers telling other brewers (who make the kinds of beers that the herd of brewers like) that the herd of brewers liked the beer.  A beery circle jerk.  

What's to be done?

A beer competition has to be credible.  It has to offer valuable information to the drinker.  Without that it's no use to them.  And if no use to the drinker, what real use (apart from the warm feeling we get when our fellows give us a pat) is it to the brewer?

I'd propose 3 main changes:

A reputable, external chief judge (or several).  We need a name that the drinker respects.  And not just as a figurehead.  The competition needs to be reviewed and this person should be involved with that process 

Judging criteria should be reviewed and published for debate.  Get rid of sale-ability for a start - that's nonsense.  How can a good beer be not sale-able?  Would it depend on the price? Bollocks.

The awards structure should be revised. It's not bloody Highlander ("There can be only one").  And it's not the Olympics (what does bronze mean? Good, but not really all that good?). All the beers which are excellent should be recognised.  Sure, pick one to be champ, but make it clear that this one is the judges pick of the excellent.

If you've read this far, thank you. If not, f**k you.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The price of beer.

Beer's not a particularly "cheap" product. Indeed, there's a case to be made that it's perhaps the most expensive way that an alcoholic beverage is routinely produced. The ingredients are costly, the labour (particularly for small outfits) is a big element. There's a high power requirement, and (again, particularly for the little guys) the overheads can be high. It's heavy and bulky to transport. It needs to be produced under clean conditions that would tax most small, shed-based businesses. And there's the duty - and the VAT on the duty. VAT is a bit of a bugbear. Since we're turning agricultural (no VAT) malt and hops into industrial beer (20% VAT) we have to collect a lot of VAT, and send it off to the government so that they can pay it to the banks.

All that said, there's a wide price range seen for what, on the face of it, are quite similar products. In some cases, an arguably better product can be had for substantially less than you might pay for something from some trendy brand. *

So, are these high prices a rip-off? Is this gouging? Profiteering? Taking the piss? No, of course not. Thing is, we have an enormous amount of power as consumers here. And by "here" I don't mean "on the Interwebs". We can choose not to pay the price asked and buy something else, cheaper. That we don't (or at least some of us don't, or at least enough of us so that people can make a business selling this pricey beer), tells us that objectively these beers aren't overpriced. Drinkers (some, enough), are making the judgement that these products offer enough value to make them a good buy at that price.

Those of us who do feel like we're in danger of being ripped-off, gouged, or having the piss taken can avoid that hazard by simply walking away.  Un-stung. No worries.

On the other hand, what does it mean to say a beer is being sold too cheap?

If I'm making lovely beer that my customers really like but I don't charge enough to cover my costs, pay the bank and the government (so that they can pay the banks some more), feed the family and replace our tattered clothes periodically, while making enough to invest in my business going forward - I'll go bust. I won't be able to make any more beer and my customers will be deprived of the opportunity to buy it. That's too cheap. I'm stupid. We all lose.

I know some brewers do make "cheap" beer. Often it's not very good. That's one way of doing it. Sometimes the price reflects the cost-saving strategy of not paying suppliers or the Excise by dipping in and out of cunning pre-pack administration arrangements.  The rest of us lose out by having to pay more for malt and in taxes to cover the shortfall owed by these bad actors.  That's too cheap.

Bottom line:  If you think it's too expensive (i.e. doesn't offer the value to justify the price) don't buy it.  Don't whine about it. You'll just make yourself unhappy.  And if you think it seems "cheap", ask yourself why that might be.

But if it looks like a good buy, if the price is worth it. Buy and enjoy cheerfully. You did a good thing.

*I'm not making a value judgment when I use the word "trendy", it's just an observation that some brands are, while others aren't