What would a perfect beer awards process look like?

If people dislike CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain model, what other approaches might there be to judging the best beers?

Off the back of our post earlier this week, various people elaborated on their objections to the CAMRA approach:

“…from a consumer perspective, which is where CAMRA should be coming from, it’s misleading for the brewery to market a beer based on winning CBOB if that’s not what you get in your glass.” (James)

“Festival tasting isn’t the same as in a pub. A few mouthfuls of a beer aren’t enough, especially if you’ve drunk something completely different previously.” (Steve)

“As a GBBF staffer I was able to get myself a taster of Abbot from the actual cask that was judged… the idea that it’s the second best beer in the land is just ludicrous.” (Ben)

“…it’s unsustainable to get volunteers to judge these awards throughout the industry.” (Anonymous beer writer)

To summarise these objections, and others:

  • the beer at judging isn’t the same beer consumers encounter
  • the process is opaque leaving space for suspicion
  • the results are ‘wrong’, proving that the process must be, too
  • the judges aren’t qualified

What other models are there?

When we asked about this via Patreon, John ‘The Beer Nut’ Duffy said:

“I’ve been running one for several years on a drinkers’ choice basis: get everyone who’s interested to name their top three beers of the last year and award points accordingly.”

We can see pros and cons here. On the upside, you’ll be likely to get a more interesting list of candidates, based on people’s actual experiences in the real world, throughout the year.

One downside might be, again, a tendency to reward more mainstream, readily-available beers from breweries with better distribution.

Also, “anyone who’s interested” rings alarm bells for us. Whose opinions do you miss? And to whose views do you end up giving undue weight?

As it happens, this is more or less how the first round of voting in CBOB works: branches send out emails inviting people to pick their favourite beers from a big old list of local candidates.

You might also take Ratebeer or Untappd awards or lists as an extreme example of “anyone who’s interested” and, as we know, those are not uncontroversial either. You might summarise the industry response to Untappd as “Get back in your box, plebs!”

Critics’ choice

Another related approach might be the The Sight & Sound model.

For the most recent round of its best-films-of-all-time poll, the BFI’s film magazine asked around 1,600 professional film critics, filmmakers and other industry types to nominate 10 films each.

The results were hugely controversial.

Some felt too many ‘obscure’ films made the top 100, or too many political choices. Others complained about its continued bias towards films by white men from Britain and America.

And people also asked: “Who chooses the choosers?”

A poll like this feels somewhat objective but, at some point, someone has to pick the people who do the picking. Is this where bias creeps in?

This is more-or-less how most trad beer awards work, and the same criticism applies.

The difference being that because most beer judging requires you to be on site, rather than sending a quick email, the pool of critics is further reduced.

Many discerning palates are cut out of the process because they can’t afford to cover travel costs, or work for free. So the choosers are chosen by… chance? Personal circumstances? Less than ideal.

The Eurovision model

What if we combine a popular vote with the view of expert judges? That’s how it works at the Eurovision song contest these days.

A jury in each country, made up of singers, musicians and songwriters, awards points to each song, based on the semi-finals earlier in the week.

That is then combined with a public vote on the big night.

In theory, this smooths out both the elitist tendencies of the jury (you can’t trust these so-called ‘experts’!) and the mischievous tendencies of the public, who often vote based on national allegiances and/or novelty value.

But guess what? People still get angry about the results of Eurovision. They still feel the wrong country won, and that their country was robbed.

If anything, this system is the worst of both worlds: “We had the right result until they added the numbers from those amateurs/snobs, at which point it veered off course!”

You can’t please everyone

We cannot imagine a system for judging the best beer that won’t cause controversy.

That is half the point of awards, though – to generate conversation and make people think about beer.

Who is seriously using these announcements to decide which beer to drink, or not?

It’s possible, we suppose, that if you got a choice between two similar beers, you might pick the one with a little CBOB medal on its pumpclip.

Or that the first time you see Abbot in a pub after it’s won an award you’re tempted to give it a try.

But, really, they’re just a bit of fun.

Transparency helps

Having said all of that, being really clear about the process is one way to earn people’s trust.

Pete Brown addressed this in response to criticism of the British Guild of Beer Writers’ Awards last year, which we thought was a smart move.

Exposing your process also allows people to highlight areas for improvement, if you really want to hear those suggestions.

The best you can hope for is that people say, “I don’t like the result, but I don’t doubt it was fair.”

CAMRA’s process is not secret, even if it feels a bit obscure. It’s outlined here, in a PDF, described as an internal memo.

How would you improve that process, in practice? Where are its points of weakness?

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.

20th Century Pub pubs

Keith Waterhouse on ‘The Pubs we Deserve?’, 1974

In 1974, everyone was talking about beer and pubs – or, at least, a lot of middle-aged male writers. Like Keith Waterhouse, for example, who expressed his passionate views in a piece for Punch in July that year.

Before we get into that, though, let’s think about 1974.

This was the year of the first publication of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide and when membership of the organisation reached around 10,000 people.

Richard Boston’s column in The Guardian was in full swing, having started in the summer of 1973. Ian Nairn’s influential piece, ‘The Best Beers of our Lives’, appeared in the Sunday Times on 30 June 1974.

This was, in other words, a pivotal year.

But Keith Waterhouse was no bandwagon jumper. He’d threaded a commentary on pubs through his 1959 comic novel Billy Liar, suggesting this was something he thought about a lot:

The New House was an enormous drinking barracks that had been built to serve Cherry Row and the streets around it. The New House was not its proper title. According to the floodlit inn-sign stuck on a post in the middle of the empty car park, the pub was called the Who’d A Thought It. There had been a lot of speculation about how this name had come about, but whatever the legend was it had fallen completely flat in Clogiron Lane. Nobody called the pub anything but the New House.

His piece for Punch picks up this thread more than a decade later, on the other side of the invention of the theme pub and the ‘bird’s nest’, and the coming of Watney’s Red.

It opens, as essays about pubs often seem to do, with a reference to George Orwell’s ‘The Moon Under Water’ (now a successful podcast), before providing an update on the imaginary pub’s fortunes since the 1960s:

The Moon was originally owned by Buggins’s Brewery, a family concern so tiny that its entire output could be distributed throughout London by three teams of drayhorses. Buggins sold out to Duggins’s Draught, Duggins in turn merged with Coggins’s Keg, and finally the whole mini-conglomerate was taken over by Consolidated Piss.

This echoes CAMRA’s line of attack against Watney’s et al (their beer was full of chemicals) and gives us a taste of the anti-lager rhetoric to come (it looks like urine). It also reminds us of Bill Tidy’s longrunning ‘Keg Buster’ comic strip for CAMRA and its fictional brewery ‘Crudgington’s’.

It’s also a neat summary of what happened to many small local breweries during the period of post-war consolidation in British brewing.

Next, Waterhouse tells us, Consolidated Piss played its part in the revolutionising of the pub industry as a whole, being “as interested in commercial property, bingo halls, hamburger-dromes and roofing felt as they are in beer”. Each “independent corner pub”, he writes, “became one of a chain of 15,000 ‘outlets’.”

Again, this is an accurate reflection of the language of firms like Bass Charrington and Whitbread in this period, opening everything from shopping malls to motels.

Waterhouse argues that The Moon Under Water took the wrong course at around the time of the Festival of Britain when its then landlord, “Len” decided to give it a facelift: “What the class of people we get in her wants… is more of your modern”:

So down came the ornamental mirrors and the stuffed bull’s head over the nally mantelpiece. The cast-iron fireplaces went to the scrapyard. New plastic tables, which could be wiped over with a cloth for all the world as if they were topped with marble like the ones that had graced the saloon bar for nigh on a century, were installed. And very pretty they were, if a bit rocky…

Len was succeeded by Ken who took things further yet in pursuit of his ambition to “get rid of the public bar trade and start a Sunday morning darts league among the cravat-wearers and ladies in trouser suits”.

Ken’s successor, Ben, installed “a juke box, a fruit machine, a television set, a pin-table, and later an ingenious electronic tennis game costing ten pence a go”.

It’s interesting reading this in 2022 when darts, juke boxes, ploughman’s lunches and, we guess, (non-craft) keg beer, are all considered markers of a pubs down-to-earth ‘properness’. It only takes a generation or so for the new-fangled to harden into tradition.

Through the course of the article, Waterhouse hits all the main notes of CAMRA rhetoric in this period, including that:

  • pubs aren’t about food
  • consumers are being sold worse and weaker keg beer with ever more ludicrous claims of ‘authenticity’
  • the inevitable conclusion is demolition and reconstruction in glass and metal

At the end of the piece, though, he observes, albeit sourly, a turning of the tide:

Nowadays there seems to be a demand for traditional pubs, to compete with the craze for Edwardian wine bars. Their clever young designer knows where he can get his hands on some ornamental mirrors, marble tables, cast-iron fire places and various knick-knacks such as a stuffed bull’s head. He can also get hold of some original Victorian ceiling-moulds and there is a chemical process by which a ceiling can be stained dark yellow as if by tobacco-smoke. But of course all this stuff comes expensive, and it must inevitably be reflected in the price of beer.

And he was right – see chapter 6 of our book 20th Century Pub for more on that trend.

Does anyone know if Waterhouse was a CAMRA member? We’d be a bit surprised if not.

If, like us, you like to gather stray examples of beer writing from newspapers and magazines, it’s well worth hunting down a copy of this particular issue of Punch. Besides Waterhouse’s entertaining article there are various supporting features such as a collection of ‘New Pub Songs’…

The English Pub in Singapore
Is filled with Finns from door to door.
Skol! Gezondheid! Sante! Cheers!
Pleece, you gif me six warm beers.

…and a special spread of (not very funny) cartoons on the subject of pubs and wine bars. This one is the best:

Cartoon: a man stands at the bar in a huge empty pub. The landlord says to his partner: "God, here's another one -- where the hell are they all coming from?"
SOURCE: Ken Taylor/Punch, 3 July 1974.

The cover illustration, by Geoffrey Dickinson, is arguably the most eloquent statement of all.



The decision by CAMRA to commission a warts-and-all official history by Laura Hadland made something of a statement: it is keen to balance celebration with reflection – and perhaps ready to show its sensitive underbelly to the world.

50 Years of CAMRA (RRP £16.99, 245 pages) will be most interesting to CAMRA members, either nostalgic or curious, and to scholars of British beer history.

It is built around a combination of archive research, with special emphasis on What’s Brewing, the CAMRA newspaper; and interviews with longtime CAMRA members, both in leadership positions and the rank-and-file.

Until now, we’d have said our own Brew Britannia offered the most detailed and balanced account of the early years of CAMRA, but Hadland’s book benefits from the space to zoom in on certain details that we had to summarise.

She also has input from founder member Graham Lees – something we never achieved, despite many grovelling emails.

Before opening the book, we had a particular test in mind: what might she say about the founding date of CAMRA?

Researching Brew Britannia we worked out that the official founding date didn’t tie in with another detail of the story – that the founders read a story in the Mirror about the poor quality of British beer on their way home from the trip to Ireland on which CAMRA was formed.

It’s a minor detail, it doesn’t really matter in terms of the grand narrative, but it is a flaw in what for decades was the accepted origin tale.

In a footnote to Brew Britannia we suggested that the trip must have been a week later than supposed and that the article probably prompted the founding of CAMRA; Hadland, based on new testimony from founder member Michael Hardman, argues otherwise.

What matters to us, really, is that this point is considered at all. It’s a sign of due diligence.

Throughout the book, similar rigour is displayed in terms of pinning down the facts, with reference to original sources and first-hand testimony.

Elsewhere, criticisms of the Campaign, arising both internally and from outside, are clearly set down and thoroughly interrogated.

“With nearly 200,000 members it is not surprising that CAMRA cannot always present a united front”, she writes. What it does present, through this book, is the ability to look at itself with clear eyes.

From institutional sexism to the constant debate over the organisation’s focus (is it ale, pubs, or something else?) and the failure of the CAMRA Revitalisation project, Hadland makes space for thoughtful comments from veterans, newcomers and objective outsiders.

Most talk sense, even if they often contradict each other, giving the sense that the instinct to debate and to compromise are among CAMRA’s strengths, not its weaknesses.

Although clearly and engagingly written, the book isn’t a narrative history to be read from cover-to-cover. Instead, it is arranged around big themes, each chapter or section bouncing the reader back and forth through the decades like a tiddly timelord.

We were particularly pleased to see space given to topics such as the role of women in CAMRA over the years and to a note on the founding of the Lesbian and Gay Real Ale Drinkers Group (LAGRAD) in 1995.

If you’re interested in the history (and future) of CAMRA, you’ll want this on your shelf. Every time you dip into it, you’ll learn some new detail; and as a reference, it will prove invaluable.

We bought our copy from the CAMRA bookshop. It’s also available via, for example,

20th Century Pub Beer history Brew Britannia

Brew Britannia: new evidence in the case – CAMRA Branch Bulletin

The monthly newspaper What’s Brewing has been the semi-public face of the Campaign for Real Ale since the early 1970s; but the Branch Bulletin, intended to be private, tells the same story without any PR gloss.

We were lucky enough to come into possession of a near-complete set of these newsletters, sent from CAMRA HQ to local branches, thanks to Sue Hart, a veteran of The Ring and a long-time CAMRA activist.

We’ve spent the past couple of weeks digging and digesting which gave us the urge to go back to our 2014 book, Brew Britannia, and 2017’s 20th Century Pub and fill in some gaps with new information.

Pub preservation

In 20th Century pub, we wrote about the birth of the pub preservation movement as the rhetoric of Christopher Hutt’s 1973 book The Death of the English Pub turned into practical action.

We focused on the Pub Preservation Group and the work of Jenny Greenhalgh, Peter Lerner and crew, from the late 1970s onward, but here’s evidence that the work began in earnest a little earlier.

The earliest of the branch newsletters we have, from May 1975, includes a paper by Mike Dempsey of the East London Branch, a lawyer by profession, setting out what looks like the basis of much of the pub preservation activity that followed.

The paper establishes how the listing system works, how it might apply to pubs and how CAMRA members might go about using the system to prevent brewers (and especially the Big Six) from demolishing or altering pub buildings.

Here’s his concluding argument:

Pyrrhic Victories
The fact that you may have succeeded in having a building included on the statutory list does not mean that your battles are over. The first thing that the owner of the pub will do when he learns of the Secretary of State’s decision is to apply to the local authority for Listed Building Consent to carry out the works which he intended to carry out in the first place. This means that you have got to put in hand the suggestions made in paragraph 4 above, and make sure that representations are submitted to the local Council at the appropriate time. Do not, therefore, be lulled into complacency as a result of your initial successes. You will only have succeeded when the pub reopens for business, unspoiled and preferably serving real beer, but there are, of course, many pubs which are worthy of preservation even if their beer is not. In these cases, the beer will have to be the subject of your next campaign.