The 2010 Canadian Brewing Awards – Results and Analysis 1

Well, now.

The results for the 2010 Canadian Brewing Awards have been announced and that means one thing: I can talk about the results without the threat of hired goons coming around to dangle me off a seventh story balcony. I tabulated the scores and have therefore known the results for a couple of weeks, so I’ve had a little time to think about the process and I have come to some interesting conclusions.

Firstly, I’d like to talk about how the results for the major awards were reached: Beer of the year and Brewery of the year. Each brewery was allowed to submit to as many categories as they felt necessary, leading in some cases to nearly a dozen representative brews. In order to be considered for the top awards, though, each brewery was asked to choose four beers from amongst those submitted to represent them in the standings.

This, as you may have surmised, leads to a certain amount of gamesmanship. For instance, a brewery could submit any number of beers, but if they won awards for any of the ones that had not been in the four representative brands they had initially selected, they wouldn’t count towards the final standings. This means that in order for a brewery to have a chance of winning they had to accurately assess their abilities. Your pale ale might be your flagship brand, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be your representative in the Canadian Brewing Awards if you know your porter is going to score higher on points.

It also tended to mean that a win in any category is just as good as a win in any other category, meaning that if you can go obscure and win, it’s not a bad strategy to put into play. Many breweries seemed to have the same idea and the fruit and vegetable beers category ended up being the most highly contested one.

That said, I can tell you that Central City, who won both beer of the year and brewery of the year were just streets ahead of everyone else. They seemed to eschew strategizing and only submitted four beers for consideration, meaning that every single one of them was in contention for the final standings. They won gold medals on their Thor’s Hammer Barley Wine, Red Racer IPA and Red Racer Imperial IPA.  By the end of the evening, their representative had made so many trips to the stage that he may as well have been Sir John Gielgud. This year, no matter what the criteria had been for the awards, Central City would have won. They are that good.

That the Red Racer products should have one is not particularly surprising, but I think that Central City’s real edge in the competition was the fact that their Barley Wine is a good deal closer to an American style than many of the other entries in that category. Many of the other products in that category are closer to English style Old Ales and are less aggressively hopped than Thor’s Hammer (Mjolnir has a bite like Fenrir and would leave you feeling like you’d been through Ragnarok if you imbibed too much of it) and I think that Central City won for the simple reason that they catered to the recent North American trend towards hoppier flavour profiles across all ale styles.

Here are some other conclusions that I have come to during the previous couple of weeks:

1)Public perception is essentially unchangeable because of the prevailing trends amongst craft beer drinkers. There are a number of categories for lagers, but people aren’t going to talk about the fact that Laker won a silver medal. It’s not an unimpressive accomplishment, but in and of itself it won’t make people drink it who weren’t already drinking it. It could win a medal at the world beer cup. The Pope could pronounce that Laker is the one true beer, but it wouldn’t matter to craft beer drinkers. It might be objectively good for its category, but the issue is one of image because craft beer means ales.

If you look at the lager categories, they tend to be won pretty handily by large brewers. Molson took a couple of categories. It prompts me to ask the theoretical question “Does this mean that Craft Brewers can’t make quality mass market lagers?” I don’t believe that that’s the case. It’s simply counterproductive for craft brewers to attempt to compete in the lager market. What if one of them creates an excellent product and it skews public perception making light, fizzy beers cool? Molson would proceed to advertise them out of existence or buy them out wholesale. Competing directly and competently against Molson and Labatt could actually assist them.

It’s worth remembering that Molson wins those categories for a reason: They’re very good at what they do. It may not currently be popular to enjoy their products, but you can’t fault them for consistency or quality control. The BJCPs know this already. There’s a significant difference between personally disliking a product and that product being objectively bad.

2) Amsterdam makes products that I’ve never heard of and they’ve won a trunkload of medals for them. I spent a little time last night talking to some of their employees. They’re a young bunch who seem to know what they’re doing and it wouldn’t surprise me if Amsterdam goes through a significant directional change in the next couple of years. Did you know they made a stout? Me neither. Did you know they make the best English Style Pale Ale in Canada? Neither did I. Amsterdam needs an image revamp (personally I think their billboards look amateurish), but it looks like they’re poised to do something interesting.

3) The real winners of the CBAs in Ontario are HMH Negotiants who are the sole importers to the province of Central City, Trois Mousquetaires, and Microbrasserie Charlevoix. They’d be delighted to take your orders. Heck, go on down to Volo tomorrow for the Trois Mousquetaires brewday and meet the Quebecois contingent.

4) Unibroue are excellent, but because the majority of their beers are entered in the same category (Belgian Strong Ale) they are unlikely ever to win brewery of the year. Next time you feel like complaining about the lack of decent beers in the LCBO or Beer Store, remember that you have the luxury of Unibroue being an ever present fallback choice.

5) I’m not going to talk about the actual math behind it, but the scores in the IPA categories are high enough to put it into my head that we have reached the point in Ontario (and indeed across Canada) where there actually ARE high quality IPAs. At this point it’s just a matter of bottling them and making them available. Canuck Pale Ale from Great Lakes won gold, My Bitter Wife won bronze. Get them canned and get them shipped. Let’s move on to the next thing. ATTENTION BREWERS: There are a number of categories where Ontario doesn’t figure. Those would be exploitable avenues for product development or at least one-off experimentation.

6) BC has a lot of really interesting beers. I may have to conduct some independent research (ie: drinking).

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