Last month I was invited to judge at the yearly World Beer Awards, at which over 400 beers are submitted to the Europe panel alone. It was on the European judging panel that I learned an important lesson about the beer market, and the perils facing emerging craft brewers.
As the second round of Hefeweizens finds their numbered positions on the placemat in front of me, a fresh cloud of clove, banana and bubblegum fills my nostrils. It’s the fourth style I’ve tasted so far on the first day of judging at the World Beer Awards, and I’m having the time of my life. I’m tasting some of the finest beers from across Europe, surrounded by seasoned professionals, even having the privilege of judging in a pair with Tim Hampson, the Chairman of the British Guild of Beer Writers. It’s a young beer writer’s dream gig, and one I relished the opportunity of doing.
Beer judging is a strange business – forcing you to accept on one hand that beer is an amazing equaliser that brings people around the world together in simple, pleasing, mildly alcoholic euphoria in their day-to-day lives; and on the other hand that beer is something that must be taken seriously by some in order for others to enjoy it casually.
There’s a frequently repeated assertion that, when tasted blind, without their labels, glassware or reputation to bolster or hinder them, beers in the same style all taste broadly the same. It’s complete crap, of course, but the worry that I might struggle to distinguish from one to the next when ten beers are placed in front of me was a lingering doubt before the judging began. The reality was far stranger than I expected: that some beers would indeed taste almost exactly alike, whilst others in the same category would seem to belong somewhere else entirely – and that these would be the ‘normal’ ones.
What struck me most from my judging experience so far (there are a further two rounds of judging to be completed, so don’t expect me to name any beers that were entered), was that the more populated style categories, those with dozens of commercial examples but which are distinctly European, such as hefeweizen, Tripel, Helles, pale ale, seemed to have a lot in common. Not in terms of flavour or other physical characteristics, but that in each style category there were a large proportion of entries that really did all taste very alike, whilst a handful of outliers proved to be the most interesting for better or worse.
With such traditional beer styles, there is always that fear that you perhaps don’t like a certain more commercial or typical example of the style because you don’t ‘get it’, or you are ignorant of its nuanced charms. This is why my experience taught me so much: most of the time, the unusual and more remarkable outliers were the beers that tasted most atypical or traditional for the style. It was the homogenised mass of commercial beers, all quite deliberately designed to taste like each other, all quite plainly desperate to capture the centre ground, that fascinated me. These beers clearly represented what many people would associate with those beer styles, and yet in comparison with others, were plainly miles away in flavour. So how do I know which ones were ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? In many ways, I don’t, or rather, I can’t, but when it comes to flavour and authenticity, I was confident I made the right calls. Reassuringly, my judging partner almost always agreed.
When judging these categories, it can sometimes take a few beers to get one’s ‘eye in’ for the style, after which it can become a box-ticking exercise of discovering which beers have or have not the desired characteristics and excel at displaying them. Other times, more interestingly (for the inquisitive palate), you find each beer provides the dimensions and borders for your appreciation of the subsequent beer, and that the ones after that inform and can cause you to reassess your impression of the earlier ones. I would have loved to have seen a live brain scan of various synapses firing as I tasted different beers (anyone with some spare lab time and equipment leave a comment below). With some categories it was a rollercoaster, causing verbal and physical reactions like reading a good suspense story.
So what to make of these style categories with an abundance of imitators lightened up by occasional marvels? Well, you might not be that surprised that the traditional styles of European beers have become bogged down in the perceived parameters of what they should be, and that those owned by larger concerns lack the flavour of more esoteric or eccentric examples. What concerned me was that amongst the more modern beers, and here I’m referring to hop-forward pale ales as well as modern takes on traditional styles, there was evidence of this same phenomenon. It gave me pause for thought: would the beers I identify now as ‘juicy bangers’, breaking down style boundaries by serving consumer thirst and brewer creativity, face the same fate as the traditional heavyweights? There is early evidence to suggest they might, and more generally I have noticed a gradual move to towards less complex flavours in New World hoppy pale ales as craft beer in the UK gathers apace.
I worry that the beers that are changing everything in UK beer right now might begin to coast, or worse, actively seek a more ‘generic’ mildly citrusy flavour to seek broader appeal, at the cost of their initial promise and early brilliance. We’re seeing more smaller breweries losing that ‘smaller’ modifier, and with that growth comes the temptation to seize margin, to take a firm hold of a certain flavour and make it duller, simpler, cheaper to broaden appeal. There are surely lessons to be learned here from beer styles from around Europe with incredible histories, reputations and flavours, that have been gradually diminished in an attempt to out-average each other in competition.
When the only race is one to the middle, there are no winners, only competitors, caught in a gravity well of their own making, forever chasing after an ideal that in fact lessens what they were before. It’s admirable and encouraging to see smaller breweries try to improve and expand, to provide an ever more stable and commercially successful product to win over more people to the side of good beer. As they do so, they should remain cautious of freely and gladly handing away that which made them great to begin with, and in doing so, becoming yet another competitor in a game they should have no desire to play.
My work as a judge at the World Beer Awards is for a fee. My employer, Brew By Numbers, did not enter any beers into this year’s awards.