It’s Eureka for some at Ballarat beer awards 1996

Confused by the growing range of beers available? Then relax – because the experts have set up a judging forum to help us pick winners from the ever-growing range on retail shelves and drinks lists.

Last weekend in Ballarat and Melbourne, a panel of experts – including five brewers and a maltster – judged an international field of 288 beers. Instigator and Chief Steward of the Liquorland Australian International Beer Awards, Rob Greig, kindly allowed me to sit in as observer – albeit one who remembered the time when choosing beer was easy.

In the old days, when it came to picking a cold drink on a hot day, where you lived mattered more than what you liked. If you lived in Sydney it was Tooheys, Tooths or Reschs. Melbourners had a handful of brands, including Fosters and Victoria Bitter, all from within the Carlton United portfolio. Queenslanders clung to Castlemaine XXXX. South Australians preferred West End and Southwark. Western Australians swore by Swan, Emu and Hannans. And Tasmanians sipped Cascade and Boags. Canberrans alone were likely to be faced with a wider selection.

These days it’s an infinitely more varied menu, not just of brands, but also of styles. Now we’ve added ‘light’, ‘ice’, ‘cold’, ‘gold’ – and other adjectives – to the old list of lager, ale, porter and stout. And what are we to make of brands like ‘Dog Bolter’, ‘Loaded Dog Steam Beer’ and ‘Redback’.

The wider variety of beers now available is part and parcel of our changing alcohol consumption habits. We drink less beer per capita. But we drink better beer. We drink more imports. We drink more boutique beers. More women than ever before drink beer. More Australians than ever before drink beer.

Burgeoning interest in beer in all its varied forms brought together the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria (organisers of the Melbourne Wine Show) and the University of Ballarat. In 1984 they introduced the ‘National Beer and Brewing Awards’. The University became involved because it offers degree and post-graduate courses in malting and brewing.

In 1995 the awards took a great leap forward when New Zealand brewing giant Lion Nathan (owners of Tooheys, Castlemaine and Swan) decided to participate. Their beers joined a field of 201 competitors, including entries from Papua New Guinea, Canada, Indonesia, Malta and Tonga, as well as a solid core from Australia and New Zealand. The awards had become an international event.

This year, Rob Greig and his colleagues moved into a higher gear again, attracting 288 entries from 19 countries: Singapore, Korea, Tonga, Denmark, Philippines, USA, Vietnam, New Zealand, India, Malta, South Africa, Thailand, UK, Czech Republic, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Nederlands and Australia.

Surprisingly, Carlton United, Australia’s largest brewer, doesn’t participate. Wondering why, I rang the external affairs department for a comment. Terry Bowe’s response: “We regard the beer awards as a forum for small boutique breweries. We never have been involved.” I’m still trying to work that one out! Lion Nathan and Dominion boutiques?

The beers were judged by Tim Cooper (Coopers Brewery, Adelaide), Roger Bussell (Joe White Maltings, Adelaide), Bill Taylor (Castlemaine, Brisbane), Paul Schrader (Eumundi, Brisbane), Barry Axon (Dominion Breweries, Auckland) and Richard Bennell (Boags Brewery, Hobart) under the guidance of Chief Steward, Rob Greig (University of Ballarat) and Chief Judge, Colin Dowzer (Brewing Consultant, Melbourne).

The judges spent last Friday, Saturday and Sunday in a Ballarat University laboratory tasting packaged beers before moving into Melbourne Show ground on Monday to attack 84 kegs of draught beer.

Beers are judged in classes, much as wine is, to ensure the comparison of like with like. In the open classes Australian and New Zealand beers run head to head in Lager, Ale, Stout, Reduced Alcohol, Draught Ale, Draught Lager, and Draught Stout categories. The small brewer class is judged under similar categories (with no reduced alcohol products). And the international entries are broken into Lager, Ale and Stout sections. There are separate classes for Wheat Beer and Low Alcohol Beer (as distinct from reduced alcohol).

Rob Greig sees the beer awards bringing benefits to consumers and producers, much as wine shows do. The event provides a promotional platform for the industry, especially for major award winners. And the impartial nature of the judging helps consumers navigate through a confusingly broad field.

Results of the judging are to be announced in Melbourne on June 28 after which I will run a class-by-class report with some personal commentary as I have kept my score sheets from the Ballarat tasting last weekend. If you have access to the Internet, you will be able to access the results on the University of Ballarat’s home page on http://www.ballarat.edu.au (click on upcoming events to find Liquorland Australian International Beer Awards).

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