When the London Amateur Brewers (LAB) asked if we would be interested in joining the judges for their recent regional home brewing competition, we jumped at the chance.
Like most people, we’ve observed the results of judged competitions with bemusement in the past: “How did that win!?” Although we knew it wouldn’t be on the scale of CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain we thought it might give us some insight into how such decisions get made.
Arriving at Beavertown’s new Tottenham Hale brewery at 8:45 am on a Saturday, the first thing that struck us was how reliant it all is on good will — on unpaid volunteers with the necessary skills giving up half their weekend. (Our only qualification for judging beer is enthusiasm which is why we were each paired with someone more experienced who had achieved some level of BJCP accreditation.)
Ah, yes — the BJCP. Judging a competition with something like 150 entries without using some kind of rules, however arbitrary, would be impossible. The BJCP system breaks those entries down into categories and provides rigid style definitions: they say Cream Ale ought to have ‘sparkling clarity’, for example, so even if your attempt tastes incredible, it will lose points if it is hazy and has lumps floating in it.
In fact, some beers which didn’t really taste all that great scored reasonably well because they were clear, correctly conditioned, and formed and retained a decent head. Flavour isn’t everything, at least not in this context.
The emphasis on ‘style’ works reasonably well with fairly common types of beer such as bitter or IPA. The judges had lots of experience drinking commercial examples and knew what to expect. ‘California Common’, on the other hand, presents more of a challenge, as does ‘Festbier’, only a handful of which are ever found on sale in the UK, and usually past their best — judges were largely reliant on the written descriptions from the BJCP to decide if a beer was ‘correct’.
There was also a sense that some entrants struggled to find a category for their beer and, shoe-horning it into the closest fit, found themselves docked points for not being ‘true to style’. Others seemed to have attempted one style but accidentally brewed another (e.g. it had gone sour, or turned out darker than expected) and were trying it on.
All in all, the BJCP system rewards conformity and ‘cloning’ while punishing creativity.
Now, let’s be clear: the judges try their absolute best, within the rules they’ve signed up to, to make sure great beers get the recognition they deserve. There was lots of agonising and soul-searching, with arbitration from stewards and senior judges, and we heard variations on “I’d drink that all day if I could, but it’s not a [STYLE]” throughout the day. But final decisions in each category were made by re-tasting the top scorers and ranking them without close reference to style guidelines: which one really was best?
The toughest part, arguably, is completing feedback forms for each beer. If the comments aren’t honest, then what’s the point? But if they’re too blunt, then they might be discouraging, and the LAB don’t want to put people off brewing or competing in future. Generally, it was possible to say, even where a beer scored poorly, that it was a problem with ‘trueness to style’ rather than poor brewing technique. There was, however, no nice way to say, “This beer made me retch and forced me to spit it into a bucket.”
Some good beers no doubt got knocked out, just as some good teams have been knocked out of the World Cup, but those that made it to the final judging table for ‘Best of Show’ were undoubtedly deserving. Here, a couple of category winners simply didn’t stand up to scrutiny: the best saison was better than the best lager, in absolute terms, for example. The overall winner, after much impassioned argument and careful consideration, was a flawless black IPA with commercial potential.
On balance, we might enter a BJCP-rules competition if we thought we’d brewed a particularly good example of a standard style, but not if we’d brewed anything remotely unusual.
And, from now on, we’ll certainly have a little more sympathy with the judges at national and international competitions.