THOUGHT PIECE the carling team

Is It Worth Entering A Beer Competition?

We all like to win a prize. Entering a beer competition involves a lot of faffing about, a lot of paper work especially if the destination is overseas and not inconsiderable cost. Do the rewards in terms of plaudits from your peers and increased sales of the winning brand give adequate returns for all your efforts?

Once upon a time, a lot of beer labels featured medals won at beer competitions in the dim and distant past. An inferred badge of quality no doubt but Chicago 1878 and London 1908 probably meant little a hundred years later so most have been designed out. In my local supermarket your blogger only found Asahi’s Tyskie Gronie sporting medals from London, Sydney, Brussels, Chicago and one which was too small to read. Ostensibly Polish, the beer is brewed at the Grolsch plant in the Netherlands!

There was a Prize Medal light ale from Bass, a beer originally from Hammonds in Bradford but there was no indication where the prize came from. Gales Prize Old Ale has just seen a revival by Dark Star but maybe ‘prize’ simply means ‘excellent’. Interestingly Kirkstall Brewery, now with an outlet in the old Tetley building in Leeds, is having a Great Exhibition of Prize Ales later this month. The event takes place at its old brewery and is a beer festival by invitation only where the beers are deemed to have some link with the past. We are told prize medals will be awarded.

Before we look at the pros and see whether there are any cons, let’s look at the beer competitions which take place around the world. The biggest is the biennial World Beer Cup organised by the Brewers Association in the States which oversees the craft brewing sector over there. With just short of 10,000 US breweries including 145 big ones, which are not allowed to be BA members, they have a captive audience. The 2024 competition, held alongside the Craft Brewers Conference in Las Vegas, attracted 9300 entries from 2060 breweries in 50 countries. The hazy, juicy IPA class had 376 competitors, west coast IPAs had 281 and German pilsners 221 so to win a medal in these classes your beer has to be top notch. There were 110 categories encompassing some 172 different beer styles and it took 280 judges to make the final decisions. Billed as the Olympics of Beer competitions, the WBC was founded in 1996 and costs $185 to enter. You cannot enter more than ten beers, more cannot enter the same beer into different classes and you cannot enter the same beer brewed at a different brewery.

The Brewers Association use the same organising team to run the Great American Beer Festival which started off in 1982 with 47 beers from 24 breweries. It is held annually at the Colorado Convention Centre in Denver and attracts some 40,000 beer aficionados. It has grown to 9298 beers from 2033 breweries from all States. They managed with only 250 judges and a stonking 365 juicy IPAs – one day I’ll tell you what makes an IPA juicy!

Still in the USA, the US Open Beer Championship also gets some 9000 entries in 150 categories, invites gold medallists from the nation’s home brew competitions and has an entry fee of just $85. The brain child of the euphonious Dow Scroggins since 2009, he has also built a bespoke judging and exhibition centre at Oxford in Ohio to hold his competition. Last year it had a class for beer can art and over 500 breweries entered over 1000 cans for consideration with Olvera Street Lager from Angel City Brewing getting the gold. The design (right) for a 5%ABV Mexican lager is certainly striking if a little scary but does show the powerful impact of wraparound graphics.

The next largest is the Australian International Beer Awards held under the auspices of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria and is now held in Melbourne. Originating at Ballarat College in 1987 with three judges and 35 beers it has grown to 2826 entries from 400 breweries in 21 countries last year using 75 judges. Fees vary depending on brewery size with A$195 from the smallest, A$290 up to 20,000hLa output and A$320 for the big boys. Multiple medals are awarded to beers which reach the gold standard and those gold winners go on to be judged for the trophies. They also have a deal with Scan Global, the worldwide logistics people to ship the beers to Australia.

Next up is the European Beer Star dating from 2004 conducted by the German Private Brewers and held annually alongside the Brau Beviale and drinktec exhibitions in Nuremburg and Munich. Last year there were 2355 entries in 74 categories plus a ‘free style’ category for any beer which did not quite fit in. Judging involved 149 experts with the highest entry fee of €250 but discounted to €220 if you enter more than three beers. There is an annual glossy mag as well.

Granddaddy of them all is Britain’s International Brewing Awards; it morphed from the Brewing Industry International Awards which admittedly was a bit of a mouthful. Founded back in 1886 the competition was a part of the annual Brewers Exhibition and split off in 1983 moving from London to Burton on Trent. A foray to the drinktec exhibition in 2005 led to an alleged loss of €90,000 and it took until 2011 to resurface and is now run solely by the Brewing, Food and Beverage Industry Suppliers. With the closure of the National Brewery Centre in Burton, the event was forced to move to Mayfield in Manchester. The entry fee was £185 and the judges are all on the payroll of brewing companies with not a beer writer to be seen. They judge the commercial worth of beers in broad ABV categories rather than strict adherence to style guidelines. Its strapline is the Oscars of Brewing Industry which explains why the World Beer Cup is the Olympics! Adrian Tierney Jones has even written a book about them.

Now it starts to get a bit confusing. There is a World Beer Challenge and a separate International Beer Challenge. The former is advertising a 14th outing to be judged at Estoril in Portugal at the end of May. With 125 judges it must be a big one and it offers a discount of €15 off the fee of €130 if you enter more than 30 beers but its website tells us little about entries and winners in previous competitions. The International Beer Challenge is more forthcoming and its Chairman for the 28th year running is UK beer writer Jeff Evans. There is also a package design class and last year there were 40 gold, 130 silver, and 188 bronze medals awarded for beers. The golds go head to head for the championship and last year that went to Chile’s Cervecería Kross for 110 Minutos, apparently a 8.5%ABV Scottish ale which according to Evans was a “remarkable beer, with eminent drinkability for a beer of that strength”. There are awards for breweries with the most medals in various regions with Glen Affric winning the Best UK Brewery and the Supreme Package design went to Badger from Blandford Forum for its Outland can range. Then to further obfuscate there is the European Beer Challenge judged by beer buyers who awarded India’s Bira 91 the top prize. Striking packaging but definitely not for UK supermarket shelves.

Do not forget the World Beer Awards chaired by Britain’s Pete Brown and Canada’s Stephen Beaumont. This is part of the World Drinks Awards set up with regional heats and finalists going head to head in London. Then there is the World Beer Championship operated by the US Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago where beer joined the wine competition back in 1994. This is another outfit which awards multiple medals based on an accumulated score. Unlike most other beer competitions, this one is spread throughout the year rather than a hectic session over a few days with dozens of judges to herd around. Beers also do not have to fall within specific style guidelines leaving room for the judges to score for the brewer’s creativity. The results are announced bimonthly.

Monde Selection is offered by the International Quality Institute in Brussels and similarly awarded based on reaching a certain standard. We are told the zythologist and flavour technologist judges only do ten samples in a session to ensure a pristine palate.

Wait, there are loads more. CAMRA has its Champion Beer and Britain which is a prestigious win amongst the cask beer fraternity. There are 12 categories and beers are selected by local members and then put to an on-line vote of all members. This process is somewhat lengthy and later finalists are judged by a panel of experts to find a Winter Champion from six of the more warming styles which then go against the best of the others to find the CBoB. There is also a Champion Bottled Beer which has to be bottle conditioned. In 2023, Elland 1872 Porter at 6.5%ABV was Winter Champion for the fourth time and Supreme Champion for the second. Runner up was Champion Premium Bitter; Greene King Abbot Ale which led to a degree of twittering amongst the twitterati!

Harrogate Brewing wins a gold at SIBA

SIBA organises another £150 a go competition starting in eight regions with the awards being announced at the Beer X show. The European Beer Consumers Union sponsors events in ten EU countries from Belgium to Poland and Finland down to Italy. These all have to abide by standards and must have two judges from the Consumers Union to ensure that they do. There is a London Beer Competition which considers the quality first and then judges go on to assess the value and the package itself to see whether the beer delivers to its target market. Despite its name the competition is open to international entries and the top rating went to Gulpener Blonde (with a touch of elderflower) with a 97% gold award. Winners can buy rolls of stickers to add to their packages before they are able to redesign the graphics. I suppose you could also count and untapped web site ratings as competitions as well.

So there are dozens of beer competitions to enter. Some are first past the post with first, second and third getting gold, silver and bronze; others offer multiple medals for reaching a defined standard. Perm any three words from World, International, European, Beer, Brewing, Champion, Awards, Competition, Challenge, Star and Cup: you can then formulate your own event. Yet when it comes to promoting your product alongside the medal, will the public think they are all equivalent or do they not care a jot?

More next time.

The Outland range of cans from Hall and Woodhouse’s Badger Brewery