Reflections on the CBAs and Other Beer Competitions

by Stephen Beaumont

People came to Toronto. Awards were bestowed.

That is, of course, a gross simplification of the recent Canadian Brewing Awards (CBAs), held at the downtown Westin Hotel at the start of May. To be perfectly frank, however, it is also the way I feel about many brewing and beverage awards, even some of those I help judge or organize. That being now said, I must also add a very large caveat, although only after a brief explanation.

As a long-time taster, critic and writer, I get invited to judge at a great many contests, beer and otherwise, but because of the large amounts of time judging consumes, I actually participate in relatively few. Those I choose are selected based upon a pair of criteria:

1) They need to provide me with some sort of professional benefit, such as an overview of a beer scene with which I am not familiar or a flight to some place I want to visit after the judging is done; and

2) I need to be happy with the way the judging is organized.

(Note: I did not serve as a judge for the CBAs, but not because they didn’t satisfy the above. I simply wasn’t asked.)

Now, while criteria #1 is usually pretty easy to determine, #2 can be a bit of a minefield. I have been asked to judge far more beers in a session than I think my or anyone’s palate can accurately assess, pressed into multiple judging session situations to the point that not just palate, but mental fatigue becomes an issue, and presented with judging methods that I consider inexact or unbalanced. Any of these are a cause for politely declining to the offer to participate the following year.

Even under the best judging conditions, however, odd results do occur, sometimes as a result of the inexperience of the judges, unfamiliarity with a particular category – I’m reminded of a Best in Show winning beer that I, as table captain, rescued from receiving relatively low scores from judges who didn’t fully understand the style – or simple circumstance. Rearrange the order in which the beers are tasted and winners can change; enter a beer in a different category and a low-showing ale could become a gold medalist; switch around the judges and personal preferences that could hamper a particular lager’s advancement might wind up benefiting that same beer.

All of the above happens because beers are judged by humans, not machines, and humans are marvellously fallible. Even so, when skilled judges are on the case, as I am sure they were for the CBAs, more rather than less accurate results will occur. How can I tell? Simple, I look at those results.

Take, for example, this year’s Brewery of the Year, Clifford Brewing of Hamilton, Ontario. While I cannot say for certain that it was the finest brewery judged at the Awards, I can say that every time I have tried a Clifford beer over the past year, I have thought it tasted better than the previous time I enjoyed the same beer. Or Four Winds Brewing’s gold medal for Nectarous, a simply wonderful beer I have championed since my first sip. Or Glutenberg’s sweep of the gluten-free category, because, let’s face it, nobody is doing gluten-free like those guys are doing gluten-free. Or local heroes New Limburg using that amazing yeast they have to win two of the three medals awarded in the Belgian-Style Dubbel or Quadrupel category.

These are all solid results, as are, in my view, the great majority of the awards handed out that Saturday night. Of course, the overall winners board is skewed somewhat by the breweries that did not enter and all of the judging factors I noted above, but in the end the medal listing provides what all good awards should – a strong suggestion for beers that deserve your notice. Meaning that you should probably check out and start making yourself a shopping list.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Chan Photography