Let’s talk about beer awards

Beer Award

Beer awards are kind of bullshit.

They don’t really denote an absolute degree of quality or a level of excellence above all others in the field or category.

What beer awards often actually denote is simply a willingness on the part of a brewery to meet the demands of individual award ceremonies’ rules and style guidelines. That is, maybe a winning beer best met a certain judge’s understanding of the BJCP definition of a certain style or the beer adheres to the individual awards’ strict and often archaic style guidelines, but does that make the beer the “best” example of its kind?

According to the judges who blind-taste-judged the Ontario Brewing Awards, for example, Triple Bogey Brewing Co. brewed the “best” North American Lager in the province last year. But what does that even mean? Taste is subjective, right? You, for example, may prefer the taste of Great Lakes Brewery’s Golden Horseshoe Premium Lager. Who can say how or why those two lagers are different and what makes one better?

As I noted in a similar rant about the OBAs three years ago, I feel like this type of judging can often dismiss beer that stands out among the pack as being different than all the others in its field and instead gives accolades to the beer that is most clearly “exactly like it is supposed to be.”  That seems fairly contrary to the innovative and barrier-busting spirit that, for me, often personifies good brewing.

Furthermore, by virtue of being “pay to play,” these awards often aren’t really representative of the “best” of the field.

Like the OBAs, the Canadian Brewing Awards charges entrants a fee just to be considered for an award. Accordingly, breweries that are small or new or simply can’t justify the cost of entry forgo the awards to save the dough–and some breweries just don’t even bother to pay to enter. So who can say “best” is ever actually a fair and true statement? Toronto’s Bellwoods Brewery, for example, who make beers that rank among the world’s best according to consumer review sites like ratebeer (and shameless fanboy bloggers…), don’t even bother to enter their beers in the Canadian Brewing Awards. One would think that logically their inclusion might alter some of the outcomes of one or two awards, casting at least some doubt on the legitimacy of the term “best.”

Rob Engman is the publisher of TAPS, Canada’s Beer Magazine, and is also the founder and operator of the Canadian Brewing Awards. As you might imagine, he disagrees with me. “If you don’t like awards I won’t change your mind,” he told me recently by phone, “but I can tell you I’ve been working really hard for the last ten years to make the CBAs something that Canadians can be proud of. We’ve been BJCP-sanctioned for a number of years, we’ve added new categories this year to reflect some of the new styles of beer being brewed, and we reach out every year to brewers across Canada to survey them to find out what they like and what they don’t like in an effort to remain relevant and current.”

“I get that awards in general aren’t perfect,” Engman says, “but I can tell you that people who do enter and win, do benefit, both from a marketing standpoint and from a morale standpoint at the brewery. I can speak to this as a brewery owner myself [Engman is also the owner of Sawdust City Brewing Co., whose beers are not entered into the CBAs to avoid the conflict of interest].  When we win awards, we’re very proud of them and it’s a nice pat on the back to the brew team, who work hard to produce good quality beer.”

And here I definitely agree with Engman.

I wholly understand why breweries do opt to enter their beers into awards and I don’t hold it against breweries who do enter and/or win. Awards are a nice way to gain recognition for your hardworking staff, it’s nice to quantify your blood sweat and tears with a trophy that says “Hey look, we accomplished a thing” and, on perhaps a more cynical note, it’s a good and calculated marketing expense to pay entry fees for awards consideration because, if you win, you get to plaster your brewhouse, labels, website, etc. with “Winner of Best X for the Year X!” in perpetuity and, let’s be honest, that shit simply sells more beer when Joe Sixpack sees it on the shelf.

Furthermore, awards can be good for us, the consumer (at least once a year): Beer awards do serve as a sort of routine “quality audit” for the breweries who care enough to enter their beers into competition.

That is to say, if you give enough of a shit to enter your beer into a contest to see if it is someone’s idea of “best,” it’s pretty likely that you’ll be working hard to make sure your beer is as good as it can be. And brewers working to make sure their beer is at its best most certainly benefit the people who drink it.

Furthermore, as I’ve noted in the past this is especially beneficial to Ontario beer drinkers at this particular time of year. And that’s because right now is the time when the province’s brewers are brewing their products for awards consideration.

The Canadian Brewing Awards stipulates that samples for consideration must arrive between March 22nd and April 4th. The Ontario Brewing Awards submission deadline, March 7th to 11th, has just past, and, as a bonus, the once-every-two-years World Beer Cup submission deadline for beer to arrive in Denver was also March 7th – 11th. Now of course all of the province’s brewers try their utmost to make the absolute best product they can year-round, but if you consider that any breweries who are entering beers into these competitions are likely putting just a touch more chutzpah (a Yiddish brewing term) into their product right now for judges’ discerning palates, then theoretically the beer on store shelves and in kegs at bars right now is going to be tasting even better than usual.

Of course, that may or may not be a bunch of bullshit, but it’s kind of fun.

Just like beer awards themselves! Good luck everyone.

*none of the above statements apply to The Golden Tap Awards, whose winners, by virtue of being chosen by the people, are totally legitimate. Obviously. 

11 thoughts on “Let’s talk about beer awards

  1. Okay, I have some issues with awards, too, but there is also a very practical side to these things. If you are going to try to build up a legitimate national awards organization, as Engman is trying to do, you’re going to need some money. Since we’re not exactly at the point where people will pay gala ticket prices to come to the awards shows, or television stations ready to shell out big bucks for the broadcasting rights, it falls to entry fees to cover that cost.

    And even with that, judges are unpaid, y’know. Many even take time off work and pay their own way to judge at competitions, all in exchange for a room, perhaps shared, at a sometimes suspect hotel and a few meals here and there. It’s hard work for no compensation and little respect or admiration. And judges, at least the judges I’ve worked with in the past, take their jobs very seriously, genuinely trying to suss out the best of the best to the best of their abilities.

    So no, a CBA does not necessarily mean that Beer X is really the best of its style in the country, but that would also be the case even if you tried your hardest to solicit free entries from every brewery across Canada, since during the time you were judging three more breweries would have sprung up making that style of beer and four others would have introduced new seasonals in the style. So perfect the process is not, but neither is it bullshit, or even fun bullshit.

    1. Thanks for the shoutout to judges, Stephen.

      tl;dr — Support judges. Also: more judges, please.

      I’ve judged CBAs and OBAs for several years. It is certainly a challenge for some of us to take time off work, make a long commute, to participate in something and support a community that we genuinely care about. In my experience I think that there is room for improvement on how judges are supported in this process. Once I was offered a hotel room via CBAs which, made a huge difference for reducing commuter fatigue over the week (and on my pocketbook). In most cases, judges are well fed (CBAs again being the example). However, this is not the norm. Back-of-the-napkin math suggests that for commercial competitions there *should* be at least enough funds to provide some food other than white bread and water for judges. (I run an annual homebrew competition and at an entry fee of $6-7 per, I can certainly feed a room full of judges multiple times!) I recall more than one occasion where I sat back-to-back-to-back flights (12-15 per) of high ABV / bourbon barrel aged palate destroyers with hardly time for a bathroom break let alone a small snack in between. And then, unfortunately, entrants complain of low scoresheet quality (not to me, but I have seen and heard many examples / groaning about it). It’s really in everyone’s best interests that the judges are well supported.

      Yes, there has been a significant increase in entry numbers over the last few years, both for commercial and homebrew competitions alike. Concomitantly, the limitations on the number of BJCP tasting exams is restricting new cohorts of judges-in-training to move up ranks in a timely manner. The result (whether real, or as a figment of my own imagination), is increased pressure to judge more in less time. As a competition organizer myself, I appreciate the need to expedite judging, but, more consideration needs to be made for supporting judges to do the best job they can do. Otherwise, credibility of the entire endeavour is seriously undermined. Also: we need more judges. Always.

  2. The fact that they are ADDING style categories just goes to show what a crock the whole awards system is. Art, music, food, wine, beer are all a matter of personal taste. I put ZERO stock in awards and think that the Golden Taps, CBAs, and other junk out there are to make money for the award runners first and foremost.

    Lets be honest, people who judge things like beer are simply know-it-alls. Craft beer is the hip thing to be into. Well, got the tats, the proper glasses, the facial hair, etc… how do I make myself even more the king of everything I’m into? I know, become a certified beer judge! What a joke. Get a life.

    1. Busted! Yeah, you got me, JJ, all style and no substance. Except, damn it!, I shaved off my ‘stash a few weeks back and, oh shit! no tattoos and, aw crap!, I’ve been scratching out a meager living writing about beer for 25 years. But other than that, spot on, I’m just totally into self-aggrandizement!

    2. yup, def got the tattoos, glasses, grew a beard, and spent thousands of dollars on studying brewing to become a know-it-all to my friends. They do enjoy hearing me argue minute details about brewing techniques.

      Although I will give you the point that the awards organizers do make some money. In the end I do see it as a bit of a bonus to the industry though. I’ve judged, and I’ve entered. The breweries certainly see a boost in sales if they win.

    3. This is exactly why I dislike this type of article. All it does is inspire negativity in an industry that relies on positivity. Criticism is one thing, but needless negativity is another. The more people that we encourage to disregard craft beer as a “fad” or simply something for hipsters to attach to, the less of a chance we stand of continuing to grow and improve. Craft beer deserves to be respected, but it doesn’t need to be taken so seriously all of the time. At the end of the day, it is only beer.

      1. Well “Anonymous” thanks for your brave contribution to the discussion. I hardly think I’m being needlessly negative, I’ve simply offered my opinion on a topic, allowed an expert with a contrary opinion to weigh in, and started a conversation (which some have opted to join namelessly for some reason).
        I’m not really sure how discussing the merits and perceived faults of beer awards dismisses beer as “something for hipsters.” I also don’t understand your plea to take beer less seriously if you think my article discredits awards, which logically put beer in a more serious light…

  3. Triple Bogey vs GLB Horseshoe paragraph made me laugh.

    “Who can say how or why those two lagers are different…”

    Well one comes in a GLB can and the other in a golf-branded can. Umm, yup, that’s about it.

  4. Thanks Ben for writing such an honest and balanced blog post. And thank you for taking the time to talk to me about the subject before expressing your views. Thanks to Stephen and Brandi for chiming in with your views as well. I can tell you that when we first took over the magazine and the awards over 10 years ago, they both looked very different than they do today. We have strived to continually improve both over the years and although it’s been a challenge at times, it has also been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I’ve met so many great, knowledgeable and passionate people during the past decade. We lost significant amounts of money in the early years and I was fortunate to have another successful business that acted as sugar daddy. A few years ago when we finally broke even, it was very exciting. The Awards and Conference continue to provide Canadian brewers with a time and place to gather annually and share ideas and celebrate excellence. Whether you think awards are relevant or just “bullshit”, please know that I have the privilege of working with some very talented and committed people who collectively strive to make the CBAs collaborative, professional and fair year on year. I am proud of what we’ve all worked so hard to build. And although awards may not “denote an absolute degree of quality or a level of excellence above all others in the field or category” we like to think the CBAs do just that for those who choose to enter.

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