Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Gaming It?

Competitions seem to abound in the beer world.

At times, it feels as though every brewery in the history of beer, which started sometime in the 1980s as well all know, has won at least one gong from some competition. Such is the sense of achievement for many that the cheap medal that comes with the award is often framed and hung proudly on the brewery tap room wall for all to see.

From what several brewers have told me, entering said competitions is not cheap either, and the price is only really worth it if you win a gong and can feast on the PR bump for a little while, especially if you win the much coveted "best in show", though a category level gold will also suffice.

Other than the Great American Beer Festival, most competitions appear to be judged mostly by amateurs, folks like me for example, and a day's judging beer with fellow amateurs can be great fun. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with amateurs being asked to evaluate a commercial operation's beer, but I have heard of plenty of instances where BJCP certified judges treat commercial beer like they would homebrew. For the record, I am not a BJCP judge and I have no ambition to part with that level of cash that could be better spent drinking beer.

Again from conversations with plenty of brewers over the last decade or so, most will produce small batches of beer specifically for a given competition. I guess that makes sense, I mean why send regular bottled beer that the consumers will be judging your brewing chops by? It stands to reason that you want the freshest beer possible, in tip top condition, one that hasn't been abused by distributors and retailers. If only there was a competition for distributors and retailers for their quality processes!

I guess from my tone that you have come to the realisation that I find the vast majority of beer competitions meaningless, a blinged up version of Ratebeer or Untappd basically, however there is one part of the whole charade that really bugs my head. Categories.

Competitions use whatever taxonomy of beer styles they feel is best suited to their goal, and some will use the GABF style guidelines while others use the latest BJCP offering. My gripe though is that no-one, it appears, ensures that the brewers are submitting to the appropriate category, everything is left to the capricious whimsy of the entrant. Thus you get situations where beers are winning gongs for categories that they are not marketed as.

A few years back a Virginia brewery made a great song and dance about a beer they sold to the general public as an "Imperial IPA" winning a gold medal in the IPA category of a competition. The competition in question had a separate category for "Double/Imperial IPA", though off the top of my head I can't remember who won that particular gold medal.

Perhaps I am being too much of a stick in the mud purist, but if you are going to market a beer as being in a given style, then you should enter it in competitions in that style category. A medal winning "Czech" pilsner with German hops and less than 15 IBUs is not a pale lager that you would find in the Czech Republic.

I am sure the following scene plays out in tasting rooms across the US, and maybe further afield too. A punter asks for a sample of something and the bartender says "this is our gold medal winning...insert style here". I guarantee that the punter is just going to assume that the gold medal is for the style the beer is being marketed as, and so will assume that the sample in hand is a good representation of the style, and thus the potential for misinformation increases.

Competitions can be useful for recognising the truly great brewers in the industry but when beers are winning gongs for styles they have no right to be representing then that brings down the level for everyone, and kind of feels like companies are gaming the system for cheap marketing.

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