One thing that frustrates me about beer (and being a beer writer) is that outside our little bubble of interest, we still have a credibility problem with trying to persuade people to take beer seriously.
Beer is approachable, unpretentious, democratic and down to earth, and these are its huge strengths. But this unpretentiousness also contributes to a sense that if you don’t just enjoy beer, but are actively interested in it, this makes you a bit weird.
Often when people find out I’m a beer writer they smirk and snigger. Usually it’s not a hostile reaction, more a mixture of amusement and envy: how could you get a job writing about beer?
I’m not even going to describe the reaction when I tell them there’s a British Guild of Beer Writers.
They’d never have had the same reaction if I told them I wrote about wine. There’s a sense that in its simplicity, beer is something to be enjoyed, but not analysed or discussed — or celebrated.
This all means that I work with a constant sense that we’re inside a self-contained bubble: a community of brewers, publicans, Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) members, industry bodies, beer writers and bloggers. And while we’re all passionately discussing, say, the growth of craft keg, the influence of New World hops, the ongoing project to revive Mild, or the true definition and history of IPA, we’re talking among ourselves.
Sure, we’re getting more people to drink more good beer, but we’re still failing to get beer discussed in the broader media, or have it taken seriously by a broader food and drink community who still often dismiss it as ‘just beer’.
There are exceptions, of course: there’s the odd piece on beer in the national press, the occasional mention on TV. Every time we get one it’s a victory. And while it feels like this trickle is on the verge of breaking the banks of indifference and becoming a flood, it’s remained a trickle for an awfully long time.
Which is why whenever we see an opportunity to work a bit of masonry loose (and I’ll abandon the dam analogy there) we need to seize it.
Awards ceremonies are a brilliant example of this.
I’ve been judging beer awards for several years, and am invited to judge something every few weeks. We’ve got the Champion Beer (or rather, cask ale) of Britain, and local CAMRA awards in every region and at almost every beer festival, as well as the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) awards competing on a similar level. We’ve got the WBAs, the IBC, the CBC, the BIIA — you get the idea, even if you don’t get all the acronyms.
The one thing that unites all these awards is that they are specifically about beer. Hardly a surprise, but it means that the only people interested in the award results are going to be those who already care about beer. You can become celebrated within our little bubble, but we are still inside the bubble.
That’s why I’m really excited to have been asked to judge beer in the context of some broader food and drink competitions this year.
Over the past month, I’ve been judging the Great Taste Awards. More than 8,000 products were submitted from every category you can think of, including beer and cider. Every entry is considered for one, two or three stars, or left ungraded.
The beer entries are growing every year, but as I was judging, I was left thinking that many brewers I know who hadn’t entered could easily have won at least a couple of stars, which they would have then been able to display on their packaging.
Next month the call goes out for entries to this year’s Radio 4 Food & Farming Awards, and I’m very proud to have been asked to help judge the drinks category in that too. Here, beer goes head to head with other drinks produced in Britain, including wine and spirits — and for the past two years, a beer has won. But again, not as many brewers enter as you might think.
The advantage of these awards is that beer is judged by a broader audience, and then presented alongside other food and drink. Across any category, people get excited about provenance, traditional methods, and fuller flavours — and these are things British beer excels in.
Industry awards are great for recognition by your peers. But if you’re proud of your beer, and you want to get it out beyond its core audience, why not give the Food & Farming Awards a try?