After the 1981 film Chariots of Fire claimed eight Oscars, playwright Colin Welland waved his gold-plated statuette
"The British are coming ." There could be just as much justification for St Austell head brewer Roger Ryman to do the same with the International Beer Challenge Supreme Champion award he's
just picked up for his magnificent Admiral's Ale.
chairman of the
judges for this competition for six years. Every year I comment that standards have risen, but this year there is more reason than ever for optimism that we are beginning to crack the code of producing outstanding bottled beer - particularly in the UK, which has lagged behind other countries for some time.
The International Beer Challenge is not
to win. Judging takes place over two days. On the first day a team of
some 30 judges from across the industry - brewers, writers, independent retailers, supermarket beer buyers, consultants and more - whittle down hundreds of entries to 75. On the second day, these 75 beers are judged for a second time by a smaller group
to select the World's 50 Best Beers and
choose winners in each class, as well as an international champion and the overall winner.
What makes the IBC such an acid test is that it not only assesses beers on how they taste but also on how they are presented. The competition has grown out of a close link with Off Licence News and the focus is sharply on what a packaged beer has to do to be successful in the off-trade. No matter how good a beer may taste, it will not sell unless the product looks good on the shelf and inspires shoppers to make the purchase. This is why judges score beers
for their flavour, hammering down on technical faults while rewarding character and drinkability , and again for packaging - casting a critical eye over the design of the bottle and the label, and examining in detail the information provided.
"It is clear to me that standards have risen enormously over the years I've been involved with this event," said judge Jim Helsby, of the York Beer & Wine Shop. "I'm sure
events such as the IBC are helping to push standards up."
Not all categories were keenly contested this year, however. Fruit beers proved to be a big disappointment
and lower-strength ales and lagers
failed to impress as a group.
Wheat beers - not for the first time in the IBC - were also found lacking. "When you taste a couple of wheat beers against conventional beers, of course they stand out as distinctive and characterful, but when tasted against each other some of the strengths and weaknesses are more apparent," said Helsby.
On the packaging side it was a relief to discover, after years of criticising brewers who can manage no more than an inane description of their beer as "being brewed from the finest ingredients", that this sort of remark is on the way out. That said, there was still some distance between the best practitioners of labelling and the worst. One bottle was scathingly dismissed by one judge, who described it as "so cheap and nasty it should have a
kiss -me -quick hat on".
The practicalities of packaging were also targeted by judges. "Information was often too small to read, or printed in garish colours that made reading the text against its background difficult," reported drinks industry consultant Howard Winn.
Further judges' remarks related to the use of gold and silver foil, which makes text
difficult to read, and bottle designs that disorient
customers by having blocks of text set at right-angles to the image, or text broken over the circumference of the bottle so that the product has be turned in the hand to be read.
There is also room for improvement in the choice of language, according to one beer writer , who asked: "What does malty or hoppy mean to the average consumer?
You don't see on a wine label the term 'grapey', so why do we use these terms? The labels that stood out to me used terms like 'citrus, biscuity, fresh and golden' or 'dark, chocolaty, rich and fruity' - this gives me a far better idea of what I can expect from the beer in the bottle."
The IBC being an international
c ompetition, judges were able to gauge UK products against those from overseas and this prompted plenty of supportive comments for British brewers. It was especially so when they were compared
with global beer makers who fall back on pan-European labels that just provide the legal basics in a handful of languages with no attempt to address individual markets or explain more about the beer.
"The UK packaging seemed on the whole a lot more advanced than the continental," reported former C amra
chairman John Cryne. He was backed by Hook Norton
director James Clarke, who added: "It would certainly appear that UK beers are leading the way in terms of information given
- ingredients, provenance, history, food pairings, units of alcohol - and I was pleasantly surprised by this."
But concern was expressed that certain long-established bottlers have not yet adapted to the new climate. "Some brewers whose labelling was regarded as good some years ago have stood still,"
said chairman of the British Guild of Beer Writers Tim Hampson. "The advancements in this sector mean that, where once
they led, they now trail and they need to take a hard look at what once worked but no longer does."
The I BC has been running now for 12 years. It's no coincidence that standards in brewing and bottling have risen steadily over this time thanks to the IBC, as this is the
only competition that takes into account production aspects and sets out where brewers have been going wrong.
There's a widespread acceptance now that beer needs to explain itself better if it is to survive and grow in a highly competitive drinks market, and that the future of beer lies in educating and inspiring the audience. UK brewers, at least, have taken on board this message and they're on the charge.
The rest of the world
needs to wake up, because the British are coming.