Sunday, May 04, 2008

A director's take (on my styles post)

David Edgar is president of Mountain West Brewery Supply, a company which supplies, among other things, glass, hops, yeast, and tap handles to the craft beer industry. For 14 years prior, from 1987 through 2001, Edgar had been the Director of the Institute of Brewing Studies, the operations arm of the Association of Brewers (now Brewers Association). In response to Style creep: a modest proposal, he wrote this:

I read with interest your blog and the discussion about too many categories and too many awards at the World Beer Cup.

Now that I have experience judging GABF for six years (since leaving the AOB/BA) plus this year’s World Beer Cup, I have a better understanding of how that all happens.

You might consider volunteering to judge yourself – you would just need to send a CV and get two other judges to recommend you. Chris Swersey is always open and in need of good judges, especially those in the industry like yourself who have experience brewing for a living. Anyway, if you have the time, it is always worthwhile and educational, I find.

As far as changing the entire way of awarding medals over to a points/numbering system, from my perspective the only way that could happen would be if there was believed to be sufficient reason to have a sea-change in the philosophy of the awards and the judging. This would require buy-in not only from the organizers, but also the Board of Directors of the BA (some of whom participate as judges), and the judges themselves, as well as BA Brewery Members. Could you really successfully argue that the entire system is broke, and thus needs fixing?

In other words, the horse left the barn – or the train left the station – two decades ago and despite having a few imperfections, of course, both GABF and WBC are each in themselves now “institutions” of sorts – and brewers wouldn’t still be sending beers in to compete in ever growing numbers (despite the high cost, which can be an obstacle) if they didn’t believe in the validity of the judging as a whole and the value of the medals. In other words, overall, both competitions contribute in a very positive way to the industry. Even though some brewers may not have the promotional budget, or the marketing smarts to best capitalize on a brand new bronze, silver or gold, you can’t deny there is a huge injection of energy into the market each time the awards are announced, after 250 or so beers all of a sudden have won national recognition, or international acclaim with the World Beer Cup.

You have to admit, even though few individuals, many judges included, could readily define for you what makes a perfect “International Pale Ale”, the bottom line is, Clipper City’s Winter Storm just won a gold medal, which means easily hundreds, if not thousands of people, are all of sudden hearing more about this beer, and may have greater incentive to buy one, than they did a month ago.

Some of the lesser-understood categories do get dropped after a few years if there is sufficient lack of interest or merit in the category.

Then again, if 20 breweries are producing a new style of beer that seems to be growing in popularity, or consumer interest, why not have a category for that type of beer?

The easier way to set up a competition with a numbering/point system would be to establish a new competition entirely. (That’s “easier” but of course in no way “easy”.) I’m not saying you can’t change GABF or WBC but if you really want to, you would need to undertake a huge grassroots campaign, at the least, I think, to push through that kind of sea change). In Balmer, you might call that a Heavy Seas change (sorry, couldn’t resist…).

I’m the first to agree that we need more numerical ratings that the industry can use for shelf/door talkers – because, personally, that’s how I often choose a wine, and they seem to help. (While letter grades might seem to make sense, unfortunately, beer retailers are more likely to hang something on the shelf that says “87/100” than a rating that says “B-“.)

The beer magazines and brewspapers, more and more, it seems, do a great job of publishing intelligent/educated and largely unbiased ratings and reviews. While those, too, may have their imperfections, I think the more that the beer press/media can work with brewers (and vice versa) to better publicize the fact that “Beer X” garnered a top-notch review in their latest issue – and can successfully communicate this to consumers at the retail level – the better the industry can help educate beer fans about what are some of the truly best-tasting and best-drinking beers out there.

David Edgar

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