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.