Monday 31 October 2011

Flavour, taste, preconception and fashion

It was the SIBA North competition on Thursday followed by it's festival. The reader should already know this, unless a casual browser of random blogs; it's a major event that all beer enthusiasts ought to at least know about, even if they are unable to attend. We helped out by being runners during the judging, which was fun, if a little tiring.

The day had two very notable aspects which were particularly pleasing. The first was that we won silver in the Premium Strong Bitters category for Infra Red, which of course we were very pleased about. The second and possibly far more pleasing was the fact that we had a chance to meet up with many great people, some old friends, some new friends and some people I've only ever previously communicated with via twitter or blogging. It was great to see you all.

Competitions like this always throw up questions in the minds of individual beer enthusiasts. One very notable winner, just prior to the announcements being made and therefore in complete ignorance of the results, commented to me that these things are always a lottery. I'm not sure I completely agree, although clearly there are going to be a number of variables associated that will very surely throw up a different result on a different day.

As a brewer, and a business man, I have to consider what the outcome of such a competition really means. The 130 assembled judges obviously came from a variety of different backgrounds. Some beer bloggers, some brewers from other SIBA regions and presumably some publicans and perhaps some of the general public. The result of such a competition should at least represent the opinions of a spectrum of people.

While waiting for the final judging to finish I had a half of Magic Rocks Rapture 4.6% (Premium bitters) which I thought to be so good that I thought to myself "The bastards, I think I like this better than Infra Red" full of over-the-top dry hopped flavours that over-shadow my own attempts at progressive beer. Afterwards I got to taste Continuum, which risked failing to register on the hop-o-meter due to palate overload, despite normally fully satisfying my humulus desires.

We settled down to wait for the results of the competition. In the preamble to the announcements it was pointed out that everyone's perception of what is good is different. That fact is not only true but left sufficient impact on the assembled audience for a number of people to point this out later, and perhaps supports the view mentioned above that the outcome is to some extent subject to variables beyond the beer.

The Best Bitters category came and went and Continuum failed to get a medal. Equally, the premium bitters category came and went without Rapture gaining any recognition. I had been suffering from the fact that I had had a couple of beers and had not yet found the little boys room despite having been there 5 hours. Infra Red clearly wasn't going to get anything if Rapture and Continuum didn't. Too many hops, too narrow an appeal, too flavoursome I assumed. I took a comfort break fairly happy I wasn't going to miss anything important.

I happened to get back from dispensing with the aqueous proportion of previously consumed beer in time for the premium strong beers category to be announced. Hawkshead NZ Pale Ale got Bronze.

"Oh well" thought I "Hope yet for properly hopped beers"

Then came Silver. "Hardknott Infra Red"

I think that my thought process at that point included a proportion of profanities of delight that rarely get used in my writing, but oft enter my head. I had been convinced that Continuum would be more likely to win than Infra Red. Needless to say the evening that followed would have been difficult to spoil as I floated on a cushion of very comfortable euphoria.

The next day we set off early from Manchester to deliver beer and pick up empties from London. We were due in Essex in the evening to attend a beer verses wine dinner hosted by The Thatchers Arms with the beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones and wine writer and Saturday Kitchen presenter Tim Atkin.

If you've been following our blog you will be aware of our attempts to change a little bit the perception that beer is unworthy to drink with quality food. The dinner was a great success and in the end was more about like minded people getting together with great food and great drink than about any real contest. The results concluded that both beer and wine are equally worthy at the table when good company is in plentiful supply.

It is intriguing to me that various people at the dinner did have some preconceived ideas about which beverage should work better. I tried very hard to put aside my own. In the end the best match of the evening was, in my view, a wine, although I still think that beer came out slightly on top overall from my perspective.

Irrespective of what I thought, there were clearly some differences of opinion. How much that is influenced by peers, media, ancestors and more is debatable. It is very common for people to go to the pub and order a pint before a meal, but then swap to more robust wine for a meal. In my view this is mainly due to preconceived ideas, but also because the beer industry fails to do enough to change that.

Both the dinner and the competition from the day before have interesting enlightenment for me. Hawkshead Windermere Pale won the SIBA competition. It is very popular and I know the team at the brewery work very hard to make it a good, solid and consistent product. It has wide appeal and certainly enjoys commercial success. This is clearly because this beer is suitable for the regular beer drinker in the regular pub where quite rightly the majority of beer is consumed.

Infra Red and perhaps even Continuum might just have too narrow appeal for the wide range of judges that are quite rightly assembled for such competitions. Indeed, my suspicion is that Infra Red won partly because the number of beers in the strong premium beers category is somewhat less than in the best bitter category.

If Hardknott made a beer that tried to have as wide an appeal as Windermere Pale, or perhaps another very popular Cumbrian beer, Loweswater Gold, I could sell a lot more beer. But then, I'd only be copying what these very good breweries have done. Instead, our aim is to carry on making beers that are different, have narrower appeal, and some I hope that can further lever into the quality dining arena.

Having tasted Magic Rock's Rapture, I now feel Infra Red is somehow inferior. No doubt if I tried to ram more hops into it, quite apart from no longer being the beer that gained silver, might also be even less popular with a wider audience. Equally, Light Cascade, which I consider to be the runt of my litter, perhaps should have been entered into the competition, and does continue to enjoy good sales on cask.

In conclusion, I am left thinking that the only thing I can continue to do is ensure Hardknott makes the beers that define us. If we win a few prizes along the way, then so much the better. If we can convince a few more people to focus on trying beer as an alternative to wine with food, then better still.


Alistair Reece said...

I had a similar thing at the Dominion Cup homebrew competition (though obviously getting bling as a homebrewer is not as impressive as being recognised as a pro).

Of all the beers I entered, the one I was most nervous about was my Ordinary Bitter, Fuggold. The bitter category covers Ordinary, Best and ESB, so what chance would my little 3.3% ABV middle of the road hopped with Fuggles and EKG stand? Especially given a certain country's predilection for hop bombs.

I almost died of shock when, after 2nd and 3rd had been announced as ESB versions, Fuggold took the gold.

I guess I am just going to have to make it again, perhaps it will be my summer beer next year?

Sat In A Pub said...

I do think you should have entered Light Cascade. It's got quite a following and I spoke to several people who had hoped it would have been there.

Paul Bailey said...

So long as you accept Beer competions for what they are: 130 people all with different tastes getting free beer and voting on it all in the name of what? Well its promoting beer, and it does it well fairly well. To keep promoting you need a fair spread of awards so everyone feels part of something. Thats a good business model. Still not reading your Emails?

Ed said...

I think there is a lottery element to beer competitions, but there must be a quality element too.

I'd have thought flavour filled beers, rather than more mainstream sessionable beers would have the edge in competitions like that though, where direct comparisons are made from small samples.

Phil said...

On the beer versus wine thing, two words: big bottles. Switch from beer to wine and you can share a bottle & work your way through it sociably through the meal (or thrash it sociably and order another); stay on beer and you'll need to order again, different people may finish their drinks at different times, people may want to pay for drinks separately, and it all gets awkward and unsociable. This is where 750 ml champagne-corked beers could really score - indeed, one of the 'wine' options in the Waitrose "dine in for £10" offer is a big bottle of Leffe (and very nice it was too). The trouble is, at the moment those big bottles mostly seem to be sold in the Chateauneuf du Pape price bracket rather than competing with the £6.99 Pinot Grigio - but that's another discussion.

Congratulations on the award, btw! Obviously it is a lottery, but on this occasion the award went to the right beer - which is lucky.

Mark said...

I think Ed makes a good point about the more "extreme" beers in the category standing out.

There may well be an element of luck and lottery, but surely quality wins out over the course of time.

Congrats on the silver.

What do you think is the cause of less hop flavour in Infra Red? Just the hoping rates or is it something else? Where the hops are used, water chemistry etc?