You can learn a lot from awards given out at large beer festivals. You’re not going to learn who the best in the world is. You’re not going to learn who the best brewer is or even what the best light lager is. There’s no true objectivity for the simple reason that the sample doesn’t include ALL BEER. Think of each beer festival and judging as an annual sample of some beers. Some festivals are more legitimate than others because of the size of the sample or because of historical precedent. Scale has a lot to do with this kind of thing.
That’s pretty obvious; Nose on your face obvious. It’s like ugly on an ape, or a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake. It’s an indicator of quality, but it’s one version of an objective quality based on what there was that day.
What you CAN learn from medals given out at beer festivals is also important. You can learn who’s willing to stand behind their product.
If you’re a small brewery, awards judging and festivals mean that you’ve got to plan ahead. You’ve got to get your beer ready for the judging, sometimes months in advance depending on what batch size and strength and style of beer you’re working with. You’ve got to get the beer to them, which is difficult in Canada, if only for the reason that shipping beer is difficult. It has to get there in one piece and a fragile label on a small package is an indicator to UPS that they should work up an impromptu game of warehouse softball.
The other thing that’s massively important is self awareness. You’ve got to be honest enough with yourself to know whether your beer stands a chance of competing. In some cases consideration for an award comes with a fee. You’ve got to pay to enter the judging, so you’ve got to be sure that you’re not just throwing your money away. You have to be able to independently reach the conclusion that your beer might win, and you have to do it without self deception.
So: this requires planning and confidence. Especially, since you’re going to be going up against beers that other people have the same amount of confidence in. You also have to steel yourself against the possibility of disappointment. There’s nothing worse than entering six categories and winning nothing. In the end it’s all in the judges’ hands.
So, a couple of weeks ago when I was sitting in the Twisted Kilt and Andy Stimpson called me from the Neustadt Springs Brewery, I was surprised to hear that he had entered his beers into the U.S. Open Beer Championship. Neustadt might as well, at least from the perspective of someone who thinks of anything west of say, Dufferin, as being the boonies, be on Mars. It’s about halfway between Goderich and Collingwood.
It’s for this reason that I’ve never talked about Neustadt Springs. We get their 10W30 in cans, and sometimes we get their Double Fuggled on cask. It’s solid stuff, generally speaking. I’ve never had anything they made that I disliked. I think that they probably make the best mild bitter in Ontario, but I’m reserving judgement on that until I try it on cask.
Now, you don’t call a blogger unless you’re looking to sell something or share some impressive news, and Andy was in the latter camp. Four medals in the U.S. Open Beer Championship. They took eighth place overall, which is pretty impressive when you consider that the people above them in the ratings are sort of world class. Deschutes, Cigar City, Grand Teton, Sam Adams, New Belgium and Full Sail. Those are not names I would have expected to see anywhere near Neustadt Springs. Go ebay the prices on some of their bottles. 2 Deschutes Abyss will run you 60 bucks. You’d have to sell a kidney to afford some of the Cigar City stuff.
So Andy told me about the beers that he entered. Unsurprisingly, his bitter took gold. I was surprised to hear that their lager did as well, mostly for the reason that I don’t think I knew they made one. The 10W30 took silver as did a fruit beer: The Sour Kraut.
Most impressive to me, was that despite this incredible outcome, Andy spent most of the phone call pointing out that it was really a win for Ontario. Every Ontario brewery who entered this year won an award. Cameron’s took a bronze in the Cream Ale category. Grand River won the Mild Ale category outright (no surprise there). Denison’s took a silver in German Wheat. Amsterdam’s Oranje Weiss took the Belgian Witbier category. Niagara College took three separate medals including one in Barley Wine and one in Old Ale.
Let me talk briefly about what I think is the most improbable thing to come out of this: Amsterdam’s Tempest took bronze in the Imperial Stout category, which is always a hotly contested one.. They ranked just behind Cigar City (whose aforementioned aftermarket price range means that you’ll be waking up in a bathtub full of ice) and Deschutes. This means that Amsterdam’s first attempt at an Imperial Stout is basically a gosh-darn bona-fide miracle. Iain McOustra is some kind of straight up idiot savant and we should all bow down before his massive, massive cranium. Apparently, his only goal in life is to dance merrily on your tastebuds. My apologies to anyone who just pictured Iain in a tutu.
If you haven’t bought any, you’re going to want to keep an eye out for that one. I saw people criticizing the labelling, but my feeling is that those people should shut up about the labelling and enjoy the incredibly good stuff inside the bottle.
That said, remember the caveat from earlier? How awards are really only important based on the strength of the competition? It remains true. In this case, Neustadt Springs did incredibly well against some very stiff competition. I’m still a little amazed that I haven’t tried their lager, but I’m sure that I will in time. Mostly, I’m impressed with Andy himself, who is modest enough to have downplayed his role in the championship in favour of pointing out the merits of the other Ontario breweries involved. I’ve learned that he’s not only a very talented brewer who is willing to send his product all the way to Atlanta just to compete, he’s also quite modest enough to let others shine as well.
Bloody well done, sir.