Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt 2013

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For the third year running, the Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt seeks to find the best beers from participating British brewers and give national distribution deals to the ones that sell best.

Members of the public and trade attend one of four regional events in April and May. The winning beers from each event are given immediate regional distribution (or go into an in-store competition – I know, it’s a bit confusing) and the top three beers from each region then compete in the final in London later this year. A champion and a runner-up are selected from the twelve finalists, both winning a six-month national distribution deal, bragging rights, and – presumably – a massive sales spike.

I attended the selection event for the East region at Vinopolis in London last weekend. It was the first time I have taken part in the Hunt, and I was impressed with the selection of beers. However, it is worth noting that this is a very different kind of competition to other beer competitions or awards. This is all about retail, production and distribution. This is not necessarily the Best Beer in Britain, but rather the Best Beer Made by Brewers Capable of Producing Enough Beer to Serve Every Sainsbury’s Store.

In the selection for the East Region, famous and popular brewers like Oakham, Meantime, St Peter’s and Bateman’s rub shoulders with smaller,  less well-known brewers like Ridgeway, Ole Slewfoot and City of Cambridge. The most striking thing about this is that the increasing number of highly-regarded small London brewers were classed out of the competition by economies of scale. Nevertheless, there were some great beers to try, and it was nice to taste some British beers from outside of London for a change.

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The way the judging worked was thus: each of us had a look at the beers available (all served from bottles of course, some bottle-conditioned and some not), chose eight we wanted to judge, collected them on a tray like some kind of incredible buffet, and selected our four favourites. We then numbered these from 1st to 4th place and submitted our voting card.

You’ll have to excuse my lack of info, here. Whilst I knew the beers were broadly listed by strength (not, to many beer geek’s disapproval, by colour AND strength), the strengths weren’t actually listed on the voting cards. Anyway, here are the transcripts of some beer-splotched tasting notes from my notepad to give you an idea of the beers in the competition:

1. City of Cambridge – Robert Oppenheimer

Underpowered marmalade pale ale. Dry finish, bit of astrigency, pleasant but not a thriller.

2. Ole Slewfoot – Dragon Hall Saison

Appley, sweet/sour biere de garde flavour and texture. Not bad but lacks life. May be due to being poured from a jug, not fresh bottle.

3. Hastings – Pale Ale

Okay fruity pale ale. Needs one or two more different hops to perk it up and provide roundness. Occupies the centre of a lager/pale ale Venn diagram.

4. Oakham – Scarlet Macaw

Lively Yakima-hopped red ale. Bursting with grapefruit, lychee and toffee. A real treat.

5. Bateman’s – Black Pepper Ale

Sweet, biscuity and malt-driven. Weirdly, not peppery enough, despite containing floating bits of black pepper.

6. Compass Brewery – Torp

A raisiny, boozy, pear droppy, biere de garde/ESB superbeer. Loads of character, fruit, punch and finish. Needs pork, stat.

7. Bateman’s – B Bok

Rich, caramel soaked doppelbock. Bitter, sharp, and oozing with class.

8. Ridgeway – Querkus

Oak aged, whisky malt smoked porter. Rounded, smoky and rich, yet smooth enough not to overpower. Perfect for beef.

You’ll probably be able to tell which ones I chose, but I won’t say just in case it breaks the Ancient Law on Supermarket Beer Competition Ballots and I’m banned from ever attending one again.

I’m very interested in seeing what makes it through to the next stage. Will the curious choose the weirder stuff, and will that be enough to displace the likes of Meantime and Bateman’s? A couple of pale ales and bitters will almost certainly make it through, but I hope something weird makes it to the store stage.

After the voting, we were encouraged to go through to the Meet the Brewer area, where you could bend the ear of most of the brewers whose beers you had just tasted, and taste some more if you wished. Oakham, Ole Slewfoot, St Peter’s and Bateman’s all made a great effort, and in fact everyone was very chatty and more than happy to talk at length about beer recipes and where else to find their range. All in all, a great little event, and one that I will look forward to next year. Now then, I just need to get onto that judging panel in the final…

(It’s taken me a week to get this post up, which is pretty poor for a blogger. It’s like I’m blogging via carrier pigeon in war-torn early 20th century Europe. The truth is that I’ve been busy drinking beer, which means there will be a flurry of posts in the next few days to make up for the drought. Huzzah etc.)

Dog Eat Dog World

Copyright Ralph Steadman

Collaborations in the brewing world, especially between microbreweries, have become part of the loving, warm-hearted soul of this industry. It’s a curious thing really, for businesses in the food and beverage industry to collaborate in this way. We might expect it of celebrity chefs, or niche, independent delis and producers, but it hardly occurs elsewhere in food and drink.

In the arts, you can’t move for collaborations between musicians, artists and authors. Sometimes, beer and art cross over. Rapper Professor Green launched his own beer (brewed by Titanic) called Professor Green’s Remedy, and Beck’s have been using artfully-inspired labels created by artists and bands for a few years now. Even Elbow have released a ‘build a rocket boys!’ beer with the helps of Robinsons.

It’s a question that is barely worth asking, really. Why beer? Beer promotes collaboration because it’s one of the great social levellers, the great equaliser between ages, cultures and ideologies that promotes understanding and friendship (although, past a certain point, some people become progressively less understandable and friendly).

Sharing, caring and so on are all very well and good, but how about a little competition to spice things up?

Copyright Johanna Basford

On Monday, I attended the climactic final part of the recent International Arms Race between BrewDog and Flying Dog to create a winning Zero IBU IPA using no hops. It was a fascinating concept, and one that was wisely chosen. After all, instructing two hop-loving breweries to create a superior IPA would simply result in each producing a nuclear-hopped, scorched-earth-bitterness monster, which either could easily do any day of the week. Specifying that no hops could be used levelled the playing field and instead encouraged innovation. After agreeing on a set list of ingredients used to create spicy bitterness instead of hops (including bay leaves, ginger, rosemary and all sorts of herbs and spices), each brewer went off to create very different beers.

I will review each of them properly in a future issue of Rum and Reviews Magazine (once I have received some bottled versions), but the beers couldn’t have been more different, and the event held at BrewDog Camden was a great evening of beery nerdiness. It may have been a ‘Combative Collaboration’ and a competitive one, but both brewers gained from it, and had a lot of fun doing it. The competitive element intrigued me, because we are so used to the likes of Mikkeller simply co-authoring something with every brewery under the sun. Bloggers, writers, anyone can get involved, and that’s great. However, I think the competitive element adds something exciting. It encourages creativity and pushing boundaries, and I think a lot could be done in this regard with food.

Imagine, instead of trying to make the best Beer X, why not try to make the best beer to go with Food X?

The ultimate steak, BBQ or burger beer. The ultimate curry beer. The ultimate dessert beer. A famous chef could define and create the exact dish that the beer must match to, and then brewers could be invited to compete for the accolade of having the best beer to go with it. It’s something that drinkers and bloggers give their opinion on all the time (“for me, if I’m having a curry, I absolutely must have a … to go with it,”) and it would force brewers to put their pride on the line, instead of just idly suggesting an easy food match on the back of the bottle.

What do you think? Are collaborations a Good Thing? Would you like to see more competitions? I’d like to know your thoughts.