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.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Vancouver Licensees Beware the Pint Police

A sleeve is not a pint, or even close to one,
so don't call it one!!!
In Canada, 20oz = pint, nothing more, nothing less
I don't know about you but I am getting fed up with being mislead, whether intentionally or not, by bars and restaurants who advertise pints and serve sleeves.

Twice in the last few weeks I have seen restaurants on Commercial Drive advertising "pint" specials when they were serving sleeves, which are between 20-40% less in volume depending on which version of the hated glassware is being employed.

This pisses me off to no end as it is misleading at best and downright dishonest if the misrepresentation is advertised knowingly.

A few Mondays ago I notice Falconetti's tweeting about an all-day "pint" special. I tweeted back a few times asking if they were in fact serving 20oz pours and was met with silence. Later in the day, I walked past the restaurant, on my way to the park with my kid, and noticed a "pint" special advertised on their sidewalk chalkboard outside the restaurant. Curious, I stuck my head it the door and there was not a pint glass to be seen. Just to be sure, I called to enquire, and was told "pints" were apart of the Monday special and when I asked if it was actually a 20oz pour or a sleeve, the response was, "technically, I guess you are right, we serve 16oz sleeves."

Technically, really?

I wonder if I offered them $3.60, which is 20% of the $4.50 they were advertising their "pints" of lager for on Twitter, if I would have been told I was technically right as well?

I don't think that would have been acceptable to them as it should not be acceptable for consumers to be mislead. I would have been very pissed off if I had seen their tweet, traveled specifically to Falconetti's for this great pint deal only to receive a sleeve.

Eventually, after yet another tweet, where I pointed out that their tweet and sidewalk chalkboard board were inaccurate, whoever is in charge of Falc's Twitter account corrected their mistake and tweeted to clarified that they did, in fact, serve sleeves.

A few days later, while walking down Commercial, I noticed Timbre advertising "all draft pints $4" on their sidewalk chalkboard out front of their establishment.

'Wow, what a great deal," I said to my wife, better check this out." I stuck my head and was not too surprised to see that this too-good-to-be-true offer was in fact too good to be true.

Later, when I got home, I queried on Timbre's Facebook page if they did serve pints and immediately they answered back that they did serve sleeves. When I mentioned the chalkboard advertising, they responded it must have been an "oops" and that they would correct the problem.

I don't know if these mistakes, which are not isolated to Commercial Drive or these two places, are a result of some generational information gap for those raised on the metric system, failure to pay attention to detail or intentional misrepresentations. The Imperial System is as foreign to some as hops are to Alexander Keith's IPA, but that should be no excuse for attracting patrons into their establishments with what is basically false advertising, whether intentional or not.

I come from an age when a pint was a pint, sleeves did not exist and millilitres and litres were weird European concepts, but the majority of today's generation of servers and bartenders are from a different era, the era of the metric system and the non-standardized sleeve glass. But they need to learn that "pint" is not just a generic term for a serving of draft beer, no matter the size. The term pint has the official and legal volume in Canada of 20oz (1 gallon is 160oz, pint is 1/8 gallon), as per the Federal Weights and Measures Act, or in today's money, 568ml.

The term sleeve has no legal or standard volume attached to it in Canada and is a term invented by the pub and restaurant industry to decrease serving sizes and increase profits.

I am not stating that either Falconetti's or Timbre were intentionally misrepresenting their serving sizes because frankly I don't know, and I commend them both for publicly admitting and fixing their mistakes, but obviously someone at both locations did not know that a pint is an actual measure, at least I hope that was the case. I am quite sure these same folks would not advertise a dozen chicken wings knowing full-well that a dozen is defined by the number 12 and knowing that their serving sizes were much less than 12 wings.

So why is it okay to do this with beer?

CAMRA Vancouver, with the Fess Up to Serving Sizes Campaign (FUSS), have tried to address the misrepresentation of serving sizes here in Vancouver and even had the cause brought forth in the BC Legislature by NDP MLA Shane Simpson, but the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch have done little to ensure licensees do not mislead consumers and Rich Coleman, the Cabinet Minister responsible for alcohol, basically stated it did not matter.

But it matters to this consumer and as a result of being fed up with this problem, I am going to start waging a one-man war against this misrepresentation of draft beer serving sizes. It is us, the consumers, that must put pressure on licensees to change if we want to see change. I know others out there are frustrated and even angry about this issue. I, for one, intend to start trying to apply some pressure.

Stay tuned for future posts related to the Pint Police...