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.
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.