The Bitter Test

Bitter or Burton, old boy?

Off and on almost since beginning my work here I’ve written of brewers’ fairs and similar events where beers are exhibited and sometimes judged. The last one discussed an 1877 lager exhibition and contest in New York.

The sources for that one came from keyword searches using terms such as “beer testing”, “beer tasting”, and analogs. Those searches also produced a series of stories in the U.S. press I saved for discussion when I got back from my recent London/Great British Beer Festival trip.

They dealt with a body called called The Brewers Exhibition, in London, and its beer awards. They date mostly from the interwar period which partly coincided of course with American Prohibition.

Coincidentally, on my London trip I learned that award-winning English beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones wrote a book on the history of these awards, called today the International Brewing Awards. ATJ, as he is known, appeared at GBBF and I intended to see him anyway to obtain a signed copy of his The Seven Moods of Craft Beer: 350 Great Craft Beers From Around the World.

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

The book is a lively and complete account of the origins and history of these long-standing beer awards. 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 brews have and continue to advertise having won an International Brewing Award, in Canada our late, lamented Labatt India Pale Ale regularly touted this in the 1950s.

The book therefore saves one the trouble of looking for further information on The Brewers Exhibition and its awards. ATJ has provided the complete story and benefitted clearly from the organization’s private archive. He also includes the full span of awards results which are of great interest especially from a brewing history standpoint.

As for any industry, awards systems vary in their ownership, organization, composition of judging panels, and terms of entry. In total they provide a vital role in the brewing business and the beer market at large. Awards systems create a certain amount of excitement, of buzz. This is necessary to maintaining consumer interest and helps sustain business and professional morale.

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

(I will review in time The Seven Moods book, a superb effort that charts a new and imaginative direction. This is quite apart from the sparkling prose, noteworthy unto itself).

So, what further do I have to say about these awards? Not much, but I’ll leave you with just one item from the interwar press. It bears the provocative title, “These Brewers Don’t Enjoy Work”. The story was published in a Schenectady, NY paper in 1922, and also appeared in other newspapers in New York State, in 1921.

It offered a tantalizing look at a normal beer environment to newly-parched Americans, with the twist that despite the wealth of beer around them the judges didn’t drink a drop!

Most U.S. press coverage on the Exhibition’s beer competitions in the period stress the point: We can’t find beer for love or money yet these experts in London, surrounded by fine beer, recoil from a single swallow!

It was the perfect story for Prohibition America and it resonated into the Depression, up to 1939.

Not all beer-judging operates this way, as I know from my involvement in another award system, The World Beer Awards. But that was how The Brewers Exhibition did it, at least then.

The detached, professional approach was enhanced by the judges wearing black coat and tie, as photos and a 1938 Pathe newsreel make evident. Yet, a popular dimension was not lacking. The Schenectady story notes the judges sipped at the table from the same glass beaker on the basis this was “matey”. Men looking like Fleet Street bankers were still matey…

Food in the nature of a relish was served including blue cheese, to keep the palates fresh. This seems a little odd as such eatables can put off the palate especially when combined with certain beers. (The practice often in the wine world is to serve plain bread or crackers, for example).

For this reason, and the inevitable palate fatigue that occurred even if beer was not swallowed, the palate was said to “come and go”. The story added that sometimes the judges don’t know if they’re tasting “bitter or Burton”.

In sum, beers were judged with evident purpose, colleagues met and socialized, and (no doubt) the men sunk a few pints post-judging – they inhaled, we might put it.

Obs. Some things have changed since 1920. Even with the time lag to draw and distribute filled beakers, they are described as carrying a large head. The lead judge then blows off the foam with ceremony before sipping and passing the beaker. That doesn’t sound like cask ale today, even when well-served. Even the best billowing, loose head only lasts a minute or so. But there you have it.

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