Jordan St. John: I was standing in the beer cooler at the Summerhill LCBO the other day, Robin, and I have to confess to feeling slightly overwhelmed.
Robin LeBlanc: Well, a lot is happening in the world these days, Jordan, and as your friend I should remind you that it’s okay to cry.
J: I’m not opposed to a single manly tear or indeed a whole bucket of them, but this was more confusion than anything. There’s so much beer on the market! 1,200 breweries in Canada! All of them making multiple beers! Many of them include guava purée!
R: It really is amazing, isn’t it? As the cigarette ad they can’t run anymore says: “we’ve come a long way, baby.”
J: If only there were some way for the layperson to tell whether a product was any good without having to go online and research things for themselves. People don’t have time for research! People barely have time to fork over fistfuls of cash and figure out where the exits are.
R: Yeah, it’s really a shame that such a thing doesn’t exist. Anyways, did you catch the results of the Canadian Brewing Awards last week?
J: THAT’S IT!
R: What’s it?
J: Awards! Awards, Robin! Glowing statuettes, festooned with sponsor logos, awarded by a tall man with graying hair in a suit! Surely they must exist for some reason and I think we’ve just rumbled it.
R: You know something, I think you’re right. Being in the industry or even having a casual relationship with the beer nerd culture, award shows always felt more like a way to complain about things, but from a general customer point of view they’re an invaluable bit of publicity for a brewery and often a good list on what to try.
J: You do have to be a bit careful. There are big, fairly legitimate awards and then there are smaller local awards. The local branch of the Kiwanis might have a beer festival and award a medal. There’s nothing that says you can’t put “award winning” on your can at that point.
R: Well yes, and I know even five or six years ago we were joking that every brewery in Ontario is an award-winning one. But I think it’s fair to say that in regards to the big awards shows Canada has proven itself to be a world contender, taking home wins in the World Beer Awards and the recent World Beer Cup. It’s one thing to win Best in Show at a local beer festival, but quite another to go toe-to-toe with the best.
J: Let’s think about what that means in terms of awards. Pop quiz, hotshot. An established brewery medals in the same two categories year after year despite the fact that 500 breweries have opened in that space of time. What does it mean?
R: Well, any number of things. Of course submitting the beer for awards constantly can help, but if the judging of said awards is conducted by a blind tasting that means that the quality and consistency is high enough that it’s an established leader in the style. It creates a hell of a bar for new breweries to reach for.
J: I was thinking specifically of Walkerville Brewery in Windsor, Ontario, who keep winning for their Imperial Stout and English IPA. Well done. Why don’t you try one?
R: Well, and furthermore on the international stage, you have Indie Ale House winning best lambic in the World Beer Awards. It was a beer that quite literally beat out breweries from the country the style originates from. That’s enough to make you want to look at flights to Toronto.
J: It’s a good way to clock whether a brewery is expanding in new directions from their wheelhouse. Something like a barrel aging program is going to take years to properly get off the ground, so an award of that magnitude is something that really lets you know that it’s time to check back in with that brewer.
R: Not to mention another Toronto brewery, but I really think that Shacklands Brewing is a prime example of that. In recent years they’ve been winning awards in pretty much every category related to Belgian styles. Hell, in the recent Canadian Brewing Awards they took home all the medals in the American-Belgo category! What a wonderful sign of growth in skill!
J: Breweries have moving parts. Whether it’s the personnel changing or an upgrade in equipment that alters the way things work, the changes can be positive or detrimental. That kind of dominance in a single category lets you know that things are firing on all cylinders.
How about this: A brewery that opened this year wins awards in several categories from seemingly out of nowhere?
R: Honestly, not that I like to see anyone lose, but it really is gratifying to see some long-established winners get unseated by a brand new brewery that in some cases was never considered or known. I know in the times we’ve hosted the Ontario Brewing Awards there were some brand new faces getting medals and that prompted us to keep an eye on them. Frankly, if they’re that good out of the gate it’s a promising sign of things to come. Meuse Brewing is probably the best example of a newcomer winning awards so soon after opening and then just continuing to rock it.
J: It’s probably the case that it doesn’t matter whether you win Gold, Silver, or Bronze, if you’re going to use it to market your product. One of the things I like is when you go to, say, the Unibroue homepage and you look up the awards that they won over the years. They don’t even list the specific awards anymore. Just the numbers. It’s a great sign of consistency and suggests that the value of their products has not diminished since the founding of the company, or even during the purchase by Sleeman. It must be gratifying to the employees to remain at the top of their game.
R: Agreed, but I guess like many things I tend not to see awards as the gold (forgive the pun) standard that should be revered and unquestioned. People’s tastes are different after all and it’s okay to not like something. But what awards can do is provide a recommendation from a lot of people who taste and judge beer for a living. I suppose all to say that it’s a good sign to the brewery that they’re going in a good direction and it’s an expert to-try list for the general consumer that will minimize the risk of them buying an infected and flawed beer for their first attempt at exploring a style.
J: Or, if they’re not thinking about it at that level, you’d assume they’d choose the one with the little medal logo over the one without it, all else being equal.
R: Well, and that’s why having the award on the label is important for publicity as well. No one’s gonna know that you’re a winner unless you tell them. In the words of the great theatre producer Max Bialystock, “if you got it, flaunt it”.
J: DON’T JUMP ON ME!
R: I’m not going to jump on you, I’m going to buy you a beer. Want anything in particular? It’s my round.
J: I’ll take a PBR. The label IS the award. It MUST be good.