Last weekend, a small army of judges assembled in Christchurch to assess a considerably-larger army of entries in the annual round of the local Brewers’ Guild Awards.1 We won’t know the results until next weekend2 but ― SPOILER ALERT ― Tui will not win the trophy for New Zealand styles. I don’t say this because I have any form as a gambler or guesser of these things, nor because it doesn’t deserve to score highly in the peculiar context of how beers are judged against predefined styles. Instead, it’s ruled out of trophy contention thanks to a new rule ― well, new-ish; it seems it was enacted last year, but I didn’t notice,3 and didn’t see anyone else mention it, but I think it’s worthy of some attention and some applause.
“A beer will not be eligible to win a trophy if the commercial name of the entry stylistically differs from the class it was entered in,” says the new4 rule. So Tui, a brown lager which fits squarely into the New Zealand Draught category despite being feverishly marketed as an “East India Pale Ale”5 can’t add to its small collection of silverware. Likewise there’ll be no more European Lager Styles trophies for the vienna lager which Speight’s dress up as “Distinction Ale”. And maybe there’s a case to be made that Boundary Road’s Haägen ― which wears a German flag and generally looks as if it’s trying to sneak into a bar using Beck’s driver’s licence as ID6 ― should see the end of its winning ways in the “New Zealand-style lager” category.
The general justification, anyhow, is solid: once you admit that the awards aren’t entirely an inwards-looking game that the industry just plays among itself, and instead you acknowledge that some non-zero fraction of the beer-buying public also gives a damn about them, then some kind of gatekeeping obligation kicks right in. It admittedly wouldn’t make the top million in a list of the world’s most-pressing problems, but beer producers have a longrunning habit of fudging the terminology around styles and processes when it suits them, and it really does get in the way of wider and deeper public knowledge which, in turn, presents an obstacle to more people more-easily finding more beers they’ll love. As people at the geekier end of the spectrum ― if not outright bending the needle on the nerd detector ― it’s all too natural for us to assume that “everyone” can see through the nonsense of some marketing departments, but spend a little while bartending or hosting tastings (as I, you know, do) and you’ll see how depressingly common assumptions like “yellow = lager, black = Guinness, anything in-between = ale” are, and how they get in the way of people’s tastes evolving ― in whatever direction and to whatever degree they feel like, of course. Misinformation is no good for nobody.
The tricky bit here is the two inevitable slippery slopes:7 1) how strictly to police this ― whether it really is just names and really is just outright contradictions that disqualify, or if implications as to styles in the wider presentation of a beer also counts (such as the label text, marketing bumf, and sales material ― where quite a few black lagers are gently implied to be, say, porters) ― but more-pressingly, 2) why just trophies, and not also medals and the mere participation in this process at all? The first question is of the kind that’s always hard to solve, but the second seems pretty plain; the same reasoning which now denies Tui its trophy should also hold back a medal.
And in fairness, this nonsense is perhaps starting to fade. Monteith’s “Winter Ale”, a frequently-award-winning doppelbock, is now actually marketed as a doppelbock. This, remember, from the same conglomerate that so consistently misrepresents Tui.8 These terms all mean something, and it’s not hard to imagine a future in which they might be more dependably informative ― which, again, would benefit just literally everyone. That the Brewers’ Guild has decided to more-carefully dole out the prestige of its trophies with this in mind is an excellent start.9 But only a start.
- They don’t go in for apostrophes, but it seems like they need one, doesn’t it? And meanwhile, there was a little piece on the news about the judging, but to my maybe-hypercritical eye it was (sadly) that kind of ‘outsider’ reportage that was just a bit shallow and twee and, well, crap.
- The awards dinner / presentation has been relocated Auckland, this year, and the proceedings in general have been divorced from the past few years’ concurrence with Beervana. Moving the event around the country seems like an honourably inclusive thing to do, if indeed the intention is to keep it travelling, but it’ll be interesting to see how attendance is diminished (if at all) by there not being another solid excuse for a business trip (such as a sizeable festival). Hosting the thing at SkyCity, though? Yuck. That’s an unambiguously-gross corporate citizen, if ever there was one.
- Perhaps for simple text-layout reasons: it was in an inconspicuous paragraph last year, but promoted to its own bullet point in the 2015 guide
- It’s sometimes suggested that the “East” there absolves them of pretending to be an IPA on some kind of technicality. But no. “EIPA” was a historical synonym for IPA, and anyhow they’ve often-enough invoked the shorter name and the Usual (And Wrong) Story of its invention.
- Not that the Beck’s you see around here is actually-German, either, but that’s another story.
- Which is an unfairly maligned argument form, and not always fallacious. Bogus slippery slope arguments against some bit of moral progress ― same-sex marriage, legal euthanasia ― often boil down, in words I remember but cannot find the source for, to the “fear of doing the right thing today for fear of being forced to do the right thing tomorrow.”
- If you doubt that this causes actual confusion, just look at perplexed foreigners on RateBeer.com or this recent note from an Australian local paper.
- I am, technically, a member of the Guild, by the way. But it’s at a token level loftily titled “Associate” which is open to anyone and just lets me in on some emails and resources in exchange for supporting them to the tune of just over one hour’s pay. Basically, last year, I was criticising a different aspect of the awards ― a weird insistence on “black tie” formality ― and it was suggested I should put money where mouth was and get involved. Challenge vaguely accepted.