The Bitter Test

Bitter or Burton?

Off and on almost since beginning my writing I’ve described brewers’ events where beers are exhibited and sometimes judged. The last post discussed an 1877 exhibition of lager and competition in New York.

On my recent London trip I learned that award-winning British beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones wrote a book on the history of what is called today the International Brewing Awards. ATJ, as he is known, appeared at the Great British Beer Festival and I took the opportunity to obtain a signed copy of his The Seven Moods of Craft Beer: 350 Great Craft Beers From Around the World.

I also came home with another of his volumes, the (2015) Brewing Champions: a History of The International Brewing Awards.



The book is a lively and complete account of the history of this important industry event. He explains that with rare exceptions, only professional brewers are called on to appraise their colleagues’ work, through blind judging. It is a process that by its nature encourages excellence.

Many beers advertise having won an International Brewing Award, in Canada, the late, lamented Labatt India Pale Ale regularly touted this in the 1950s.

As in any industry, award systems vary in their organization, composition of judging panels, and terms of entry.

They provide a vital role in the brewing business and the beer market at large. Awards create a certain amount of excitement for an industry, a buzz.  It helps maintain consumer interest and raises morale of industry members, both staff and owners.




The International Brewing Awards has proved its worth by its longevity, as it began in 1888, a decade after the Brewers’ Exhibition started. A happily-named brewing supplies firm, Gillman & Spencer, sponsored the first competition in 1888. The awards continued to grow, and were suspended only during wartime or for another unusual circumstance.

I’ll leave you with an item from the interwar press with the provocative title “These Brewers Don’t Enjoy Work”. The story was published in a Schenectady, New York paper in 1922, and covered a Brewers’ Exhibition.

It gave a tantalizing look at a normal beer environment to newly-parched Americans – Prohibition started in 1920 – with a twist: despite a wealth of beer around them the judges didn’t drink a drop!

Most American coverage of Brewers’ Exhibitions in this period stressed the point: we can’t find beer for love or money yet these experts who are surrounded by fine beer recoil from a single swallow.

A perfect story for Prohibition America as it proved for the Depression years as well.

Not all beer-judging operates this way, as I know from my involvement in another awards system, the U.K.-based World Beer Awards. But that was how the Brewers Exhibition did it, then.

The detached, professional approach was enhanced by judges togged in black coat and tie, as photos, and a 1938 Pathe newsreel make evident. Yet, a popular dimension was not lacking. The Schenectady story noted that the judges sipped from a single glass beaker since it was “matey”. Men resembling Fleet Street bankers were still matey, you see,

High-flavoured food such as blue cheese was served to keep the palate fresh. This seems a little odd as strong eatables can put off the palate, especially when combined with certain beers. In the wine world they serve plain bread or crackers, and it is similar for beer judging today.

Still, tasting alcohol, even if you don’t swallow, can have its wayword moments. The story added sometimes the judges don’t know if they’re tasting “bitter or Burton”.

But in sum, we can take it the beers were judged with evident purpose. (No doubt the full glasses were consumed after the event).

Note re image: The image above is from a 1922 Buffalo newspaper, the Courier, archived at Fulton Historical historical newspapers. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.