Self-identity - Views on the outcome of the BBC 2020


The celebration of the Barcelona Beer Challenge -hereinafter BBC- awards ceremony, which until now had always been held during the weekend of the Barcelona Beer Festival, took place this past Wednesday and Thursday remotely, through YouTube Live, in response to the confinement limitations due to Covid-19.

Beyond the impact of the BBC at an international level, the relevance of this event for our industry, at national level, is undeniable. That is why I wanted to take the opportunity to sleep very few hours last night and make some reflections on the results. Let's go there.

-My comments are based on a series of premises, which I list at the end of the post so as not to hinder the expositions, but whose reading I recommend to understand some assumptions upon which I have built my text-.


What do the results tell us?

1. First of all, that our beer scene has a remarkable competition, which after five editions has more than consolidated as an annual ocurrence for the country's breweries, many of which strive year after year to be present with an increasingly better product; as well as outside our borders, judging by the quantity and quality of international brands that take part in the contest. Every year the participation, the competition for the prizes and the satisfaction among contestants grow, something that can only be understood from the enormous work done by the organisation. Bravo.

2. We can also celebrate the great health of our craft breweries. I am excited to see an almost-veteran like Edge Brewing, who has suffered all kinds of mutations and changes on its way, taking the first prize after obtaining a record global score. It also thrills me to see that after the meritorious rookie brewery award obtained by Peninsula last year, a young, ambitious and interesting project such as Cierzo Brewing, by Caspe, takes over. Naturally, like so many other people, I am also looking forward to trying Mustache's spectacular trough Lager, that got the award for beer innovation. But beyond the grand prizes, many details could be underlined, such as the fact that small and humble brewers such as Gall Negre, from Arsèguel, can win two medals in classic styles in their first participation; the medal that, edition after edition, is awarded to a brilliant beer such as Carbonera from Cervesa Sant Jordi; and a long etcetera.

3. The participation and recognition of beers made by large brewing groups grows, the most direct implication of which is that their quality also grows, in addition to the importance they give to the formats and events that have been born closely linked to the craft beer movement. Once the old mantra that the big companies do not mind craft brewing has been overcome, this point should not surprise anyone who is minimally informed. With the resources and capabilities these companies have, thinking that their products cannot get good scores in a blind tasting is pure and simple myopia.

This last point, though, has generated arguments among followers and commentators of the beer scene in the last hours. That is why, once my personal reading of the results is done, I will now try to delve into the reason for the controversy: its reasons, and its reasonableness.


Original sin

The problem with the aforementioned third point, the main cause in my opinion of the controversy unleashed in social networks, is that making an objective reading of the results requires burying some messages upon which the craft movement was built. The exaggerated exaltation and esotericism about concepts such as naturalness and craftsmanship, as opposed to the horrendous artificiality of the 'industrial' stuff. Honesty and affection in the elaboration, versus perfidy and greed.

I have always been critical of this series of myths, although time makes me understand that they were surely useful tools to broaden that limited concept of beer that the dominant actors had sold us. In any case, I think it is high time for us to forget all of it: in the end, they are all companies in the same industry but with a different history, structure, resources, objectives and products. All of them with their own peculiarities, strengths and weaknesses.


The defect, or the virtue

Despite the fact that the awards are fair on the merits, it can undoubtedly be debated whether it is convenient or not to open the doors of craft-related events to the big players. The quick and correct answer is that it is up to the organisation of the contest, a position that may or may not be shared.

True, unlike what has happened so many times the other way round, far from limiting access to certain companies, at the BBC they all play on a level playing field. This means that big brewing companies can use this contest, born from the impulse of craft beer -as previously mentioned-, to obtain exposure. Many understand the above as an intrusion, and as a mistake.

My vision is somewhat different. First of all, due to the scope and reputation of these awards outside the environment most closely related to craft. I am really doubtful that the awards of this contest, with a certain focus and communicative target, have any effect on the consumption of the regular drinkers of mass-produced beer. To craft drinkers, if microbreweries keep on doing a good job, it should also matter little.

But with a broader view, I see it as a reaffirmation, a matter of security and self-reliance, that young companies with few resources compete with centuries-old companies, which in a month get a bigger profit than the accumulated amount that these small businesses will earn throughout their entire lifetime. Competing, just like in the market, but in the context of a contest.

Let's add to this a more humanistic and inclusive vision, more typical of those values ​​that are generally attributed to the craft scene: why limit participation based on the characteristics of the contestants or -as I have read out there- to certain styles, in order to obtain the desired results? It is virtuous to identify others' mistakes so as not to fall into the same trap.


Of relativity and pissing-off

Let us have a look now at the objective data around the recognition that two large beer groups such as Mahou-San Miguel and Heineken have obtained on this BBC: out of 186 medals at stake, they have obtained 7. If we were to add the medals obtained by the companies in which M-SM holds a minority stake, we would have 3 more from La Salve, and 4 from Founders. All this means 7.5% of the total.

Focusing strictly on the seven medals awarded to Mahou, San Miguel and Cruzcampo brands -3.8% of the total-, the noisy minority of these last hours, two medals have been in category 2. International Lager, a category for the most usual type of beer brewed by large companies -in general, I am not passionate about pumpkin beers either, but they also have a category-. The rest have been obtained in subcategories that whose stylistical scope include products that these companies have been working on for a long time, such as 6A. Märzen and 8. Dark European Lager; after the turn of interest towards hops, also at 12. Pale Commonwealth Beer; and in a subcategory typically related to craft brewing, as is 33A. Wood-Aged Beer, in which there has been a prominent gold.

For those who continue to live on the myths and esotericisms discussed above, I am about to share a brief and logical statement: the use of top quality raw materials does not ensure that the final product meets the same standards. The process is key, and in this area it will be difficult to win over those who have practically unlimited resources to ensure a smooth execution, and to establish rigorous quality controls.

You might like them; you might not: but with the adequate resources you can make very good beers that, in addition, cover a large number of consumers, as many historical and traditional breweries have been demonstrating for years. Neither rice nor corn: when it comes to drinking beer, there is no worse adjunct than prejudice.

Having seen and said the above, those of us who love craft beer and who, on a personal level, feel more than mere consumers, do we have to be pissed off to see an increase in the quality and variety of the offer by big brewing companies? To witness how beer drinkers, as a whole, have much better and more varied beer at their disposal than 5 or 10 years ago? I am personally delighted. Especially, because to me it as a clear triumph of the craft beer movement.


The future: identity

At this point, and after all the previous reflections, we might come to consider that, despite everything, it is not fair that the big guys benefit from an alien triumph.

We would, however, be ignoring the great investment and effort that large breweries have spent in tackling a problem that has become entrenched in the last decade, being used to the calm of an oligopolistic market that had been stable for years, with just some small regional peculiarities. Each brewing group has interpreted the response this paradigm shift in its own way: some as a pure threat; others as an opportunity. But all of them with the uncertainty of what is the best strategy.

Given this situation, and at a moment in time when opening a small beer business is nothing new, it is essential to have -at least- a clear differential fact that sets you apart from the rest. Unless you have a very distinctive geographical scope, commercial or product focus, it makes no sense today to open a new brewery to make normal -or mediocre- hopped beers: large companies already have them on the market, even with some quite good examples.

In line with what I have mentioned on previous occasions, microbreweries have to find the niche; the specialisation. Take advantage of their own idiosyncrasy to make those products that, produced on a large scale, without a large number of consumers prepared for them, are loss-making. To think, as I sometimes read, that with the current offensive macrobreweries will eat up the microbrewing scene as a whole is, in my opinion, to ignore that there are boards over which large companies will never sit down and play.

Analysed from a more philosophical level, it is relevant to consider that craft beer was born as opposed to the monotony and standardisation of beer. Is there anything more recurring today than an IPA with Mosaic and Citra? One of the great identity causes of craft beer has been, from the beginning, the constant discovery of new flavours and sensations, constantly expanding the perimeter drawn around the definition of beer: insisting on brewing IPAs without any differential fact -e.g. some kind of stylistic twist, local element, or simply an enormous skill in its elaboration- is meaningless. Do we really want to see a sector that always produces the same stuff, committed to reactively follow trends, with hardly any innovation?

Now that the pioneers of the scene are reaching their teens, it's time for craft breweries to ask themselves what they want to be once they are grown-ups.

I am convinced that pursuing their own identity, each passing year with greater experience, knowledge and community wealth, will ensure them a great collective future.


Corollary

To close this article -which was actually intended to be shorter- just let me point out that, from my point of view, beer fans have more reasons to celebrate than to be disappointed.

It is in our individual consumption decisions that we will draw the beer offering of the future. Off-trade establishments will offer the beers that their public is looking for. Hence, if we care so much for our local breweries, we should order their products in restaurants, bars and stores. Now more than ever.

As the Barcelona Beer Challenge awards show us once again, quality is not lacking.


Salut i birra!

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Premises and transparency

  • I have not taken part in any aspect of the organisation or the execution of this year's Barcelona Beer Challenge, although I am closely linked with Beer Events, the company that organises the event, by years of professional and personal understanding.
  • Having said that, I would not be jeopardising my reputation as an industry 'commentator' to defend positions that do not reflect my personal views.
  • BBF and BBC are two independent lines of work from the same company, Beer Events.
  • Participating in the BBF does not give any benefit to those who also choose to participate in the BBC.
  • Participating in the BBC may give a benefit in brand exposure for the next edition of the Festival, in case a brand gets important prizes, but it does not grant any immediate benefit to those who participate in the BBF.
  • The right to take part in the BBC is the same for all participants, without distinction, under the same set of rules.
  • These rules can be consulted in the set of regulations, along with other aspects of interest such as the internal organisation and functioning of the BBC.
  • Its reading is highly recommended to understand operational aspects -e.g. drill down of styles-, as well as to be able to express founded opinions in this regard, avoiding confusion around public and known aspects.
  • The operation ensures that the same beer will pass, at least, through the blind evaluation of 4 judges, reaching up to 12 in the most competitive categories.
  • The score of a beer is the result of the consensus among all these judges. Although the evaluation is governed by stylistic standards, it is naturally subjective. But this system is set to ensure that the score is fair.
  • All judges are certified, with the experience and passion necessary to do the job. The entire panel is heterogeneous in origin and age -over time, hopefully also in gender-. Far from getting any money, they receive some courtesy benefits, paying the difference to ensure their presence in the evaluation phase.
  • To doubt about the honesty of the organisation or the judges seems out of place, and does not deserve further comment on my part.

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