Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Difficulty of Judging Beer & How a Pilsner Has Won Best in BC Two Years Running

The 2012 BC Beer Awards have come and gone and by all accounts, the awards ceremony and the CAMRA BC Harvest Fest event was a huge success and worthy of being the signature event for the BC Craft Beer Month.

Congrats to all of this year's winners, well done and well deserved.

But as with seemingly every type of awards ceremony where voting takes place, from selecting the Oscar winners to selecting a Homecoming Queen at a high school prom, some are in disagreement with the announced winners and at least one member of the local craft beer community has publicly, via Facebook, come out to state that he believes a "lot of pedestrian beers" took home top prizes in this year's BC Beer Awards, which he finds "embarrassing" and believes is evidence that the BC craft beer scene has "a long ways to go".

The main bone of contention seemed to be the naming of Steamworks Pilsner as this year's "Best in Show", an honour it was awarded last year as well, with the originator of the Facebook discussion questioning how a beer that he compared to "mainstream" beers, and which he felt did not accurately represent the best beer in BC, could win top billing in the awards. He did state he found the Steamworks Pilsner a decent beer but that it harmed the reputation and credibility of the BC craft beer scene by being given this lofty award.

The post drew harsh criticism and those defending Steamworks Pilsner and the BC Beer Awards quickly pointed out that the beers are judged on how well the meet the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines. This also drew criticism from the original poster who pointed out that judging beer on how it meets predefined style guidelines does not reward those brewers who are creative, innovative and whose beers "transcends boundaries" and rewards those brewers who recreate what has done before.

I think some valid points were raised in the Facebook discussion and I thought it might be interesting to see just exactly a beer gets voted "Best in Show" in a competition like the BC Beer Awards. I contacted Matt Anderson, who helped organize this year's event. Matt is a CAMRA Vancouver executive member, BJCP certified judge, homebrewer extraordinaire and knows his stuff when it comes to the technical side of making and judging beers. I might add he knows a little about drinking them as well!!

According to Matt:

  • All judging was conducted completely blind, with the judges not knowing whose beers they were being served or which breweries had even entered the competition. The only info given was the style of beer.
  • Six groups of three judges were used. Each group had two BJCP ranked judges joined by a third judge who could be a cicerone, sommelier, beer writer, bar owner, etc. 
  • A group of judges would be assigned a category and would go through it beer by beer and score each out 50, pausing for discussion after each tasting in order to come to some sort of general consensus. If necessary, upon completion of each flight, they would re-taste certain beers and come up with a final decision on first, second and third place for the category. 
  •  Categories with more than 12-15 entries were tackled by two or more groups, with each group selecting up to three beers from their flight to be entered into a "mini best of show", where judges from each table would come to an agreement on which beers would finish first, second and third.
  • The first place beers in each category qualify for the best of show round, for which we had a group of nine judges at one table. The first five beers were brought out, the judges would knock out two, then two more would be brought out. This would continue until there were only the top three beers left, then the judges would argue for and against beers until finally deciding the eventual winner.
The beers are scored according to how they meet the predefined style guidelines, in this case the BJCP style guidelines. If you have never had a look at these, you can download them from the website linked above and see how precise and comprehensive these guidelines are and how specific some of the categories are. This format tries to make the judging as objective as possible and pits entries only against those in the same category until the Best in Show round. Then it is the beer that best exemplifies what a beer of its category should be that wins.

As mentioned, this is the second straight year that Steamworks Pilsner has been found to be the best example of a beer meeting that beer's category style guidelines  For the record, this year's beer was not brewed by the recipe developer, Conrad Gmoser, over even at Steamworks and was brewed by Tony Dewalt, formerly of the legendary Dix, and Timmy Brown, late of Mission Springs, at Dead Frog Brewery in Aldergrove where Steamworks bottled beers are currently being brewed until their Burnaby brewery opens.

Is this the best way to judge a beer? Well, it is not a perfect system because, as pointed out in the Facebook discussion, this system does not really give freedom to those brewers who are thinking outside the box and pushing the limits of style guidelines and creating new ones. It is a good system though to keep things fair, objective, keep personal biases out of the judging and for comparing apples to apples, so to speak. Even if a judge is a dedicated IPA-hop freak, he has the style guidelines to use to rate the beer, not his/her personal preference.

Judging beer in the BJCP format is difficult. I sat in on one judging session last year before a CAMRA Vancouver event and was blown away by how serious and complicated it was. I did find that the beers I judged as the top were mostly the same as the ones the judges picked, although I ranked them much higher than the judges did score-wise. I can tell you if you have never sat in on one of these judging sessions, it is more than just swilling samples of brew and picking the one you like the best.  It is a very controlled and focused activity.

Although the BJCP style guideline format may not be perfect, it is way more preferable to other formats that just turn into a popularity contest, like the year-end, CAMRA Vancouver Awards and the Best of Vancouver Awards handed out bu the Georgia Straight. Using the format the BC Beer Award uses is the best I have seen for neutralizing a judge's bias towards one style of beer over another. If you just had an open blind tasting with only lager-loving judges, for example, other beer styles would not have a chance of winning because they simply would not fit the judges' palates. It also eliminates any biases or preferences for certain breweries because of their reputations as the tastings are blind.

I have always steered away from rating beers on this blog as I feel it is such a subjective topic and my opinion is just that, my opinion. There are many highly rated and famous beers I can't stand to tell you the truth. And I have not taken it upon myself to become a certified beer judge just because I have no interest in having to taste many styles and examples of beers I don't like. I also do not want to have my experience of enjoying beers ruined by me constantly judging them for faults and weaknesses. I took a few script writing courses at the Vancouver Film School years ago and to this day, I tear story lines apart and recognize where many scripts are going based on what I learned about the art of writing good scripts. I find it hard just to watch and enjoy a movie.

I want to keep that joy in tasting and drinking beer!!

Maybe next year, it might be fun to have two competitions, one the controlled, objective format like this year's format and one an open competition, judged by the same judges, in the same blind manner, where they just vote which beer is the best one entered based on their preferences and opinions. Maybe call it the "Judge's Choice Open Category".

Is the Steamworks worthy of the "Best in Show" award? Who am I to judge as I am not a ranked-certified beer judge and do not have the experience or education to dispute what those who are qualified that have.

Is it my favourite BC beer? No, it is not, but I can appreciate it is a well designed and well-brewed pilsner.

Not that it really matters. These are beer awards folks, nothing more, nothing less. They are beers judged on how they taste that day. I don't know about others, but I will continue to drink the beers I find pleasing no matter who brews them or what awards they have or haven't won.


  1. This comment came to VanEast Beer Blog via email as the writer could not post directly due to technical difficulties. I am posting the comment for him for all to read. cheers P

    Great post Paddy. I haven't seen the "complaint" facebook post to which you refer, though if someone would point me to it I'd gladly check it out.

    I'd like to correct some misinformation that has been floating around some BC Beer Awards posts. Take note and please spread the word: the winning beer in a given category is NOT necessarily the one that most perfectly fits the guidelines. Falling within the style guidelines is the price of entry to getting a half-decent score; after that, many other factors are weighed to determine a winner, INCLUDING things like balance, drinkability, and other intangibles. It's not like you're measuring with a metre stick to pick a winner. And many, if not most, of the style subcategories give significant room to manoeuvre within a style, so usually all entries anywhere near the winners circle are equally "within style" - so you can't pick a winner with that method anyway.

    A second point: just because you don't perfectly fit within certain subcategories doesn't mean you can't win. Beers that defy description may be entered in various "specialty" catch-all categories (i.e. Fruit Beer; Spice/Herb/Vegetable Beer; Belgian Specialty Beer; Specialty Beer). And it's not like this shuts out certain breweries completely; I doubt ALL of a brewery's products would have to be shoehorned into specialty categories.

    I'd be happy to discuss this subject with anyone, since beer judging is a poorly understood subject (though I'm travelling off-continent for the next while). Alternatively (shameless plug) people can check out my recent post on the subject: http://hoplogblog.blogspot.ca/2012/10/2012-bc-beer-awards-judging-and-judging.html


    Chad McCarthy
    Certified BJCP Beer Judge
    Certified Cicerone
    2012 BC Beer Awards Judge

  2. The BJCP guide lines are very "general" guidelines for judging beer. I think alot of people condemn them without reading and understanding them, and how they are used.

    An example we all know is American IPA:
    Aroma: A prominent to intense hop aroma with a citrusy, floral, perfume-like, resinous, piney, and/or fruity character derived from American hops. Many versions are dry hopped and can have an additional grassy aroma, although this is not required. Some clean malty sweetness may be found in the background, but should be at a lower level than in English examples. Fruitiness, either from esters or hops, may also be detected in some versions, although a neutral fermentation character is also acceptable. Some alcohol may be noted.

    If the beer does not have these basic qualities, I am sorry but it is not an American IPA. It is now up to the judges to determine how the brewer put all of the charactersitics together to come up with a tasty beer. The judges then assign it a score.

    In a wine competition if a judge is handed a syrah that has a rose like clarity, a watery body, no pepper on the tongue and smells like tangerines, do you think it will do well...even though it is innovative?

    David Oh
    A Certified Guy

  3. One of the great benefits of writing this blog is that I learn so much from those who actually know what they are talking about. Thanks for the feedback and for contributing to this discussion in a positive way. Beer judging is a far too complex activity for this pedestrian palate to undertake and I will leave it to those of you who have the education, passion and the taste buds.