SIBA judging at the Nottingham Beer Festival

The December / January issue of Nottingham CAMRA's magazine, 'Nottingham Drinker', is out and features a piece by me about the trials and tribulations of SIBA judging. I've reproduced the whole article below, including the last few lines that seem to have got lost in publication.

You can download the magazine in PDF format here.


I know what you’re thinking. Beer judges have a charmed life. All sat round a table, having a good gossip, drinking free beer that’s brought over to you. Then noshing a free launch before enjoying more free beer. How hard can that be? Well, this year I was given an opportunity to find out. And it’s not all just drink, drink, drink…

Many CAMRA festivals choose a champion beer, perhaps by public vote or a tasting panel. Nottingham is a little different in that it hosts the Midlands round of a national competition for brewers who are members of the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA). Beers are judged in eight categories, the winners of each then being judged against each other to choose a Supreme Champion.

So, who is it that gets to decide? A wide range of beery people. Brewers, publicans, technicians, retailers, writers… all sharing a love of great cask beer. Yes, there’s banter around the table with certain characters unafraid to give trenchant opinions. But the winners aren’t decided by round-table waffle; each judge awards marks in secret on a numeric scale against characteristics such as aroma, appearance and flavour. And remember, the judges don’t know the beer’s name or the brewer, they’re just referred to by a number.

Of course, with hundreds of beers entered into the competition you don’t get to judge every single one. Beers in each category are divided up between groups of judges so being able to arrive at a concise judgement from a small sample is key. After all, with perhaps 9 - 12 beers for your consideration, you’re not going to be taking your time over a half-pint of each. The glasses of water and plates of crackers provided as palate-cleansers aren’t an affectation, either - they’re a necessity. As a judge, you need to give each beer an equal chance to impress.

I was happy to have been allocated the categories that I wanted to judge. Both showed me just how challenging this judging malarkey can be. Speciality beer was rather a catch-all – it could be the use of adjuncts such as oats or wheat or a flavouring such as fruit or spice – but the beer needed to be appealing first and foremost. A poorly-brewed beer with a ton of spice dumped into it is still a bad beer.

The other category I judged, the milds, proved to be a real eye-opener with a huge range of colours (light gold to bruise-black) and flavours (lactic sourness to roast and hops). This variety provoked a healthy discussion around the table – should the mild ‘style’ be prescriptive or should we embrace the wide range of interpretations?

With the final forms submitted, the judges could go and buy a beer for themselves. To be honest, not knowing which beers you’d just judged was almost annoying. When you’ve sampled a couple of excellent beers, you want to go and, ahem, try a larger sample. But there’s a great feeling when, once the results were announced, I bought a category-winning beer and realised not only was it one that I judged but it was the one I liked the best.

If you fancy an afternoon of thinking whilst drinking, try and get involved in beer judging. It may give you a wider insight into the substance behind a beer style. And it’ll certainly give you plenty to argue about later on in the day!