This Saturday past saw my shadow grace the insides of Chapel Arts for the third annual BC Beer Awards and CAMRA’s Harvest Cask Festival. Being a two-for-one show in a new venue, I figured I should complain about the various bits of all this individually, so they can each get the attention deserved.
Venue: Chapel Arts is a great location with lots of character. It’s a former Chapel (duh) with lots of spacious rooms, and the kind of nooks and crannies you just don’t see in modern housing. They even opened up the garage to push in a food cart for dispensing non-barley based nutrition. Of course, this was somewhat disappointing as the invite rather explicitly promised us two food carts. Oh well, my Re-Up sammich was tasty.
How’d it stack up for a cask fest? I’d give it a solid pass. The space was attractive, interesting and it contributed to a cosy, intimate feel, but it also conversely made movement between the three main cask rooms and food area sometimes difficult. Overall, though, I liked it.
CaskFest Organization: CAMRA Vancouver did a good job with organizing this one. Tickets were available from a non-crashy website at a decidedly non-midnight time (cough, cough, VCBW), and entry into the event was not hampered by long lineups (cough). As well, given the size of the space involved, I didn’t feel it was oversold. There’s always a risk that the promoter will get a bit greedy and just keep on selling tickets, but even though this was sold out there was rarely a lineup at cask stations, and you never felt rushed while chatting with whomever was manning the brew, something I in particular look for at these events.
In fact, about the only complaint I have on the organizing side of things is the missing food cart. I love Re-Up, but the other garage door weeped gently with the lost food possibilities the promised second food cart would provide. Sure, there was a bar upstairs with a quality cheese platter on offer, but I didn’t see any wheels on that sucker.
Brewery Participation: 24 beers from 21 brewers. I should be happy, right? Nope. I’m disappointed. The reason is that there was a surprising lack of casks for a CASK festival. Call me crazy, but I think putting the word CASK right in the title sets a certain expectation. Of there being CASKS. CASKS!
Of those 24 beers, only 15 were casks. And of those 15 casks, only 9 were not simply cask conditioned versions of the brewery’s normal beers, and that makes a sad Chuck. Try harder, people.
1/ Red Truck Kellerbier — While technically not a cask, this was definitely a unique one-off, and nearly perfectly executed. My vote for best in show. Smooth yet full of flavour. Chuck likey.
2/ Spinnakers Fresh-hopped Saison — I wouldn’t have guessed that fresh hops and a saison would work together, but the result was like summer in a glass: fresh, fruity, and a joy to drink.
3/ Lighthouse Belgian Quince IPA — The beauty of a cask is the ability to fiddle around and try new things. This beer is exactly that. The quince and NZ hops created a massive fruity body which I was not a huge fan of, but it did garner People’s Choice for Best in Show. While I didn’t love the beer, I loved the idea behind the beer.
4/ Storm Imperial Sour Cherry Stout — A well balanced sour from Storm. Wha? I had no idea they could do something subtle.
1/ Coal Harbour Sour Roggenweizen — I cannot stress this enough: finish fermenting your beer before you serve it. I tried the on-tap version at the Alibi immediately afterwards and, while still not a great (or good) beer by any stretch, I didn’t immediately pour it out, like I witnessed many many other people do with the cask version.
CMON! (breweries without casks):
1/ Big Ridge (Tariq’s ESB)
2/ Hoyne (Wolf Vine)
3/ Old Yale (Sasquatch Stout)
4/ Steamworks (Pilser and Espresso Stout)
5/ Townsite (Porter)
6/ Tree (Jumpin Jack Pumpkin)
7/ Yaletown Brewing (Oud Bruin)
Try Harder (breweries that only cask conditioned a regular beer):
1/ Coal Harbour (Sour Roggenweizen — although I guess making it gord awful counts as a one-off?)
2/ Driftwood (Sartori — Although this gets a pass for being rare)
3/ Granville Island (Pumpkin AND Fresh Hopped ESB)
4/ Parallel 49 (Lost Souls Choco Pumpkin Porter)
5/ Phillips (Accusation)
6/ Vancouver Island (Iron Plow Marzen)
I dunno, guys, pee in it or something. Maybe stop off at Dan’s Homebrewing on the way to Chapel Arts and buy some coriander? How about ANYTHING!
I know what you’re thinking: we’re about to get ourselves some good old-fashioned Chuck beer nerd ranting. I mean, Townsite and Coal Harbour win first place in their categories? Steamworks Pilsner gets Best in Show?
Sadly, though, I know enough about how the awards process and how judging was done to know there’s not foul play afoot here at all. That doesn’t mean that Coal Harbour is suddenly brewing amazing beer, just that the process favoured them. How so?
First, let’s do our background homework and go look at the winners, courtesy of Urban Diner.
Now, let’s learn a bit about how beer judging works. Beer judges (especially BCJP cerftified judges) aren’t judging beers based upon how much they like them. They’re judging them based on how closely they’re brewed to the ideal beer in that particular style. It’s kind of like judging art based on how much it looks like the Mona Lisa. It makes sense in a certain way, but I’m not sure it’s the best way to reward innovation.
Let’s take IPAs, for instance, which is BCJP Style 14. These are broken into three sub categories: English IPA, American IPA and Imperial IPA. Go read those descriptions. You know what does not fit that description? Most of the great BC IPAs, like Driftwood Fat Tug, Tofino Hop Cretin, and Lighthouse Switchback. Those guys differ in at least a few key ways, usually in terms of body or hop style.
You know what fits that style? The beers that won. Central City Red Racer is about as fine an American IPA as I can imagine. CC Imperial IPA likewise for imperials. And while it caused some commotion on the floor, Derrick Franche up at the Whistler Brewpub puts together a mean American IPA. I think CC’s IPA is better, but each batch is different and I have no problem imagining Derrick’s was better than Gary’s on the day of judging (although it could be said that the CC IPA is too aromatic for the style).
Then there’s the problem of the blinding. The tastings were double blinded, so that both the tasters and the person serving the beers had no idea which beer was in which glass. The idea here is to prevent brand bias. If you took a CC IPA and poured 1/2 into a glass marked “Central City” and 1/2 into a glass marked “Bowen Island” you can guess what would happen. Blinding prevents that… in theory.
The problem comes we look at the numbers of beers in those categories. Some have 20, 30 or even 40 entrants, but some have only a handful. When this happens, the awards organizers group similar styles together for judging, but in order to judge the beers fairly you have to tell them what the style is (remember our style guidelines from before). Now let’s look at the Sour/Brett category.
First, there were only four entrants, which means any beer had a 75% chance of winning right off the bat, but there’s another issue: each of these beers is a different style. Picture this: you’re judging a sour beer in BC, and I put three glasses in front of you, all unlabelled, but I tell you what style each is. One is a “Oud Bruin” (yes, that’s actually a style), one is a “Flanders Red”, one is an “Imperial Flanders Red” and the last is “Some awful crap made over on Triumph Street.” See where I’m going with this? There’s no way a judge from BC wouldn’t immediately know who made which beer. Sure, not all judges were from BC, but many of them were, and as a result the accuracy of the rankings is heavily diluted.
Combine all those things together and the awards are pretty much what I’d expect: random. More narrowly defined categories with lots of entrants are going to be more accurate while everything else is a coin toss. The takeaway? Steamworks makes a pilsner which is pretty much a picture-perfect pilsner, and perhaps Coal Harbour’s Smoked Ale is worth another look…. nah….