I was a bit late to the Sainsbury’s GBBH party. In truth I was unaware it even existed until this summer. But the more I heard about it, the more I liked the idea and I was determined to try as many of the 20 finalists as possible once they reached the stores – in the interests of experiencing more British beers. But getting hold of all 20 of the entries proved to be a challenge as some of you may have discovered for yourselves.
A few weeks ago, our friend Steve* from The Beer O'Clock Show asked for a volunteer to utilise his ticket for the Grand Final. I was pleased to offer my services, partly because I was curious about the judging process (look out for our upcoming post on beer judging) and partly because I knew I would get to try ALL THE BEERS. Yay. Prior to the event I’d only managed to try 8/20 (two from each region). A couple were very nice, one was very bad, and the others fell somewhere in between.
In the week running up to the Grand Final the 20 finalists were whittled down to 12. Now, here was my first issue with the organisation of the competition. I searched long and hard online but I couldn’t find the list of the 12 FINAL finalists anywhere. Maybe it really was there somewhere and I just missed it. But even if that was the case that would still be poor organisation. We had some discussion about two days before the grand final when some of us home brewers met up (to exchange beers for the upcoming Beer O’Clock Show Homebrew Special). Some of the brewers in the competition, e.g. Harbour, had announced that they were finalists but there wasn’t no announcement from Sainsbury’s that I’m aware of.
Oh, look! Here is the list of the final 12. I swear this page was only updated after the final - because I looked for it before that. Hard.
On a damp, grey Friday morning as I hurried to get out of the rain and into the OXO Tower, where the Grand Final was being held, the recurring thought in my head was: but I don’t even know what the final 12 beers are! Level Two of the OXO Tower is a lovely riverside venue with views directly out over the ugly brown Thames. I arrived in between the judges and the brewers so was able to listen to the organiser’s address to the judges. Beer judging is a subject close to my heart for many reasons.
Only one of the 12 beers (Devon Dreamer by Hunter’s) is bottle conditioned so there will be jugs provided to pour this beer into... Is this because the beer judges cannot be relied upon to properly pour a bottle conditioned beer? Or is it because the intention is to resuspend the yeast into solution? I should have asked. Now I will be forever curious. Unless anyone is able to educate me.
So, the judging process – there is no marking to style guidelines. Beers will be marked out of 10 based on:
- bottle dressing
- overall appeal
All beers must then be ranked from 1 to 12 with no joint places. I also learned that a judge from a previous year had gargled with a beer they disliked. Presumably they REALLY disliked it. Gargling is frowned upon and will not be tolerated.
Judges are permitted to collude if they wish. I went in to observe the judges judging for a bit. It seemed a little oddly organised to me – all the beers were stored on one central trestle table and the judges had to go up, pour a beer then take it away and judge it before returning for another. Maybe this is designed to make the judges focus on getting through the beers in a quick and focused fashion (rather than being sociable) but it just seemed disjointed to me.
As well as the 12 (final) finalists, the other 8 (initial) finalists were also available for sampling in the dining area. I consulted my notes to check which beers I had yet to try and made myself comfortable with some samples. Meanwhile the brewers arrived and mingled while they waited for the judging to conclude. The atmosphere was relaxed and jovial, far less tense than that in the judging room.
Time to begin my own testing: first up it’s Harbour’s IPA. Now, this beer seemed pretty popular on Twitter but I hadn’t managed to source it in Sainsbury’s. I’ve had a couple of really good Harbour beers on keg this year so levels of anticipation were high, especially since I’d sunk a few halves of their delicious No5 Pale earlier in the week.
So how was it? Well, it was very easy drinking, fairly fruity on the nose, and whatever hop bitterness was present was very mild. In other words it was more like a pale ale than an IPA. Of course, the style description is irrelevant in terms of the popularity of a beer, especially when it goes down this fast. I love the little story about the octopus on the bottle label too. Makes me realise it’s the first time I’ve had a Harbour beer from bottle.
More brewers arrive and begin discussing the judging process. I scan my list to see which I have yet to try. Sticking with a theme - are there are any other IPAs in there? Why, yes, there are. So next up it’s Orkney Brewery’s Wayfarer IPA: and you’ll be pleased to hear it tastes like an IPA. There is an appreciable amount of citrus aroma – as you’d expect from a beer brewed with cascade hops – and an appropriate level of hop bitterness in the finish. It’s golden and crisp and I think I might like it best of all the GBBH beers I’ve tried so far. I’d like to keep drinking it but there are more beers to be tried and I should probably take it easy pre-lunch. I feel guilty about leaving these good beers unfinished. :(
Rolling on with the IPA theme, I select Maxim’s American Pride. I’ve read the tasting notes already: ‘Special American hops give a modern drinkable ale with a bitter nose and a dry mouthfeel on the palate. Great with spicy foods.’ Bring it on. It’s the colour of Tizer, similar to many American-made American IPAs brewed with caramalt; but unlike those beers it looks as thin as water. The nose is barley sugar, all malt and zero hop character. But this isn’t a complex malt character: it’s just watery caramel. The flavour is sweet from the malt but, but, BUT, IT’S SO THIN. It tastes like someone dropped a toffee into a glass of water. How can an American style IPA have a body like water? I am appalled. I’m all for innovation and rejecting style boundaries but why define your beer as a US IPA when it’s nothing like one? Also, if you’re going to deviate from style, make something that tastes good. Not for the first time in my GBBH tasting experience, I am compelled to ask: did someone really brew a beer like this on purpose?
There’s another Maxim beer in the final 12 but I’m not feeling brave enough yet. I need something to rebalance my palate. I go for Hunter’s Devon Dreamer. Tell you what, this beer above all the others in the final matches its tasting notes perfectly. It’s an inoffensive golden ale. Not my favourite style but much like the Gower Gold, it’s a well made, well balanced beer. They are quite similar beers, in fact, these two. But the main difference between them is that Devon Dreamer has a more developed malt profile. ‘Smooth malt flavours with a light hop floral finish.’ Precisely. I’d not bother seeking it out again on purpose but that’s because of my personal taste preferences and not in any way a slur on this beer, which is great.
At this point I realise that there is a guy sat at my table taking notes in shorthand. I’m feeling like an inadequate roving reporter at this point. In all honesty I’m not even doing any roving. Sorry, Steve. I’m just here for the beer. My priority is ensuring that I sample ALL THE BEERS and decide which ones I rate and which ones I hate. At this point I have a clear 1st and a clear 12th. But I’m not done yet.
After a pleasant beer I’m feeling braver. I select The Honey Thief by Williams Bros because I’ve had a couple of great beers from them (Joker IPA & March of the Penguins) in the past and also because I didn’t really enjoy their other two entries in this competition. So I figured that even though I’m not mad keen on honey beers this one should have more going for it than Hipsway and Gonny No Brew That (the two Williams Bros beers that made the final 20 but not the final 12). And I’m right. In contrast to those other two beers this one is pretty good. The Honey Thief is pale gold and light-bodied with a lovely nose. It has well balanced bitterness and a crisp finish. Result. I’ve just realised I have a bottle of this in my fridge at home.
Time is ticking on now toward the close of judging. What’s next? I cannot face the Wolf Lavender Honey. One honey beer is sufficient for one day. I boldly attempt the Maxim Swedish Blonde. It’s...it’s... I can’t even. What is that? Corn? Rice? This is like drinking Budweiser. I have a few more sips just to be absolutely certain. Confirmed: it’s not as bad as American Pride but it’s a near thing.
People are taking their seats for the announcement of the winners. I have time to grab one more beer to sample while we all settle into our seats and the presentation begins. Which will it be? NO MORE HONEY BEERS FOR ME. That only leaves Bateman’s B Bock. I do a swift tasting: it’s spicy, heavy on the malts, quite pleasant overall; I think it would pair really well with substantial, spicy foods.
Before the winner and runner up are announced a certificate for reaching the finals is presented to the representative present from each brewery. It’s a chance for presenter Olly Smith, a wine expert with no discernible experience with brewing/beer, to interact with each finalist. I’m keen to get a sense of what is most important to each brewer so here are the keywords or themes I gleaned from this section:
- Batemans: INNOVATION
- The Wolf Brewery: SUSTAINABILITY
- Harbour: GOLF
- Gower: TAME
- WILLIAMS BROS: ROMANCE
- Orkney Brewery: ?
- Hilden Brewing Co: BELFAST BAP
- Thwaites: “A MICROBREWERY WITHIN A BREWERY” & ‘MILD WAS OUR BUSINESS"
- Maxim: ‘Guys all want to take home a Swedish Blonde, don’t they? *Nudge, nudge, wink wink, say no more*
So, as I’m sure you’re aware by now Thwaites Crafty Dan got runner up. I’m content with that. It was a really nice, easy drinking fruity pale ale. Does precisely what it says on the tin. Job’s a good un. First place went to Orkney Brewey’s Wayfarer IPA! Ok, so it didn’t really. But it should have. Actually first place went to Bateman’s for their B Bock. I feel totally ambivalent about that. It was a good beer but in my opinion there were better beers in the competition. But then nobody asked me to judge, even though I have a certificate and EVERYTHING. Unveiling the winners
Immediately after the winner was announced I felt utterly beered out and fatigued and, though I was largely unaware at the time, I was busy incubating this stupid virus. There was just time for me to tell Ian Fraser from Orkney Brewing that his beer was the best before dashing off to jump on a train at Blackfriars. I <3 the new Blackfriars so much. It has fantastic access: I went from Level Two OXO Tower to sitting on my train in four minutes. BOOM.
And so we are left to wonder where the remaining 10 finalists placed in the beer hierarchy. And why some of the beers from the final 20 that were popular failed to make the cut. Many have asked why Hardknott’s Infra Red didn’t even reach the final round, when it should have seen off all comers. This was the only one of the beers in the competition that I’d tried (on purpose) and liked before I’d even heard of GBBH.
I speculated as to whether that was due to conditioning, as many people reported gushing. Even though I knew in advance and poured very carefully it was still an issue for my bottle. Or possibly it was just too ‘different’ a beer to be appreciated by the target audience?
Thanks again to Steve for enabling me to attend the event. It was an enjoyable day and a further learning experience in the area of judging beers.
*AKA some random bloke from Twitter