Sunday, 7 May 2017

"Beer of the Festival" awards

As some of you may have gathered, from a comment made in the last paragraph of my previous post, West Kent CAMRA hit the road again yesterday in order to present another brewery with an award picked up at last October’s Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival. We actually visited two breweries;  Downland, who won the award  and Dark Star, who are based about 15 minutes drive away. The latter had extended an open invitation for us to tour their brewery so, whilst we were in the area, it made sense to visit them alongside Downland, and we actually called in at Dark Star first.

I will be writing about these visits in greater detail, later on, but it’s useful to know that yesterday’s day out, along with the previous Saturday’s trip to London, was the branch’s way of saying “thank-you” to the many volunteers who helped out at the SVR Festival; without whose assistance the festival could not have taken place. Using these “thank-you” trips as an opportunity to present the winning breweries with their awards, made perfect sense, and gave attendees the chance to view the breweries for themselves, and to meet some of the people involved.

As one of the helpers at the festival, I went along for the ride, as it is always good to experience the wide variety of brewing operations which exist in southern England today. Apart from choosing a handful of beers from London, the SVR Festival deliberately confines itself to beers from the south-east corner of the country. This not only helps to keep costs down, but also gives festival goers the opportunity to try beers they may not have come across before, but which are nevertheless available in their own region.

So I am quite comfortable in going along on these trips, as I am obviously pleased that the individual breweries did well. I also fully appreciate that these awards mean a great deal to the individuals concerned. What I am a lot less comfortable about is the process by which winners of  the Beer of the Festival Competition are selected; not just at our own but at other CAMRA events as well.

To elaborate, how is it possible to single out any one beer from the myriad of different styles, strengths and flavours amongst the large number on sale at your typical CAMRA festival? For example, how could you choose between a well-hopped, aromatic pale ale or a rich dark and fruity winter ale, given that both these complete opposites are presented in first class condition?

Winning “Beer of the Festival” is often little more than a lottery, in a contest which is anything but objective. If proof were needed, just look at the number of times a new brewery “start up”  wins this award at a local festival.

Bill Bailey has just installed a brewery in his garage or shed, and the local CAMRA committee is understandably keen to get hold of his beer for their forthcoming festival. Come the event, local branch members are keen to try the new beer. They all think it’s wonderful and Bill’s beer is the first to run out. The beer is fresh in everyone’s minds,  they all thought it was great, so come competition time, they all vote for it, and it wins the top award.

The following year, Bill’s beer is again on sale at the branch festival, but another brewer has appeared on the scene, and the whole scenario repeats itself. This this time though, it is Fred’s beer or Angie’s, which is on everyone’s radar, and sometimes it doesn’t even matter if it is inferior in comparison to last year’s winner. Because it is different and something new, people’s minds tend to become focussed on it and because of this increased awareness they all vote for it.

I can, say hand on heart, that I have never voted for any beer in any championship, or other awards,  organised by CAMRA. This is not some “holier than thou” stance; it is more a question of me having been round the block enough times to have observed these contests with the cold eye of detachment. “Beer of the Festival” is often nothing more than a lottery, where it is down to pure chance, and total randomness as to which beers win; or it is a re-run of the scenario just described above.

To add balance to the debate, CAMRA’s national festivals (GBBF and Winter Ales Festival), get round the problem of trying to compare, and judge, totally different beer styles, by having separate categories (mild, bitter, best bitter, golden ale, strong ale, porter, stout, barley wine etc), but this is not the case with smaller festivals. So, whilst it seems almost mandatory to run some type of “Beer of the Festival” competition, is there any real benefit in this, or is it just a case of going through the motions?

You could argue that these types of competition are just a bit of fun, but if this is the case, why does CAMRA attach so much importance to them? As proof of the latter CAMRA provides a service whereby branches can order certificates for whichever sort of award they wish to commemorate; “Beer of the Festival”, “Pub of the Year”, “Runner-up” in these categories etc. My own branch of course, takes advantage of this, and with a little forward planning we can order whatever certificate we wish; all we have to do is provide the frame and these can be picked up now in most Pound Shops for next to nothing.

I suspect CAMRA views these competitions and their attendant awards as a useful campaigning tool, which also provides the campaign with some welcome publicity. Winning these awards also represents an important achievement for the breweries concerned; so why deny them their place in the sun?

The answer is not to deny them, but instead to take them with a hefty pinch of salt and, if they provide the opportunity to forge closer links between the award winners and CAMRA, then that can only be a good thing.

I enjoyed yesterday’s trip, but for me it was a lot more than “just a ride”, with the chance of a few free beers thrown in. Instead it was the perfect opportunity to once again enjoy the company of friends and fellow branch members by spending a day out in the lovely countryside in the vicinity of the South Downs. To me these things are far more important than any award; but then I am not a commercial brewer, and neither am I a CAMRA committee member.

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