In May of this year, Caolan and I were lucky enough to be invited to judge at the world’s most prestigious beer competition, the biennial Brewers Association World Beer Cup. This year it was to be held in San Diego County, California, a place with over 50 breweries. One of the best aspects of the competition is the 211-strong international judging panel made up of 27 different nationalities, all of whom are brewers or brewing industry experts. Obviously we were delighted to attend.
Initially, things did not go to plan – Caolan and I both lost our luggage on arrival, not a good thing in hot and sunny California. However, the brewing community is a generous one and our ex-work colleagues and friends at Little Creatures Brewing and Charles Faram hop merchants soon hit us up with a few t-shirts to tide us over. We were based at the Town and Country resort in the North of the city. We soon settled in and got straight down to the business of judging the various categories. With 95 categories to get through, the following 3 days were a exhausting blur of judging tables and beer samples. When judging beer, it is important to do it as best to your ability as possible, something the brewer who’s beer you are judging will appreciate – the very thought of putting beer into a competition that is then not tasted or appreciated properly is insulting. The judges assembled, being brewers, understand this and is thus a reason why WBC medals are taken seriously. Another aspect is the scorecards each judge fills in, detailing any faults or pleasantries the beer has. These are then posted to the brewer, providing valuable feedback on any beers entered.
Evenings were spent exploring San Diego’s remarkable beer bars and breweries, hanging out with old friends from the international brewing scene and new friends made on the judging tables during the day. Some would argue that San Diego is the world’s best city for craft beer (although beer lovers from cities such as Portland and Bakewell might disagree) and it certainly offers something for every beer enthusiast, from the outrageously hoppy IPAs of Port and Ballast Point, to the heady, broody stouts of Alesmith; from the amazingly accurate Germanic recreations of Lightning Brewery to the off-piste, style-bending Belgian experiments of Iron Fist. There are few places on earth that offer such a diverse range of beer styles and brew them with such technical competence and flair. Needless to say we did as much ‘research’ as possible, with Hamilton’s Tavern being the real highlight of the area.
Following the genuinely tiring days of judging and researching, the award ceremony was held at the Resort where Gold, Silver and Bronze medals were handed out – one of the reasons the WBC is known as the Beer Olympics! Another distinctive feature of the WBC is that categories are not given the full slate of awards if the judging team decides that the entries do not ‘make the grade’, so awards are not handed out without merit. So it was with this in mind when we were absolutely delighted to pick up a bronze medal for our Black IPA, Raven, especially considering it was such a strong category and the beer had travelled five and a half thousand miles to get there, while other entries had been driven a short distance across the city!
After the high of the ceremony, it was time to bid goodbye to San Diego and fly North to Sacramento in North California for some recuperation, following some mild celebrative beverages. First of all we drove to the student city of Chico, home of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co for a technical tour of the brewery provided by their Brewmaster, Steve Dressler, and the Company Ambassador Steve Grossman. This was the brewery tour of a lifetime and we cannot praise the beer (and food) highly enough! Everything about the place impressed, starting with the fabulous welcome. One thing we noticed immediately was all the employees were smiling and appeared happy to be there; something we strive for at Thornbridge. And rightly so: the attention to detail was noticeable, with the best of everything brewing technology has to offer – amazing lab facilities and quality control procedures, in fact it is fair to say we took a lot away with us in terms of inspiration.
The same can be said of the other breweries we got to visit in North California, completing a whistlestop tour of Russian River in Santa Rosa, the fantastic Firestone Walker Brewing Company and another of our favourite breweries of the trip, Lagunitas in Petaluma. Again we were there to see how they were managing demand for their beers and keeping quality as high as they do whilst growing as a company. Growth presents a number of different hurdles, such as distribution and packaging technologies, but the main one being quality and consistency of beer flavour. Like Firestone Walker and Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas continue to produce fantastic beers whilst growing as a company, but also do it with an admirable ethos of fun, irreverence and devotion to all that is good in craft beer.
Overall we were fascinated and seriously impressed with the commitment brewers show to great beer in California. Thankfully the beer scene is moving towards making unique, flavourful, but above all balanced and highly enjoyable beers with a huge focus on the latest developments in brewing science and technology. It was fantastic to make lots of new friends in the California brewing scene and we can’t wait to get there again to do some more judging, exploring, and beer drinking!