Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Great Northern Beer Festival

Last week I spent three days at the SIBA organised, but CAMRA run, Great Northern Beer Festival here in Manchester.  It was a good do.

On Wednesday, I judged beers, first of all in the first round of ordinary bitter category and then in the finals of specialist bottled beers and more bottles, this time in stouts/porters old ales categories.  I had not of course asked to judge bottled beers, but that's the way the cookie crumbles in judging sometimes.  Now I have to say a lot of the ordinary bitters were very ordinary indeed. In fact some struggled to reach ordinary, but as always, there were some that shone and while I don't know whether any I judged in the first round were winners, those in the bottled category certainly were.  I would say that I was surprised by the very high standard of most of the bottles, but of course, those that bombed had been weeded out by my fellow judges in the first round, as that's the point of doing it.  The judging process is interesting, but fortunately individual, as one or two judges based their scores, not on whether it did what it said on the tin, but whether they actually liked it.  One interesting aside is that in the words of wisdom to judges by the SIBA Chief Executive, Julian Grocock, we were advised that clarity was no longer an decisive point, but that SIBA hadn't worked out what to do about beers that were deliberately not clear.  The advice was basically "Make your own mind up." I didn't get the impression of enthusiasm for this change.

 My main job once the bars were open, was to manage the large bar of 64 handpumps.  The quality from our overhead cellar was excellent, temperature spot on and each beer was served into a fresh glass, through a sparkler, as God intended.  I tried many of the beers and can pick out a few breweries that impressed. These, in no particular order were, Stringers, Hawkshead, Kirkstall, Peerless, Bollington, Allgates, Abbeydale, Acorn and Roosters.  No real surprises there you'll be thinking, but quality will out, though there were plenty examples of well made beers from other breweries too.  I think SIBA North probably has the best set of breweries in the organisation, but I would say that wouldn't I?  I was also hugely pleased to see so many stouts and bloody good most of them were too, with Stringers and Roosters -OK a porter - standing out.  We don't see enough stouts on sale in pubs and in winter rather than dark, malty beers, give me a roasty and (if possible) hoppy stout any time.

It was also good to meet so many old friends, both as judges and when the trade session opened, brewers. 

Beer.  It's a people thing.

The gold winner in speciality beers was Hawkshead Whisky Cask Aged Damson and Vanilla Imperial Stout and in the Porter/Stout etc category, it was Croglin Vampire from Cumbrian Legendary Ales.  The overall SIBA Champion Beer was Watermill Inn and Brewery Isle of Dogs.


Cooking Lager said...

On the issue of cloudy beer, is it beyond the wit of man to make it clear to punters whether a beer is intentionally cloudy, either by pump clip or bottle label?

Then there is no fast one being pulled on anyone.

Curmudgeon said...

If you declare beers to be intentionally cloudy, fair enough, but if you start saying cask beers in general aren't meant to be clear then we are back to the murky days of thirty years ago and "real ale's meant to be like that".

StringersBeer said...

Clarity has been used as a proxy for goodness in beer. If the beer smells and tastes good then there's no significance (apart from the aesthetic) in clarity. If a beer is so yeasty or infected that it tastes and smells nasty then you'll be able to tell with your eyes shut.

If I go into the (excellent) boozer up the road here and am issued a less than crystal pint I'll dive in without considering that it's "off". I know the boss wouldn't put any crap on the pumps. There's other pubs not so far away where a lovely shiny looking pint won't be fit to drink, being flat, warm, oxidised, lightly infected and probably rubbish to start off with.

Lots of lovely beers on at the GNBF - even some that weren't going to win anything in the competition on the grounds of clarity. And a few crystal-clear but rather dull ones.

Cooking Lager said...

Ah, so this artisinal craftmanship doesn't appear to involve precision then ? I.e. making a clear beer or yeast suspended beer as per an intention of doing so and being able to inform customers of your intention and allow them to choose prior to ordering?

I should drink a cloudy pint of a beer which last time I had it was clear, because it doesn't make me gag?

Tandleman said...

Not convinced Cookie?

Curmudgeon said...

"If the beer smells and tastes good then there's no significance (apart from the aesthetic) in clarity."

Isn't "tasting nice" an aesthetic quality just the same as "looking nice"?

Cooking Lager said...

Not really Tand, and I say that from being a lad that really likes cloudy Weissbier despite the fact it's sweetness is a tad unfashionable amongst hop loving beer geekery.

But then they intended it to be so and put a clue in the name "hefe weissbier" or "kystal weissbier" to let punters know what it is.

Neville Grundy said...

The simple fact is we drink with our eyes as well as our mouths. In tests where food has been dyed to unusual colours, people declare they don't like the taste of the odd-looking food, such as blue tomatoes. The food dyes used are tasteless, easily proved by blind tasting of dyed and non-dyed food.

While I won't reject a pint with a haze if it tastes okay, at nearly £3 a pint, I like my beer to look attractive, and that includes the clarity.

John West said...

Depending on the length of time the cask has conditioned in the cask, even unfined beer should not be positively cloudy, right? It might have a slight haze but not be foggy.

I am more than happy to grant that unfined beer, well conditioned, is a fine product. Anyone who likes bottle conditioned beer (esp Belgian) that's unfined will understand the point here.

Where I have some concern is where beer will be rushed on by barkeeps. Even a beer dropping bright doesn't guarantee quality (it can still be green, depending on the brewery).

But unfined beer rushed on will likely get the "it's meant to be like that" response Mudgie referred to (and as a bloke of not-quite-30 years, I can vouch for the fact this excuse has not died a total death *at all*).

StringersBeer said...

The issue Mr T referred to(clarity as a judging criterion) isn't resolved by "declaring" the beer to be non-bright or putting any particular form of words on the label, since this is a blind judging whotsit. I suppose some indication of turbidity might be made to guide the judges - a tricky one this.

Of course, most ordinary bitters and the like are generally expected to be bright, and pronounced haze is usually an indication that something has gone wrong, even though the beer may be perfectly palatable. In other beers, and I'm thinking of what we might call "developing styles" like "hop forward and in the modern style" pale ales, some haze may be typical. Some unfined pale beers might also be expected to show a bit of (or a fair bit of) haze. Various white beers will show haze tending to the opaque.

I suspect, Cookie, that all brewers, even the artisanal ones, are interested in clarity - but will have different specifications and tolerances for their various products, and short of putting a range in turbidity units on the clip / label I'm not sure what you'd have them do. Sadly, clear/murky isn't a binary thang.

And anyhoo, if it taste good, what's the problem? It's harder to send the beer back when it is off? Because there's no visible proxy for quality? Blimey, where do you all drink? And why do you go back?

Curmudgeon said...

"Blimey, where do you all drink?"

Spoons? Seriously, in my experience, if you visit a variety of pubs throughout the year, from time to time you'll get a bad pint that needs to be returned. Not every week, but certainly every couple of months.

"And why do you go back?"

If I boycotted every pub in which I'd ever had to send a pint back, I'd just stay at home.

Tandleman said...

Echoed Mudgie. I've had plenty of bad pints in good pubs. It happens. Anyone that hasn't experienced a duff pint doesn't get around enough.

Cooking Lager said...

@Stringer, Fair enough but if your selling a cloudy or hazy beer and it is intentionally so, then it can be described as such. It does not need a turbidity measurement. It only needs to say "unfined pale ale with a natural haze" or some such crap.

Now if your saying an individual cask may vary then am I entitled to question the degree of craftsmanship involved and suggest half arsed amateurism?

StringersBeer said...

By definition (I'd say), a good pub is one where you don't get plenty of bad pints. But that aside - I'm not saying you might not get the occasional bad pint, but surely a good pub will accept that a beer's not right whether it's hazy or not? You know, by smelling it or tasting it? Or even (heavens) by simply believing the customer? If you're saying that the only way you can get a refund or replacement is when yr pint looks like a badly kept aquarium, I'd say yr in a crap boozer.

There seems to be some confusion here - clarity is not (of itself) an issue, unless you, the consumer, require that the beer be clear.

In a competition we need to decide what standard we're judging a beer against. We have a number of options: a specification (a style definition perhaps), the judge's preconceptions, the judge's estimation of what a typical consumer (or range of consumers) might expect. In a blind tasting using "what the brewer intended" isn't really an option.

StringersBeer said...

Keep trying Cookie :-) The point's about competition judging and the significance of clarity. But I take yr point about variance. It's typically wider for smaller producers. But I don't think anyone's pushing for haze tolerance to enable them to shift dodgy beer. If it tastes crap, saying "it's supposed to be hazy" doesn't make any difference does it? It's largely "Orthogonal" y. dig?

Coxy said...

worth reading what Moor beer say

Paul Bailey said...

I like SIBA Festivals. We've been lucky enough to host the South East Regional one locally, apart from this year when the event had to be cancelled due to flooding. Mind you if it carries on raining like it's been doing all morning, then we'll all be flooded out!

Cooking Lager said...

Okay then, Stringer, I will.

For all the expertise of brewers and publicans who know far more than me, there is one answer to a specific question only I know. That is "what do i want?"

That may or may not be what you produce, may or may not be at a price I am able or willing to pay. If it is, I might become a customer.

In other countries I have visited it is obvious in advance of sale whether a beer is cloudy or clear.

I want to know that before I order one here. By all means implore me to trust your expertise but if this crafted pale ale is occasionally clear, occasionally hazy, you cannot tell me in advance what is intended, well I'm not too sure about it and would prefer not to trust your expertise and go somewhere else. I'm not fond of pot luck, not being by nature an adventurous person and not liking hangovers or spending a lot of time on the bog.

Good luck convincing other mugs, there is plenty out there,

StringersBeer said...

Well, Cookie, stepping aside from the narrow issue of judging in these 'ere beer competitions (which was the original point), we can move onto the wider issue of managing customer expectations. I can't see any problem with telling the customer that the product is unfined or intended to be / may be hazy, cloudy, whatever. This is precisely what Mr Moor does over here. Although he seems to have the impression that finings are in some sense unnatural (?!)

Me, I aim to make nice bright beers (apart from the black and white ones), cos otherwise they're hard to sell. I'm not an innovator, and I've got Xmas presents to buy.

Erlangernick said...

...what Mr Moor does over here. Ooh, I like a lot of that.

"[In the US,] IPAs served too clear are often accused of not containing enough hops." That I've never heard, but then I've not been to Yankley since 2006. Not sure what the awesomely cool, crafty kids are up to these days.

My own personal anecdotal two pence: Mrs & I started drinking murky, homebrewed, hoppy real ale almost exclusively two years ago. In the subsequent two winters, we had neither a case of the flu nor a real cold (though a case of the sniffles I caught from a bloke at 't Brugse Beertje) between the two of us.

Cooking Lager said...

@Stringer, we can consider either competitions or customer experience but, correct me if I'm wrong, it's basically about unfined beer that takes longer to clear?

Now if a pub gets it's deliveries on monday, and sells it on friday it has 4 days to clear or the pub stores the cask for longer. Which is a cost. I can not tell you how long casks are stored for in competitions, ask Tand.

If it comes out a bit hazy or cloudy some would like customers to not see that a fault so long as the beer tastes okay, despite those features often being a sign of a fault. Even if the beer is okay to drink, unintentional haze is a sign the barrel has not settled and should have been stored longer?

It seems to me many of Tandys comments fit into 2 groups, punters and producers. Producers would like customers to accept higher prices for well crafted products and moan less about faults. Not seeing things there way is a sign of ignorance requiring customer education.

Punters by and large appear sceptical barring those that with good reason can be described as "fan boys"

I doubt either group will see the world from the perspective of the other.

StringersBeer said...

Yep, Cookie, you're wrong. Some beers "clear" in n days. Some beers probably won't become "clear" before they expire. Some beers shouldn't clear.

Punters (as you term them) include both those happy with a subset of the beer and those who are more prepared to enjoy diversity. That's all good isn't it? We have moved on a bit from the hipsters dissing the squares, and the squares putting down the hipsters? Haven't we?

StringersBeer said...

PS. Didja see that Top TV Chef Angela Hartnett knocking back that murky Kernel stuff like she actually enjoyed it? Wotta sad self-deluding fanboy. (I jest)

Cooking Lager said...

Well those that won't or shouldn't clear could be described as such on the label, or is that too square?

StringersBeer said...

Of course they could be. But that's not the point.