I'm on a train heading South West to the Tuckers Malting Beer Festival with the excuse of 'judging' at the Society of Independent Brewers SW regional beer competition. Around 100 breweries will have entered over 350 beers between them, each hoping to be judged 'best in class' or, better still, 'best in competition'. There'll be around 40 judges drawn mainly from the biz with a sprinkling of the worthy added in; we'll be divided into groups, each with its own guiding chair and a category to assess. Blind tasting will ensue with much sniffing, swirling and swilling and marks given for such attributes as clarity, aroma, and flavour. All the entered beers will be subjected to this scrutiny, the lucky few going forward to a national final competition next year and the winners of *that* will gain bragging rights over the entire craft beer movement of England, Scotland and Wales (I imagine it's only the pesky Irish sea that precludes Northern Ireland from our association, though it may be a lack of breweries). In this highly competitive industry such awards are generally considered to help out the sales department enormously and, to an extent, this is true: the process of selecting the winners is extremely vigorous, spanning over a year, and the assessment of as many as 20 independent scrutineers - you don't get lucky in this competition - the badge of merit is just that, a mark of true quality. All this helps the cream rise to the top where you, who just seeks a tasty beer, will be able to spot it and select it. The beer award world is, like most such influential awards, flawed. Of course it is, but it isn't damaged to such an extent that it ceases to work, no, no it works very well in fact.
But I feel uncomfortable about it all, I always have done. Beer 'competition'? Beer can't compete; nothing so profound is completely measurable. I can argue that the appreciation of a beer is subjective, that we have differing preferences, and I'd be partly right. You could counter by arguing that it's objective, that the vast majority of us can tell a rotten beer from a decent one. And you'd be partly right too. We could get bogged down in this (Pirsig stuff) for some time and not actually reach a conclusion, but we needn't, because it's superfluous to my point and that is this: beer is not a simple, stand alone object in the same way that, say, an eraser is. An erasure looks and works like one pretty much wherever it is and whoever is using it. There are no discernible outside influences altering the users perception and performance of the erasure, it's the same as it was, albeit possibly a little more worn, in a previous time and place. Not so beer though - beer is beer, and mood, and place, and company. Context is everything in beer - what's right one day, in one place and with certain people is not necessarily as good the next day, in a different place, all alone. I need only one example, a single anecdote, to illustrate my point: the best beer I ever had? I usually shy away, mumbling something about the one in my hand but that's a cover-up: truly, the very best beer I ever had (well, it's up there) was a bottle of Amstel, the Amsterdam brewed pilsner. I can't tell you about the malt profile, or the blend of hops used to create this masterpiece, mainly because the experience was over 20 years ago, but I can give you an idea of the circumstance: the beer was ice cold, fresh from a large catering fridge in the kitchen of a quayside taverna on the rocky Ithaca in the Ionian Sea. There were perhaps ten of us, girls and boys on our summer break from University, prime of our lives and having the time of our lives. There was more than one bottle too - enough to quench the thirst and lubricate social interaction for a number of weeks. Yes, Amstel lager certainly did it for me that summer. Back home, and before the season completely finished, I chose a warm West London day to treat my mate to a couple of chilled down Amstels I'd secreted in the union bar ice machine. And though it tasted good, it wasn't the same, not at all the same. It never could be the same.
So though it is possible to 'judge' the merit of beer it feels entirely inappropriate to do so. An act of sacrilege would be putting it too strongly, perhaps, but it is wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. But since my trip is an excuse to enjoy a little travel, meeting old friends and making new ones whilst supping a couple of pints of the local, I'll forgive myself.