Sunday 17 July 2022

Beer festivals, beer judging, and meeting real people again – but with caution

 After two years of almost all such things being online, it’s both a huge pleasure and a slight shock to the system to come back to in-person beer judging, this week Champion Beer of London at the Ealing Beer Festival, and last week in a Kensington hotel for the World Beer Awards. 

A big part of the pleasure is of course meeting old friends and acquaintances, making new friends, and simply spending time with like-minded people. The shock was the same but in reverse - feeling out of practice in such an environment (although if truth be told, sometimes you wonder if you ever were in practice!). 

Ealing also brought the pleasure of arriving to find the beer festival centred on a circus-style big top. This housed all the bars and CAMRA stalls - and for that morning only, the tables for the beer judging. The rest of the week, the tables and chairs were as usual distributed across the enclosed parkland - and since the enclosure includes a few of Walpole Park’s mighty oak trees, there was at least some shade. 

Judging at Ealing
One of the benefits of judging at a beer festival is of course that once you’re done, there’s a beer festival to attend - and Ealing's a good 'un! That’s schedules permitting, of course, as I know one or two judges had to zoom off not long afterwards, in at least one case to prepare for the following days’ brewing. 

It’s also usually a shorter process, with one or two flights taking perhaps two hours, whereas the big international competitions are pretty much whole-day affairs. At WBA, for example, my table had nine flights, each of five beers, to get through - they’re tiny measures, to be sure, but each has to be assessed for flavour, aroma, quality in general, and trueness to style. You’d think brewers would get the latter mostly right, and yes, I suppose most did, but there were a few rather odd outliers! 

I mean, I don‘t have a problem with a brewer making what they want or enjoy - but to then claim it’s something different? And the country of origin was no guide here. We seemed as likely to get a stonkingly good, true-to-style brew from China as a dodgy one from Western Europe!

Judging at WBA
One way in which the two events were alike was the little bit of disappointment afterwards, when I realised how many more people had been there that I'd been hoping to meet, but somehow I had missed them. Then again, Ealing was a big open-air space and I had to leave by 5pm, while WBA was a big room with all the tables widely spaced. 

And the space was welcome. After my bout with Omicron last month, my sense of smell definitely diminished, which is not good if you want to judge beer. Thankfully, it didn't disappear completely, and after a week or 10 days, it had largely returned. Still, I have no desire for it to vanish again, so space and air circulation are good!

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