Organisers overcame the odds to enable judging for the Indies Awards 2021 to go ahead this year after record entries flooded in.
But it was a close call whether everything would be cancelled, according to Siobhan Kerin, head of events at the Independent Brewers Association, after lockdowns across multiple states and worrying increases in COVID numbers in Brisbane where the judging was to be held.
“We had double the entries, as we were including kegs this year, but then every week lockdowns and restrictions changed, it became a logistical nightmare!” Kerin explained.
“The original plan was that we were going to be in Brisbane and we’d get the whole team there as they would be there for the BrewCon conference and all the plans we’d laid were around that.
“But anyone that plans anything post-COVID knows something might get hit, so we had contingency plans in place.”
When the IBA was forced to cancel BrewCon amidst rising COVID cases in Queensland and lockdowns across the country, plans were again thrown into doubt.
“We thought, ‘can we still do it?’. Every day I woke up and something else had happened, but we knew we had to push on. We’d done it last year so we knew we could do it.”
Despite multiple challenges, the judging went ahead with 34 judges in Brisbane overseen virtually by head judge Tina Panoutsos and the IBA team.
Bringing kegged beer into the mix was one of the biggest issues, Kerin explained, and the IBA organisers ended up with 1,389 entries from 180 breweries, up from 1,016 entries from 146 breweries in 2019 – the last ‘normal’ year in which the awards were judged.
“We’d not included kegs last year for a good reason, because the way the judging is done is class then trophies, and you judge the best beer from that. Whereas packaged stock could be held and judged across Australia.
“The problem with kegs was that if we judged across multiple hubs we’d have various kegs open and any delays meant they wouldn’t be worthy of being judged,” Kerin explained.
The IBA team ended up splitting the competition into packaged and keg.
“That way, if anything happened we knew the keg stock would get judged, and we could split up the packaged and send it to Perth, Tasmania or South Australia.”
Judging in a pandemic
With Victoria and New South Wales lockdowns cutting off both the IBA team and a huge number of judges, the pressure was on to get enough experienced and qualified people together in the same place at the same time.
In the end the IBA pulled together 34 judges who judged across three days.
“At times, we had three brewers from one brewery, and that’s a huge amount of staff to not have on deck across a week, but there was an amazing team of very generous people in Brisbane, and I needed their adrenaline and confidence.
“Everyone in Victoria is exhausted, after the longest lockdown in the world and having to constantly reschedule or cancel events can be a real challenge, but the true indie spirit of the Brisbane crew helped lift that,” Kerin said.
It was also an opportunity to bring in judges who may not have judged at the Indies before, explained head judge Tina Panoutsos, who is also senior manager of beer knowledge at Carlton & United Breweries.
“Obviously the best case scenario was that we started off with a national cohort of judges,” she said, “but you also want to grow and develop the judges and a succession plan.”
“When we’re looking for judges you don’t want to always keep the same talent, eventually you will do the industry a disservice by not bringing people in, upskilling them and building confidence.”
One of the main aims of a beer awards like the Indies is helping to benchmark beers across the country against each other and against style guidelines and standards.
“Benchmarking breweries is an opportunity to understand where they sit within the marketplace and how true to style their beers are,” explained Panoutsos.
“Not everyone wants to be a perfectionist and adhere to those style guidelines strictly, so we offer creativity and blurring of lines between the styles, but there are certain categories that are more exact.”
A major judging process can also give an impression of the overall health and wellness of the industry, the technical brewing skills it has and where the industry as a whole can improve.
Tom Champion, brewery director at Felons Brewing Co. and one of the Indies judges this year, said that beer quality was making strides in Australia.
“I can only speak for my table but from my experience, we saw higher quality overall to competitions I’ve been involved in in the past.
“There was less oxidation and fewer issues with diacetyl, and not many other faults other than that. I personally didn’t see one critical issue. Overall it was just at a much higher standard.”
But judging nearly 1,400 beers was a “huge undertaking”, Champion said.
“It’s easy to judge, but you’ve got to stay focused and give each beer the same amount of time whenever you can and we had pretty good alignment 90 per cent of the time.
“The mentality we took is that every beer could come out with a gold medal and it’s up to us to decide why it should not, rather than a points system,” he explained.
Head judge Tina Panoutsos said that overall, roughly three quarters of the entries this year received a medal.
“And that’s a good proportion. Inevitably Gold is always hardest, that’s a high standard to achieve, but 10 per cent of the total pool were Gold medals and that’s a great effort.
“The general consensus was that there have been improvements in quality across the board and any size of brewery.
“Faults you’d see ten years ago you wouldn’t see, and the dedication to quality and consistency is improving.”
The Indies judging and awards is also a major opportunity for the industry to come together, said Panoutsos.
“In this industry, we are in a fortunate position. Competition and natural politics of industry aside, it’s heart-warming to know that people banded together and worked towards a common goal.
“The efforts of Siobhan and the IBA crew putting everything together behind the scenes, and people like Scotty Hargrave saying he could jump in and de-prioritise stuff to help the industry, just generally people offering their expertise and skill sets, I was in awe.”
The online Indies Awards will be held this month on 25th November at 8pm, with live state parties happening across the country.
Check the Independent Brewers Association’s Facebook page for details of awards parties happening near you.