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Canadian Brewing Awards – Behind the Scenes

The judging for the Canadian Brewing Awards was held on September 11th and 12th, and I somehow managed to smuggle myself into the proceedings.  I think I managed this mostly by being relatively large and stolid and being willing to carry heavy boxes around during the setup on the 10th. As heavy boxes go, those filled with beer are only slightly lighter than those filled with books. If you’ve ever moved your library into a third story walk up, you know what I mean.  Books take on moisture and mildew and dust and will only get heavier. The advantage with slugging boxes of beer around is that you know from the outset that the bottles will be lighter on the way out of the building.

You may have seen pictures on Troy’s blog of the bottles as they were set up. Basically, we transported  a couple of pallets of beer from an undisclosed location where they were being kept at an appropriate temperature to the Cool Brewery and then unpacked them in order to sort them into categories. Honestly, it would have been worth volunteering if only to see this part of the process. When was the last time you saw nearly four hundred high quality beers from all across Canada laid out on one table in the centre of a brewery? It’s a heartening sight and a decent reminder that the world doesn’t stop when you get to Hull. There’s a lot of good stuff out on the coasts, not to mention next door in Quebec.  It’s always good to have a larger context to think about. It certainly makes you feel like an idiot for droning on and on about problems with the LCBO.

I must have done something right on the Friday, because I got asked back to help out with the judging portions of the event on the weekend. At some point I let slip that in a previous career I had been a database administrator and my role for the weekend was essentially dictated by this fact. I got to enter all of the judging information from the judges’ tables into a spreadsheet and became de facto returning officer for the Canadian Brewing Awards.

Now some of you may question the judgment, the value, even the sanity of putting a blogger in charge of such sensitive information. After all, I got to see all of the comments written by the judges and all of the marks that were given to beers in all of the categories. I knew the overall scores before anyone else did. For about half an hour, I was the only person who knew the results. Perhaps a less reputable blogger would have gone all wikileaks on the thing. The fact is that I’m a quasi-legitimate beer journalist and as such I feel as though it wouldn’t be sporting to talk about it. Plus, Kristina from TAPS threatened to break my knees and her tone of voice suggested that she knew a guy.  Mobility is probably more important than column inches. Plus, they bought my silence with a lot of leftover beer.

So, I’m not allowed to talk about the results; at least not until after they’re announced. I have come to some interesting conclusions, but I imagine I’ll address those after Toronto Beer Week if Rocco doesn’t show up with a baseball bat.

The North American Reticulated Beer Judge in his natural habitat

In the meantime, I’d like to talk about the process of an event of this size. You might think that it would be fun to have access to the best beers in the country and to sit there drinking them all day. I’m afraid that it turns out not to be the case. First of all you have to be certified. You have to take the Beer Judge Certification Program, and the exam is noted for its rigour. People come staggering out saying “My God, what a rigourous exam.”

There are 400 beers, but a lot of them are submitted by large breweries and since there are 31 categories to judge, you’re looking at a sampling range that diverges wildly in quality and reputation. You’re looking at about 13 beers per category. If you’re a judge at an event like this, that means that you end up sampling beers from six or seven categories, for a total of nearly eighty beers over the course of two days. That’s eighty 2-3oz samples of beer that you’re making notes on and judging based on how well they fit into the category that they’ve been submitted to. Points are awarded for aroma, appearance, flavour, mouthfeel and overall impression. And, of course, the beers being judged aren’t identified by name. There’s only a numerically indecipherable sticker on the base of the glass to identify the contents to the organizers of the event.

From where I sat, it seemed like a lot of hard work. Troy and Kristina who organized the event never really got a break from putting stickers on glasses and carrying trays of drinks out to the judging tables. The judges themselves had a hard time of it as well. The deliberation process is difficult and I was frequently met with the relatively confusing image of grown men and women frowning thoughtfully at a snifter containing a small amount of liquid as though staring at it would force the liquid to divulge its secrets. They would then scribble something like “butterscotch notes” or “underwhelming hop aroma” or merely “spicy!” on the judging sheet and attempt to mark the beer out of fifty. Consider how many times you have used the word “Butterscotch” in your adult life. For beer judges, it’s entirely normal to use it as frequently as a Werther’s employee.

I think he overheard me saying we were sending that table light beers.

They would then hand in their judging sheets and a period of a few minutes would elapse before they were presented with another tray of beers, possibly from another category. It speaks to the professionalism of the judges that few of them were visibly crestfallen upon being presented with a flight of Calorie Reduced or Amber Lagers. They mostly accepted the trays with the air of an overworked passport office employee who has caught a glimpse of the length of the lineup.

One thing that I believe I can talk about is the fact that the judges are human and therefore not completely impartial, which is probably the reason that they need so many of them for an event of this size. They have biases which are apparent if you look at the marks that they give to certain categories. Some of them are particularly sensitive to aromas that result from flaws in the brewing process. Some of them vastly prefer Fruit and Spiced beers to other styles. Some of them prefer Baltic Porters or Belgian Wit. They all have their own mental models and sliding scales of what it takes to fulfill certain criteria. Some might mark all of the beers four or five points higher than others, but the important thing to realize is that the marks average out because of the duplication of judging that beer.

The aftermath of a round of judging

The size of the event is impressive. Essentially, it takes 25 people 16 hours to make the event feasible. 400 hours of actual effort, not to mention the time spent in the run up to the event by the organizers and all of the brewers who have gone to great lengths to ensure that their beers have managed to get to the judging. You’re looking at over a thousand hours of actual effort from start to finish in order to ensure that some objective measurement of quality can be reached. And it’s all done for the benefit of beer drinkers Canada wide. When they announce the winners on the 24th, everyone will know exactly where they stand and you’ll know exactly what beer to buy at the LCBO or when you go out to the bar.

The amount of effort put forward is easily enough to prevent me from talking about the results ahead of time, as I have a great deal of respect for all of the people involved in the process who gave up a weekend to determine the topography of the landscape of brewing in Canada. Besides, I have the feeling that Kristina has Rocco on speed dial.

One Thought on “Canadian Brewing Awards – Behind the Scenes

  1. Well I must say I was completley oblivious to firstly the number of beer varieties in Canada alone, and secondly the amount of work and organization it would take to rate said beer.

    Jordan, on behalf of Canadians all over this great land, I thank you and your fellow judges/organizers for ‘taking one for the team’ and guiding the rest of us commoners on our journey to the taps.

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