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Brewers Blog: Why A Great Beer May Never Win An Award


Written By: Chuck Crabtree (Head Brewer and Chief Business Officer )

Relax, It’s Still Great Beer!

I’m sitting in a taproom in the great state of New York and I ask for the brewery’s signature beer. The bartender, who was also the brewer, recommends their American red ale.

“It’s our best seller”, he says with a touch of pride in his voice.

As I take in the aroma and flavor of the beer, I can tell this is a quality beer made by someone who knows his craft.  And even though the beer is delicious, I notice that it is not what I expected from an American red. The color and bitterness were on point, but the ABV was a bit high for an American red and the flavor was more hop forward than expected.  I ordered another one and started to walk around the taproom/brewery (they shared the same space) imaging the brewing process using the older German engineered equipment that was in front of me. I traced the process through dough-in (curious where the mill was), mash, mashout, transfer, boil, knockout, etc.  As I basked in the whole taproom/brewery experience I savored the American red I held in my hand. The beer was half empty and the glass was well laced by the time I returned to the bar.

I let the brewer know it was excellent and shared my tasting observations with him.  I knew they were an award-winning brewery so I asked what category they had entered their American red in at competitions.

“We have never entered this beer into any competitions.  It would be a waste of an entry fee.”

Surprised by his response I asked, “Why would you say that?  It is awesome. Great flavor. Well balanced. Clean. I think it would do well.”

“No…I don’t think it would do well at all.  What category would I enter it in?”

He stared at me, waiting for an answer.

“Oh”, I thought to myself, “that was not a hypothetical question.  He really wants me to answer his question. In which category would this beer be competitive?  American-Style Amber/Red Ale, or one of the other more non-traditional style categories?”

I quickly realized that he had already thought this through and had come to the conclusion that this “American red ale”, as good as it is, will never win an award because of its off-style.  He was obviously OK with it, and since he was OK with it, I decided I should be OK with it. Who am I to snub my nose at someone else’s beer simply because it would not be competitive? So, I relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the evening with a flight of his other beers.  Lesson learned.

This exchange illustrates the point of this blog, why a great beer may never win an award.  Before I share my opinions and our general philosophy here at NoCoast Beer, I would like to educate you about our beer styles, beer competitions and how they work.  If you are a brewer and have entered beers into a competition, then you are welcome to skip this part.

First of all, beer competitions take place all the time.  Some are local, some are national, and some are international.  I am not going to pretend to know about all of them, but in the U.S. there are 3 main national beer competitions.  The biggest and most prestigious is the competition associated with the annual (Fall) Great American Beer Festival in Denver.  The second is the World Beer Competition that takes place every other year during the annual (Spring) Craft Beer Conference. The third is the Best of Craft Beer Awards that takes place annually in Bend, Oregon.  The Best of Beer Craft Awards is just a competition, there is no conference or festival associated with it.

When a brewery decides to enter one of these competitions, they select the beers they want to enter and then they have to decide what style category it should be entered under.  This is where it can get tricky and somewhat strategic. Each competition chooses what style guide the beers will be judged by. There are really only 2 main style guides, although I assume there are others that I do not know about.  The first is the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) Guide. This is also the program through which beer judges are certified. The other is the Brewer’s Association Guide. Both of these style guides are updated on a regular basis so it is important to look through the most recent version when reviewing and choosing categories.  I have provided links to these guides below for your reading pleasure.

The guides are quite different.  The latest BJCP (2015) is organized into main categories (27) that are broken down into related sub-categories (85).  The latest (2018) Brewer’s Association guide is organized first by Ales/Lagers/Hybrids, then by Region of Origin, and then specific categories (157).  Each of the specific categories in both guides defines how that style is characterized in terms of color, clarity, hop aroma and flavor, malt aroma and flavor, fermentation characteristics, and body.  These are described in terminology that takes some time to master, but they are always described as a range of acceptable values (e.g. low to medium or gold to copper-colored). In addition, critical objective measurements are also listed for each style such as original gravity (OG), final gravity (FG), alcohol by volume (ABV), hop bitterness (measured using International Bitterness Units or IBUs), and color (using the Standard Reference Method or SRM units). These are also listed with acceptable ranges (e.g. ABV 4.2% - 4.8%, or IBUs of 28 – 40).

Now, using the guide that the competition will use for judging, a brewery can begin to assign their beers to certain categories, or at least try.  For example, let’s use our Trend Bucker stout as an example. We entered our Trend Bucker stout into the Best of Craft Beer Awards competition in early  2018 (Jan) under the Export Style Stout category. Fortunately, we won the Gold Medal in that category. It was a perfect fit for that category with an original gravity (OG) of 1.065 (middle of range), final gravity (FG) of 1.020 (top of range), alcohol by volume (ABV) of 7% (middle of range), hop bitterness of 42 International bitterness units (IBU) (middle of range) and color of greater than 40 using the standard reference method (SRM) (in range).  The verbal description of clarity, flavor, aroma, and body were right on. This beer was easy to assign to a category.

On the other hand, let's look at the American red ale referred to at the beginning of this blog using the Brewer’s Association guidelines.  The obvious place to start is to see if their American red ale fits into the American-Style Amber/Red Ale category since that is what they call their beer, an American red.  Everything in the verbal and critical descriptions is right on with the exception of hop aroma and flavor and ABV. The guidelines list the hop aroma and flavor as:

“American-variety hop character may range from low to medium-low in aroma and flavor”

Hmmm.  The hops were definitely American-variety, but I would have listed the aroma and flavor to be medium to medium-high which would put it out of range for this category. The guidelines also list an ABV range of 4.4% to 6.1%.  I am not sure what the ABV was on the red I tasted, but I would have guessed somewhere around 7% so it was in the high end of the range or out of range. Given these categorization issues, I am guessing the brewer figures there will be more entries that fit perfectly in this category, and since he cannot find another style that fits, he is just going to waste his money on the entry fee when he is relatively sure he has no chance of winning.  But, as a brewer, he is OK with that. His American red is exactly what he wants his American red to be. He obviously knows what he likes and he knows his market. It is his best seller and, in my opinion, it is an excellent beer. I’d buy it.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the takeaway of this blog is that you should drink what you like.  If you like an award-winning beer, drink it. If your favorite beer has never won an award, drink it. If you are a craft beer enthusiast and you want to educate yourself on beer styles, then seek out award-winning beers and see what the judges are calling the best of that style.  But I guarantee you, not every award winner you taste will become your favorite beer. I also guarantee you that there are excellent beers out there that will never win awards. So, when push comes to shove and you are sitting in your backyard on a sunny summer day (or watching football on a cold winter afternoon), relax!  Drink what you like, because, to you, it’s a great beer!



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