Friday 16 February 2024

Champion in your own backyard

It was reported earlier this week that the highly-regarded Elland Brewery in West Yorkshire was facing liquidation. Obviously sympathy has to go out to those involved, but it’s an unfortunate fact of life that, at a time when there is significant overcapacity in a declining market, not all breweries are going to survive.

There often seems to be little correlation between breweries’ survival prospects and the quality of the beer they produce, and this was certainly true of Elland, whose 1872 Porter is the current holder of CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain award, which was revived in 2023 after three fallow years during the Covid crisis. It was also the runner-up in this week’s Champion Winter Beer competition, which was won by Sarah Hughes’ Snowflake Barley Wine. As these awards operate on blind tastings, this cannot be said to have just been a sympathy vote.

However, this clearly shows that winning CBOB is no guarantee of long-term success. As a 6.5% dark ale, the potential market for 1872 Porter would be inherently limited, and the award would probably have only made a marginal difference to Elland’s prospects. There is a full list of all past winners on Wikipedia, and many of the successful breweries have failed to go on to bigger things. As the page says, “While the award is prestigious, winning has sometimes caused problems for smaller breweries who have been unable to meet the demand for their champion beers caused by the newfound fame and publicity.”

In the early years, many of the winners were established favourites like Taylor’s Landlord and Fuller’s ESB, and winning would only have given a small fillip to their existing reputations. And quite a lot of winners are ones that never seem to have made much of an impact. I remember Coniston Brewery running into problems after Bluebird won in 1998, when they ended up sub-contracting production out to Brakspear to increase their capacity. However, this did not stop their No. 9 Barley Wine winning in 2012.

Some past winners, such as Oakham JHB, Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted and Castle Rock Harvest Pale, are ones that at least for a while were very often seen in the free trade, and I understand that Cwtch winning in 2015 gave a major boost to the fortunes of Tiny Rebel. That was (and is) a highly distinctive beer that people would make a point of looking out for.

Awards of this kind do not exist in a vacuum, and some regard has to be paid to what their purpose is, which in this case presumably is generating column inches about cask beer and promoting the category in general. People will expect the winners to be beers that they stand a decent chance of getting hold of and might actually want to drink. Having said this, it would seem unreasonable to exclude smaller breweries purely on the grounds of limited production capacity.

Four of the past five winners have been dark beers, and it often seems to be the case that dark beers do disproportionately well in beer competitions, perhaps because they tend to have stronger and more clearly-defined flavours that make an immediate impact on the judges. But it’s been widely observed that dark cask beers don’t tend to sell well in the pub trade, and drinkers may react with “Yawn, yet another stout or porter.”

Another consideration is strength. As with dark beers, the market for cask beer over about 5.0% is fairly limited. Indeed one contributor to Twitter suggested putting a strength ceiling on CBOB contenders. The proportion of everyday cask drinkers (i.e. not the habitu├ęs of specialist taprooms) who would even consider ordering a 6.5% porter, is relatively small. But if beers are good, however strong they are, is it fair to exclude them?

I’m pretty agnostic on this issue, as I can see the arguments either way, and limiting the field for a competition may undermine its credibility. But it’s undeniable that, over time, the impact of any kind of award will be lessened if it is repeatedly given to products that, whether because of their style, strength or limited availability, aren’t going to be of much interest to the majority of consumers. If say, you were running a fiction prize, and awarded it year after year to experimental avant-garde novels, it would be hardly surprising if most of the reading public switched off.

8 comments:

  1. It would be interesting if CAMRA surveyed drinkers and asked them what the champion beer of Britain was and see how many knew.
    I'm guessing it has little actual cut through and is those aware are those interested enough to make themselves aware.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I actually thought GK Abbot had won. Never even heard of the winner.

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    2. Abbot was the runner-up, but got most of the attention as some people object to any beer from a larger brewery winning an award.

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  2. Would judges be able to recognise a beer even in a blind tasting? Or are there just too many entrants?

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    Replies
    1. Probably not, unless they were given a shortlist in advance of the competing beers.

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  3. Excellent points well made.

    I have no idea which beers have won Champion Beer, I know Ind Coope Burton and Adnams Extra won and are no more.

    That 1872 is an oddity. Rarely seen on my travels except in a few West Yorkshire Spoons where at £2 a pint it has quite a few takers.

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    Replies
    1. I'd say people remember the National Pubs of the Year much more than CBOB.

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  4. Professor Pie-Tin19 February 2024 at 09:43

    The €10 pint has arrived in Ireland and it's not even a pint of stout.

    https://m.independent.ie/irish-news/irelands-first-10-plus-pint-as-pub-owner-unrepentant-over-pricing/a750848117.html

    ReplyDelete

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