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Judging with the stars

April 12, 2011

Australian International Beer Awards 2011

The 2011 Australian International Beer Awards began its 19th year last week with over 1,100 entries from 33 countries including the first entry from a Kazakhstani brewery. Ni-ice!!

But, as you can imagine, that many beers don’t just judge themselves and the process is probably a bit more intriguing than you might guess. A morning spent with this year’s international guest judges is the perfect way to gain an insight into the pressures and pleasures of their important task.

Simon Jackson has a background in Zoology and Botany from the University of Wales and Fritz Briem is a graduate of the world-renowned Technical University Munich/Weihenstephan. In their bright white and firmly starched AIBA lab coats they look the stereotypical beer judge. A few minutes in their company, however, and it becomes clear that they are also just a couple of genuine beer loving blokes. Well, beer loving blokes with fairly well trained palates.

Three hours and nine beers with these two gents (at 8am, no less) is both a privilege and a rare opportunity to gain an understanding into the skill that goes into brewing your daily beer. They speak with passion and warmth about their own personal beer journey and are generous with their knowledge as they describe the challenges and rewards of international judging. To hear the manner in which Fritz explains the praise for a seemingly mild mannered, some might say ‘ordinary’ lager as a fine example of the brewer’s art is to realise that the Beer World really doesn’t need too many more snobs. We need more like him.

If you went into this caper thinking that beer judging is merely sipping lots of beers from dainty little tasting glasses then nodding appreciatively, you’d be wrong. Like athletes, beer judges must train their palate as they would any other ‘muscle’, they must push aside personal preference for style and they must engage that part of the brain that sees the many parts as a whole while examining each part in isolation. Harder than it sounds, right? But to watch the experts admire, assess and evaluate a beer is to marvel at the effortless simplicity.

As each beer was presented a new element of the judge’s experience and skill was revealed. Along with the arrival of each new beer the judge’s faces allowed just the slightest hint of cheeky grin. It was difficult to tell if this was because they knew what beer was coming or, as one suspects, because they were about to test the palates of the assembled novices.

As intimidating as it is at first, there is little in the experience of this beer lover to compare with the mixture of anticipation and fear that comes as an international beer judge as he asks you to detect an aroma, describe a flavour or evaluate balance. Conversely there is little to compare with the child-like joy that comes with a ‘correct answer’. I was never the teacher’s pet, but I reckon this came close to that feeling!

As the styles changed from light flavoured lager to hoppy IPA, lambic and cherry wheat and then onto dry stout the conversation turned from trends and style guidelines to the craft beer revolution and multinational macro lagers – and everything in between. Perhaps unused to dealing so directly with the average punter it took a little while for the lads to loosen up but, once they did, there was no hiding their love for their craft.

There is much to admire in the work of the beer judge. Take a good hard look in the mirror and ask yourself if you could switch off your own beer prejudices in order to evaluate a beer style that is not a favourite. Or to put on your ‘cap of objectivity’ so that you can spot a possible fault in one that is a favourite. Then you may have to state your case and argue a point to your Table Captain to elevate a beer from silver to gold status. And all this for ‘the love of the game’.

To sit and pick the brain of such respected beer judges is to look further than the labels and beyond the brands and the past the styles and even the brewers – it is to see that there is so much more to enjoying your chosen brew than meets the eye.

As an aside:

It was perhaps a little disappointing that not more media had taken the trip out to Flemington particularly as Melbourne has more than a small amount of pride in its reputation as the centre of beer culture in this country. Without naming names and assuming they too were invited, where were the representatives of the mainstream press? Where was someone to pop half a paragraph somewhere in one of the dailies – or to write nothing but at least experience the good side of the beer world? I understand that tattooed bogans punching on in a public street after a drunken bender sells more papers than would a piece on the AIBA Awards, but would it kill them to send a junior just for the experience? As another respected local judge and good beer icon said last night over several fine beers; “If we are going to keep this whole good beer thing going, we’re going to have to do our bloody selves!”

And we will.

[Congratulations to the Moonee Valley Weekly for at least making a token effort at covering the event. Ed.]

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2 Responses to Judging with the stars

  1. Ian Peak on April 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Regarding the lack of mainstream media, no doubt the advertising dollars drive the daily news. The Good beer movement will have to rely on people power in the short term. This site and similar ones, Social media, beer bloggers, good beer purveyors etc. will have to carry the message into the mainstream for now. Keep up the good work.

    • prof pilsner on April 12, 2011 at 5:16 pm

      … and in all seriousness, it’s comments like that which keep my fingers tapping away at the keyboard! When I wrote the ‘aside’ I kinda knew the answers already but was interested to see if anyone had other thoughts on the reasons. We’ll all be sitting back together in a few years when Good Beer takes over from Macro Lager!

      Pete Mitcham

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