The 2017 Great American Beer Festival is over and the awards have been handed out. Hundreds of deserving breweries and their beers went home with some new hardware, but we couldn’t help but notice that one of the trendiest beer styles walked away empty-handed. Despite being one of the most talked about styles of the year, the New England style IPA didn’t win a single award. And that’s because it doesn’t fit into any of the current judging guidelines for IPA. So this week, we asked the Fervent Few: should the Brewer’s Association move faster to recognize new trends in beer? Should we continue to splinter off categories of beer to award the latest trends?
Brad Redick: “I've seen the way some purists or traditionalists have reacted to hazy beers. The scrutiny, the reaction based solely on the appearance of the beers themselves, the reaction to the crowds they draw, that they're derided as a gimmick: all of it is bullshit. And in the face of all that bullshit, the hazy IPA has thrived. It's taken little breweries and made them giants. It's bolstered the taste spectrum of beer, it’s helped in adding new language to the lexicon, and it’s pushed new hop strains to gain traction. It's also given legitimacy to innovations in the brewing process. All of that at a time when most considered the IPA a mastered style. It took hip hop 10 years to get an award category at the Grammys and many people would argue that it's still underrepresented today. With respect to the BA and the impact a GABF medal can have, I don't care if hazy IPA ever gets its own award category. I'll be over here playing my music loud as fuck and drowning in juice regardless.”
Lana Svitankova: “I suppose there should be separate categories for at least big trends (and you can't say hazy IPA is not a big trend), but it will take few years. I suppose nobody expected to see Gose or Berliner Weisse in the GABF list years ago. It doesn't matter if someone dislikes the style, but only the time will show if it's a fad or if hazy will remain.”
Zach Kaiser: “I feel that many of the definitions already established by the BA suffer from different directional influences. What I mean by that is that some styles are influenced by process, others by flavor/visuals, and others by some cultural influence. New England Style IPAs have grown up during a crazy boom in beer, and with that comes incredible variety in cultural, production, and flavor influences. I think it will be very hard for the BA to make a definition because I think it is almost impossible to be totally inclusive. If anything, I think this style is exemplary of why setting style guidelines is difficult and ultimately trumps creativity and innovation.”
Nick Naretto: “The BA shouldn’t move any faster recognizing new styles of beer. Defining and creating style guidelines for a beer seems like a huge undertaking. I don’t believe it’s something you’d want to rush into because there are so many variations of any given style. I do think that they should generalize some of the categories a little to avoid confusing crossovers and the potential of a brewery trying to play the odds.”
Nick Yoder: “Unfortunately I think we need to see more staying power from a new style before it becomes part of GABF. NE IPAs may be all the rage now, but so were fruited IPAs a couple years ago. Chances are NE IPAs, or at least the characteristics of them, may stick around for awhile, but until they've proven themselves there's no need for another style. And even then there are arguments to be made for West Coast, Midwest, and Northwest IPA subcategories as well.
The GABF is likely never going to exactly mirror the trends going on in the overall industry. This is a competition based on a set style, not particularly what is popular at the moment. I take GABF awards with a grain of salt, knowing the winners are the ones brewed closest to a set style rather than being the (subjectively) best beer in the style. However, most consumers don't realize this, so a medal is still a valid short term marketing tool for the wider customer base.
And if I want a classic example of a style, then I'll consult the winner list and seek out those beers. In order to break the rules, you have to know them first.”
We’ve talked about adding more categories, but are there already too many? Are the GABF awards even relevant to drinkers? Do you seek out beers just because they won?
Brad: “I could care less about the categories, the medals, etc. If they want to make the awards mean something to me, reduce the number. Increase the stakes for each individual award. Make the categories more general so people (read "consumers") don't have to worry about which styles they may have never had, like who has the best Export Stout in America. That idea may not be popular with their members, because I know a lot of them care a great deal about those awards and work very hard to achieve them. But if they keep this number of categories, they have to realize that when these awards are then used to market to consumers, the sheer number of them waters down the value to many people out there.”
Alex Marsh: “Would I seek out a beer just because it wins a bronze medal at GABF? Hell yes, I would! If it was judged and won a medal and I could easily obtain it, I would seek it out. Prior to winning gold for their Brown Ale in 2010, Lonerider Brewing Co.'s biggest seller was their Hefe. Once they won gold, that shifted, and I still think to this day Sweet Josie is their number one seller.”
Thad Parsons: “I will hold one bronze medal winner up for consideration: Pivo Pils. Okay, maybe not fair, since it also has a couple golds, but the reason I care is that Firestone has shown they know how to make possibly the best Pilsner available. And, with consistent medals, there is a small stable of other beers that you can be guaranteed will meet a certain level of quality every time.
At least around here, local media (and I mean both VA- and DC-centric versions) pick up on the awards almost every year. Lists of local award winners are pushed by distributors to vendors and media. That gets recycled through point of sale and other uses. I don't know how to count the number of six packs that I have sold with these two lines: ‘It won gold at Great American Beer Festival in 201x’ or ‘They were named Small Brewery of the Year in 2015.’”
Lana Svitankova: “A lot of consumers consider awards just a marketing thing for boosting the sales. It's true. But I'm sure an awful lot of people will be drawn to award-winning beer on the shelf if no other reference is there. As has already been said, the beer is chosen and distinguished by professionals. It's a psychological thing. I'm a bit skeptical, but can't say that I'm not swayed by gold.”
Pete Marshall: “Whether a beer has won any awards doesn't matter to me as a consumer. I base my purchases on 1) if I'm in a bar/pub, ‘Can I have a taste, please?’ And if tasting isn't possible, 2) is it a brewery I know and trust to make delicious beer? Or, 3) if it's a brewery that's new to me, what do people that I know, whose opinion I trust, have to say about the beer/brewery? These matter much more to me than the beer/brewery having won an award.”
Mike Sardina: “Overall, I believe that the awards themselves are a positive for the industry. It's one of the better functions of the Brewers Association, in my opinion. Each and every year the awards generate a lot of media coverage and buzz about beer, it is a great thing across the entire category. And the fact that the ‘big guys’ are included within the awards—for example, Pabst or Coors winning medals—is a good thing for beer as a whole.”
Brad Redick: “With regard to the awards being meaningful, I've definitely sought out medal winners before. It feels silly to say, but I'm not sure I would have discovered how great Fat Head’s is without the medals. When Han's Pils won silver in 2012, I went to the store and bought some mainly because I was proud of it being a Texas beer. Up to that point, I had drank that beer once or twice, but after it won, I really sat with it. I wanted to understand its greatness and how it won. Today, Han's is my favorite beer from Texas. It's the beer you're most likely to find in my fridge on the regular, and when I see it on a tap list, it's always my first choice. I'd like to think all of that would be true without the medal, but I'm not sure that's accurate. It's a nice ego stroke to think we all have the best palates and we're all critical thinkers capable of supreme objectivity, but the reality is that all of the tertiary stuff adds up.”
Threefrenchs: “I think the GABF awards are still very valid, and really a great event. Yes, not all beers styles are accounted for, and that’s fine too. Those breweries who choose not to brew or enter beers that fit into a category still have a presence and the beer geeks totally understand why styles exist and why they don’t need to be followed. Some of my friends who are either brewers and/or and owners are jacked when beer like their Irish Red wins. It may not be the most glamorous, but it’s a valid feather in the cap, and the brewery should be able to capitalize on that medal in both sales and brewery morale.”
Mat: “On one hand, when I worked for a brewery, it was fun to win awards. It didn’t exactly blow my skirt up as a sales guy roaming around the countryside, but I felt immense joy for our brewers, lab techs, cellar folks, packaging team, etc. who work their asses off and deserve the recognition. It was cool to see them bask in that glory and gave me a lot of pride in them.
On the other hand, there’s a large part of me that considers beer an art form. How the hell do you judge art? It’s entirely subjective. So, while one person may think that Jackson Pollock was an advanced finger painter, another may regard him as one of the world’s foremost abstract expressionists. Like it or not, in the marketplace of ideas, those two thoughts are equal.”