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Split from big brewers poses quality concerns: Richard Watkins

August 9, 2017
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The absence of multinational-owned craft beer brands was felt in the overall quality of entries at the Craft Beer Awards 2017, according to Bentspoke Brewing Co’s Richard Watkins.

Watkins agreed with other longstanding judges that beer quality in the awards has continued to improve in some respects, but he qualified this by saying there were still reasons for the independent sector to be concerned.

“I think the biggest change this year from last year, was the fact the bigger breweries that were once upon a time involved in the beer awards, weren’t involved,” he told Radio Brews News.

“I think that the number of beers that they first of all entered also bulked up the quality of the offering in the competition.

“I still believe the standard was high and the amount of medals that were given was probably going to be more than last year, even though those beers weren’t in there.

“[But] there were still a lot of beers on the bottom end and I think that’s something that… the industry really needs to focus on and try and address,” Watkins said.

Significant major faults
He said there were still some beers with significant major faults that were unlikely to have occurred since the beer left the brewery.

“You do wonder why people aren’t identifying those faults, or whether for some other reason those faults have shown themselves,” he said.

He said the independent brewers will need to work on basic flavour training and fault identification, as well as education on how those faults came about.

“I think that’s where we struggle. I remember when I started 20 years ago… over time you could easily pick up the faults.

“But identifying how those faults came into your beer was always the harder part, and how to use that knowledge and create beer without those faults,” he said.

Independence at what cost?
Watkins said he is supportive overall of the independent brewers’ move to separate from the Lion and Asahi-owned brands such as Little Creatures, James Squire and Mountain Goat.

“I understand why the bigger brewers are no longer here. But we really probably didn’t think enough about, what are we losing from the bigger brewers not being involved? And how are we going to go about replacing what we’ve lost with them?” he said.

“I think we as a group are going to struggle with that for a few years because there’s a lot of knowledge and technical expertise there that really helped a lot of people.

Richard Watkins, right, judging at the Craft Beer Awards

“I think if you canvassed most of the smaller brewers around… they’ve all at some point had help from a bigger brewer and I’m wondering if that same help is going to be available.

“I hope it is and I know there’s a lot of people who work in the bigger breweries… [who] are really still supportive of the indie industry.

“But I just wonder, over time, how that’s going to evolve and whether that same help will be around?” he said.

Not all doom and gloom
Nonetheless, Watkins acknowledged there were more medals awarded this year, suggesting a lift in quality among entrants that were previously middle of the road.

“It’s not all doom and gloom… Instead of getting beers that were 13 out of 20, those beers have now gone on to get 15 or 16 out of 20 and some of the bronzes from last year have moved up into silvers and even gold potentially,” he said.

“But I still think there’s still a noticeable number of beers that didn’t medal and I just think that that number seems the same as it was last year.

“There’s a gap formed in the middle… you’ve still got an insane number of beers at the bottom end, but some of the beers that were in the middle last year have moved up and created more of a higher-end of the market,” Watkins said.

Brewers over-stretched
He said the judging experience reaffirmed his long-held belief that the brewpub model is the best way for inexperienced brewers to find their feet.

“You sell beer retail and you do your time, you learn the game from that end,” he said.

“It’s hard to sell beer wholesale when… you potentially don’t have the right equipment to be able to do it properly.

“I think it’s those beer brands that… struggle a little bit and I’d really love them to focus more on their retail… then worrying about expanding into wholesale,” said Watkins.

IBA strategy
Quality is one of the four pillars that underpins the Independent Brewers Association’s growth strategy, unveiled at the Australian Craft Brewers Conference in Adelaide.

“It’s massively important that we’ve got to make sure the beers we’re producing and people are sampling for the first time is great quality. If we give them a bad experience, we may never get them back,” IBA chair Ben Kooyman told Brews News last month.

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