beer festivals

There’s no conspiracy behind the Champion Beer of Britain

Greene King Abbot Ale was named one of the Champion Beers of Britain at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival leaving some angry, and others confused.

We weren’t going to write about this because it sometimes feels as if everything there is to say has been said. (Oh, no – what a jaded blogger cliche!)

But then we saw Martin Taylor’s post on the subject.

We nearly included it in our weekly roundup but decided, instead, to give it a little spotlight of its own.

Martin writes:

CAMRA Discourse has been full of conspiracy theories about a “special version” of Abbot being used to dupe the blindfolded GBBF judges, so I was keen to find out if our award winner was “drinking well” in Sheffield… My pint is £4.40, which seems at the high end of Sheffield prices to me, and sadly it’s a bit dull and “milky” (NBSS 2.5)… 2.5 is the level at which you don’t take a beer back, you just decide NEVER to try cask again.

A couple of things struck as interesting here.

First, yes, this is exactly the kind of beer Abbot is: it turns up in pubs that don’t especially seem to care about beer, where everyone else is drinking lager or Guinness. So even if it is a good beer, deep down, what chance does it have to impress people?

We’ve certainly had good pints of Abbot in Wetherspoon pubs where they’re selling a shitload of it and it’s always fresh. And we know a couple of people who love it, without caveats.

Secondly, the talk of conspiracies reminds us of the World Pasty Championships.

When Ginster’s wins, people are generally outraged, because… Ginster’s? Those pasties in the plastic packets you buy at the garage, in an emergency?

But of course that’s not the pasty they actually put into the contest. No, there, it’s a handmade championship-grade pasty created by one of their chefs.

We don’t think that is what’s happening with Abbot Ale but, even if it was, it wouldn’t be that weird to submit the best specimen you have for judgement.

Like giving your dog a shampoo and haircut before it trots onto centre court at Crufts.

How CBOB is judged

In the comments on Martin’s post, he asks a (slightly snarky) follow up question: “Who judges? I thought it was legends like Mr Protz…”

As it happens, back in 2016, we were invited to take part in CBOB judging at GBBF and agreed, partly out of sheer nosiness.

We were escorted to a backroom at the festival venue along with a bunch of other CAMRA branch members and volunteers.

Here’s how we wrote it up for our newsletter back then:

Taking part in this process removed a lot of the mystery that surrounds it, and highlighted its strengths and weaknesses. For a start, the beers on the shortlist with which we were faced were chosen by CAMRA members from across the country, and it was hard to understand in the odd instance exactly why. And, despite the best efforts of the ‘pourers’, few beers really had the kind of condition you’d expect in the pub — soft, loose, bubble-bath heads were the best we could hope for, if any.

The biggest problem, without a doubt, is that the categories are few and broad, meaning that judges might find themselves comparing a dark, malty brown bitter with a super-pale very aromatic one, or an American-style IPA with an ESB. The moment amateur judges like us began to grumble about this, veterans sank in their seats: they’re sick of this debate which, we gather, goes round in circles. No-one wants 130 categories like at US festivals but there is a recognition that the current groupings might be inadequate.

On the upside there was no doubting the sincerity and earnestness of the judges. Everyone wanted to be fair and honest, and to put aside personal prejudice. There were lots of deep conversations about how to mark a beer that was obviously good but in a style the taster didn’t like, or that the taster liked despite its flaws. A balance between the hyper-technical types and the more instinctive-reactive tasters meant that the final results, from where we were sitting at least, seemed the right ones.

In other words, we don’t have a lot of patience with conspiracy theories or whinging about CBOB.

Do you know how hard it is to manage a conspiracy? And it’s even harder when your plot relies on a bunch of slightly tipsy beer geeks working as volunteers.

Can you imagine telling these people that they had to give Greene King an award because they’re sponsoring the event? They’d string you up. Or at least blab about it on social media at the first opportunity.

No, the beers that wins CBOB awards are those that a bunch of people sincerely believe, on the day, are the best they’ve tasted.

The outright winner, by the way – the Champion Beer of Britain – was Elland 1872 Porter, which everyone likes, and whose victory, funnily enough, nobody seems to find suspicious.

15 replies on “There’s no conspiracy behind the Champion Beer of Britain”

Brewers have in the past brewed special beers for competitions. Because I’ve seen them in brewing records.

When a fairly unpopular (amongst geeks) mainstream beer wins a prize, these sorts of accusations come around. I’ve had it in competitions I’ve judged. Only from people, though, who have no idea how judging works.

You can only judge the beer in front of you. It might be a great beer, but if the sample had been badly handled, it could easily have faults. Oxidation being the most common.

Judging is always done blind, as it should be. And my experience is the same as yours: judges try to be extremely fair.

I had another adequate but uninspiring pint of Abbot in the Wetherspoons in Prescot (new GBG entry this year) last week; perhaps my enthusiasm for the beer will fade quickly.

Nick Boley of the CAMRA Executive recommends the famed Nutshell, Bury St Edmunds in his own branch and it was magical there. The other place I really enjoyed it was, unexpectedly, the Fat Cat in Norwich where it was the beer of choice of the Hi Vis brigade.

I don’t have deep concerns but still I’d be more interested in knowing (1) did the judges spit, (2) how many beers were sampled on the day and (3) how late in the day was the beer sampled. Wine judges talk of the palates even with spitting. But you are right if the goal is to choose the best manicured calf at the ag fair, of course they should send the best sample and of course the geeks will spot it. The conspiracy idea is nuts.

In my, admittedly, limited experience of beer judging/tasting, participants never spit. This is because certain flavour profiles, most noticeably those from bitter components, can only be tasted when the beer is swallowed – as the taste buds that detect bitterness are present right at the back of the tongue (last line of defence?)

Who wants to spit, anyway – it’s a disgusting habit, and also a waste of good beer!

From memory, when we took part in judging…

1. There was no spitting.
2. I think on my table we tasted something like 6 beers.
3. It was around midday.

That’s very interesting Ray – and far more sensible than the daily long multiple round judging marathons folk have described. With respect, that back of throat thing is one of beer’s better myths. It’s not like you are expelling every droplet. Wine judges and tea testers spit, both flexing every sensory skill. Bit of old school beery bravado downing it all.

I encourage you to join a judging to challenge your projections. Things I have observed in judging:

1. It would literally be impossible to evaluate a beer without swallowing it. Many elements of a beer’s character don’t appear until you swallow: attenuation level, hop “fineness,” ABV, and all the dimensions of aftertaste. I am not qualified to assess how tasters can evaluate wines by spitting, but beer and wine they are *very* different substance.

2. Judges take very small sips, and the process takes a fair amount of time. Dribbling a toxin into your bloodstream leaves you feeling tired, but not drunk.

3. Palate fatigue is a real issue but it has less to do with alcohol than the barrage on the senses. It’s an issue with any judged gastronomic event, not just beer.

That’s weird. Been doing this for over 40 but guess I don’t know how. Try this – try studying judging methodologies beyond the small craft circle. And perhaps provide some basis for how you can’t taste all that but for swallowing. But maybe try it out in your yard with any beer. Swallow it. Spit it. Tastes the same. Hell, gargle too before you spit. Still all there. Beer ain’t that special. And keep in mind if its required of all it’s still the level playing field.

I grew up in Norfolk. When I started drinking in the early 1970s, Greene King was the best bet for real ale across much of the county, when not served using top pressure. Their beers were as often as not served on gravity in rural pubs, and all of their beers were pretty tasty (though anything – even Tolly beers, which were allegedly brewed using potatoes in the mash, as their head brewer was said to believe that you could brew using any starch – would have been tasty in comparison with the Watney beers that dominated). Their beers have always suffered a little when served by handpump, in my opinion. The beer served at GBBF will have been served in optimum condition – stood in a cask for several days to condition, then served by gravity from the cask.

As a GBBF staffer I was able to get myself a taster of Abbot from the actual cask that was judged.

It was my joint least favourite beer of the ten I sampled on the day. Not truly terrible, and definitely in better condition than you’d get in a randomly chosen Spoons or GK pub, but the idea that it’s the second best beer in the land is just ludicrous.

I’m in no hurry to go out and order a pint of it – and I actually used to be quite keen on Abbot back in the 1990s.

By the by, when I said “legends like Mr Protz” I did mean I assumed that CBOB was judged by folk who knew more about beer than I do (nowt) and look for things I don’t, rather than BBB drinkers from the branches as implied by the previous commenter.

But you’re right about the snarky, in general !

Have just been an overseer for 2 early regional rounds of NEXT YEAR’S competition at Worcester Beer, Cider and Perry Festival … yes it does go on for a long time so just getting to the final round at London is an achievement in itself.

The description from Ray above ties in with mine except the blind tastings took place between 1.30pm and 3pm on Saturday. All the judges knew was that they were judging beers P1 to U1 then their scores were passed to me to tally and submit up the line.

Just to re-up Ron’s comment, brewing for competitions is common (at least in the US), as is selecting best batches of beer for submission. It raises an interesting question, though. If a brewery needs to craft a special beer just to impress judges, is that competition’s guidelines doing a good job of reflecting beer as it appears in the marketplace?

The real issue here is—does CAMRA allow a brewer to submit a cask, which may or may not have been tweaked, for the CBOB judging? Or does it buy anonymously from a range of wholesalers?

When Which? tests any product—washing machine, car, microwave, heat pump or whatever—it never orders or accepts it from the manufacturer to avoid this problem. Individual members of staff go out and buy the product using their own personal credit cards. That way Which? guarantees they’re testing bog-standard off-the-shelf products against one another.

I presumed CAMRA would follow such good practice. But if it is accepting beers directly from breweries delivered to the GBBF, then the system is fatally flawed. Which also explains why I’ve drunk astonishing ales at the GBBF compared with their pedestrian pub counterparts. And it’s worth remembering that the current truly awful incarnation of Greene King IPA won CBOB not that long ago.

I certainly concur with Nick Boley’s recommendation of the Abbot at the Nutshell, Bury St Edmunds. It is exceptional and I’ve concluded it is not the same as the stuff on the bar in every Wetherspoon. My tentative hypothesis is that it is almost certainly the same brew, but perhaps Greene King dry-hop Abbot in the cask for their own pubs, or at least for the Nutshell and/or all their pubs in Bury St Edmunds. It’s certainly a lot closer to the beer I revered in Greene King pubs in Cambridge in the 1970s and 1980s.

theres no mystery with the beer quality in the Nutshell,and Id 3rd the recommendation btw, it was after all mentioned in my guest contributed favourite pubs of Suffolk post (search the archives),where I said “the two cask ale hand pumps serve only their (GK) beer, usually IPA and Abbott Ale, but it is kept well, making this one of the best places to sample it in its home county”, which is just as true today as it was nearly a decade ago when I wrote it.

they know how to look after the beer, and it gets drunk fairly quickly, thats generally not always the case in lots of GK pubs or Wetherspoons sadly, people arent always keen to try the 5% looks very traditional beer, and when they do its where the inevitable it just tastes rubbish opinions form, because it often does in those pubs.

but thats people’s loss if they only judge a beer based on how badly its been kept, as when it is kept and served properly it absolutely is among the best of its style, youd think people would react to these awards by wanting to go try these beers again, not just call conspiracy.

and fwiw I did, I had a half at GBBF, I cant claim it to be the same barrel as that won, at least Id hope it wasnt by the time we went, and it took a few sips to get going, but once it did, yeah I could see, or rather taste, where the judges were coming from with it and why it was so highly rated in this years CBOB.

Its the East Anglian Beer festival this week, where last year Abbott began its journey towards final CBOB selections, I bet most of the people complaining its a conspiracy didnt even know that process existed, and Im sure a cask will be on, even if it isnt theres always the Nutshell, and Ill certainly have it down as a must have beer before the day is out when I visit

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