Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Beer Awards: Poke at Them.

There are more beer firms than we can fit into the next edition of Good Beer Guide Belgium. By "beer firms," I mean those marketing offices that sell brands but are not breweries -- though some of them are happy for us, the consumers, to assume that they do have one. They are happy for us to assume all sorts of things.

That's a hobby-horse issue for me and I could go on at length. Today I'd rather home in on beer awards.

One of those many Belgian beer firms is Tripick. Their office address is Boncelles, just southwest of Liège. I'd never heard of them -- they are new, and there are hundreds of these little firms -- until someone mentioned they were "the" "Belgium Winner" in the World Beer Awards. You can go to the website and see. They post the golden logo on the front page. Scroll down to the news section and you'll see the headline, "Tripick elected as best Belgian beer." If you look closer or read the article you'll learn that they won the "categories Lager and Strong."

(Disclosure: This year I was one of the WBA judges at a first-round session in Germany, and a few years ago I was one of the judges for the final round in London.)

Let's clear up a few things. Tripick won only one category --  Lager: Strong -- and only for Belgium. (See the country winners here. They are legion.) There were 1,900 entries from 36 countries in the 2017 World Beer Awards. There are 71 style categories in the WBA, and it's possible for any brand from any country to enter any of those categories.

How many Belgian entries do you suppose there were for the Strong Lager category? I asked. They said it was confidential. My guess: very few. Maybe only two -- Tripick Blonde and Tripel -- since there were no medals given at all, and no other awards given in that category for Belgium.

A couple of things must be said: If you are looking for great beers to try, you could do much worse than peruse the list of WBA's international winners, here. A beer doesn't get that far without technical quality, a winning personality, and some luck.

Also: I've never encountered a Tripick beer in the wild, so I've never tried it. They might be amazing, I can't say. It has existed for less than a year.

But there are things I can say. The brand sells two beers, Blonde (6%) and Tripel (8%). Both are top-fermented -- not lagers, so why did they enter that category? -- and bottle-conditioned. The levels of bitterness sound right up my alley, probably more balanced than the usual, sweet-ish tripels and blonds. There are a few technical specs on the website, plus all sorts of promo materials you could download, if you were into that, but nowhere on the website does it say where the beer is actually brewed. Sadly this is standard operating procedure for many of Belgium's beer firms.

Ratebeer lists Tripick as a "client brewer," with the beers made at 3 Fourquets (which recently changed names to Lupulus to match its beers). Using the contact form on the Tripick website, I wrote them about a week ago to ask. I haven't heard back yet, but I'll update this if I hear back.

(Another disclosure: I have admin privileges at Ratebeer, so I can help to keep the Belgian stuff accurate. But generally the two Belgian admins they have are so on top of things that there is not much for me to do.)

Lupulus, led by Achouffe co-founder Pierre Gobron and his sons, is in my view one of the best breweries in Belgium. It has gradually improved its spicily-hopped, technically excellent beers over the years, and they were already good when they debuted a decade ago. If I were hiring them to brew the brand I was selling, I would boast about it. Lupulus is not likely to let a bad beer escape its gates. If they are brewing Tripick, that says much more to me about the beer than the "award."

About beer awards: The cynical view holds that they are really for brewers and marketing folks, not for consumers.

That's not a view I want to hold. Given the immense variety of beer we have these days -- much of it overpriced, much of it mediocre, some of it poorly made -- taking a look at reputable beer awards can be a useful way to cut through the bullshit and identify beers that in all likelihood are worth trying.

But does anybody do it that way?

I like to think about an imaginary shopper in the beer aisle, checking the labels to see if there is a gold or silver of this or that award competition stuck on there. If the prize is there, and only if the prize is there, the shopper will buy it, because that's how he or she knows it's a really good beer.

Why do I like to think about this shopper? Because it makes me laugh. It's absurd. Nobody does that.

I mean, it's plausible that someone iffy on whether to buy a beer sees that award on the label or website, and that information provides the final nudge that gets that beer into the shopping cart. More likely: We peruse lists of awards for breweries that we know or that are in our backyard, or possibly for the styles that we drink most often, for a couple of ideas on what to hunt. Then, maybe, we remember to keep our eyes out for it. Maybe.

But there are oodles of these competitions now -- some of them very well organized, some more mysterious, some international, some more local -- and I have to imagine it's increasingly difficult for typical drinkers to care or even notice them. In the absence of information, award inflation has devalued the prizes.

That is not to say that consumers can't use them for good. It would be helpful to identify the strongest competitions. Find out how many entries each competition gets, and from how broad a base in terms of geography and brewery size, and then look at how many prizes they give out in the end. I don't know what the percentage of prizes-to-entries ought to be. But it ought to be small. (And to the credit of the WBA, at the international level there is only one award for each style category.)

Another thought: Shops or pubs are in a position to know more about which awards and ratings are serious enough to be useful as recommendations. Tagging the shelves could help sell better beer to those who hunt it.

And this should go without saying, but if you see an award plastered on a label, website, or a brewery's office walls, don't take it for granted. Interrogate it. Looking at the fine print might tell you something about the quality of the beer. Or it might say more about those doing the boasting.

*First pic of a Lupulus, not confirmed to be the brewery that makes Tripick but it probably is.
**Second pic of the Brussels Beer Challenge, which in my view (biased, as a frequent judge there) is a world-class competition.
***More disclosures: WBA paid me a small stipend for judging a few years ago and covered my train ticket to Hamburg this year. Brussels Beer Challenge usually pays for my hotel room but not travel expenses. Airfare is cheap so I rationalize it as research and education. But also it's fun to do.


  1. Delerium Tremens had been advertised as 'Voted world's best beer' since winning an award in 2008. It isn't.

  2. Nor is Tongerlo Blond, but Haacht have been riding that one for all it's worth.

    1. I originally thought that was a pisstake.I'm sure I wasn't alone.

  3. Couple of things you don't mention: many of these award competitions ask an entry fee from brewers for each beer submitted, so they have an interest in giving out as many awards as possible, which in themselves cost very little but bring in revenue.

    Secondly, while I would never impugn your credentials, which if they don't speak for themselves, people should know we both write for Belgian Beer and Food magazine, some award organisations employ who the fuck knows who as judges. And what sort of obligation are those people under? You mention the Brussels Beer Challenge, and of course I know, like and respect Luc, but for everyone else, they publish a list of their judges, many of whom I also know, while many will be known to anyone who is interested in beer. That sort of transparency commands trust, but I think it's rare. Brewers, since they've paid for it, have every right to paper their office walls with awards from whatever source, but consumers need to be made aware that some certificates are the 25-yard breaststroke of beer credentials, and hopefully this post will help make that fact better known. If I were you I'd suggest it to Paul as an article (You'd need to correct " hone in on" like a blade to "home in on," like a homing pigeon) so it could reach a more international and paying audience of rather more prestige than this lot, no offence.

    All the best.

    1. Good, well-homed points, thanks Alan.

    2. OK. I corrected the grammatical error you sort of publicly and passively aggressively noted, my friend. Because I can do that.