4 May 2011

Cheaters?

If there's something that I care veeery little about in the beer world is the competitions and their results. I won't like a beer more or less, or, if I don't know it, be more or less curious about it because of the medals it has or hasn't won at a more or less prestigious competition.

That's mainly because the very method most commonly used to evaluate the beers, blind tastings of small samples in a very controlled environment, has very little to do with the way I (and I think almost everyone else) consume the drink.

On the other hand, I like seeing things from the other side of the counter, so I understand the importance that winning a medal has for brewers. After all, it is a recognition for their work, and everybody likes that. Of course, that medal can also be used as an effective marketing tool, and a very legitimate one at that. Whatever you and I might thing about this or that beer, the award is something concrete and hard to argue with, more so if it was obtained at a prestigious competition.

But back to this side of the counter. The only results that catch a little bit of my attention are the ones from local competitions. I know almost all the participants and it's sometimes interesting to see whether my tastes are similar to the judges'.

One of the most important local competitions is the one that takes place during the Tábor Beer Festival, which awards the much sought after Pivní Pečeť. The winner this year in the Světlý Ležák category was Staropramen 11º, a beer that I tasted shortly after it was launched and found awful, but thought it was quite tolerable when I recently had its tanková version.

After the result was known, some people started to complain that the competition had been manipulated. At first, I thought that it was due to the antipathy towards Staropramen in the local beer community and not much more than that. After all, how can you manipulate a competition of this kind? I have no doubts of the integrity of the judges, I actually know a couple of them personally. The methodology used is pretty much the same as in any other: beers are divided in categories and the winners result from a series of blind tastings. I don't have reasons to doubt the integrity of the organisers, either.

A few days later, one Jan Kajl published a an article in Pivni.info that shed some light on the matter.

The first thing he explains there is something quite obvious, but which I had never thought about, how the samples get to the competition. The organisers don't buy them at shops, supermarkets or even at the brewery. The brewers themselves send the samples in special bottles. The reason for this is simple, if a sample bought at, for example, a supermarket arrived in bad conditions, the brewer could argue that that was due to faulty storage, etc., legitimate, yes, though I think that it would still be the brewer's fault. However, as it turns out, this is where things can get manipulated.

According to Kajl, there are four methods.

In the first one the sample is taken from a selected batch. There will always be more or less noticeable differences between batches and the brewer chooses the one that has come out best. I agree with Klajl in the legitimacy of this method since that beer will end in our glasses after all.

In the second one a brewer that uses "High Gravity Brewing" adds less water to the wort leaving it at a higher gravity than the commercial version.

In the third one the sample comes from a batch brewed in the laboratory of the brewery with fermentation and/or maturing methods and times different of those from the commercial version of the beer.

In the fourth, the sample is actually brewed somewhere else, with better quality ingredients and methods.

I don't think I need to tell you that if a brewer has used any of the last three methods they are cheating.

Let's be clear that I am not accusing Staropramen or any other brewery, I have no proof and, frankly, I don't care too much. However, couldn't all this explain how it is that some beers that we consider average at best end up taking medals at important competitions? Either way, this is just another reason why I don't give a toss about competitions.

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4 comments:

  1. Recently I asked Jan Suran about this and he offered me another possible reason behind these results: it's blind test where testers do not know what they drink and also they often rate more beers at the moment. As a result, beers which have no faults and no specific teste can win more often than beers with distinctive taste.

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  2. bludr,

    That's a very good point, and it's true.

    Anyway, I don't know if anyone cheated in Tábor or what happened was something like Honza said. The thing is that manipulating a competition is a lot easier than I thought and it makes you wonder how often that happens.

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  3. In Tabor it might be quite difficult. The sheets with judges numbers are on the tables after completing the results, so you can check if there are what you wrote down.

    On the other hand, breweries representatives are judging beers in categories where they put their samples, which I dont think it correct.

    But at the end, it is all about the people. You might like a brand, but blind tasting is alsways different...

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  4. As I've said, I don't doubt the integrity of the methodology or the organisation of the competition. But if they samples sent by the breweries are different than the commercial versions, how can any judge tell the difference?

    And I'm with you on the second point.

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