Pick up a mass-marketed lager and you might find that the beer won some award at some pompous 19th-century event. Now imagine that one of these 19th-century awards had continued to this day, surviving world wars and changing tastes in beer to remain a significant prize in the 21st century.
You’d be describing what is now called the International Brewing Awards, which are a brewer-judged contest held every two years in Burton-on-Trent in England. Michael Jackson, who served as one of the few nonbrewer judges in the early 1990s, described the awards’ significance in 1994. “It is all very well for a brewer to decorate a label with grand-looking gold medals from the 1909 World’s Fair in Ruritania,” Jackson wrote, “But a brewer would rather win in Burton.”
Brewing Champions (£9.99, Brewing Technology Services Ltd.) is a corporate history of the International Brewing Awards, with 125 pages of text by Adrian Tierney-Jones describing the award’s history and over 200 pages listing the award winners. Tierney-Jones is a good writer and a diligent researcher, and Brewing Champions is a significant addition to beer history.
The awards began in 1888 as part of The Brewers’ Exhibition, a trade show held at the Royal Agricultural Hall. They were scheduled to be held every two years, but after the second awards in 1890, the contest was not held between 1890 and 1901. It’s not clear why, but one reason could be that the judging was open to the public, who demanded too much free beer. An 1895 editorial in Brewers’ Guardian denounced rowdy “sightseers” to the exhibition who were given “complimentary passports” and got out of control. “Should some of these devotees become over-vehement in their devotions,” the magazine declared, they may “require to be gently coerced into a restriction of their libations.”
After 1901, the award has been given regularly, with three exceptions. Judging was suspended between 1914 and 1919 because of World War I and between 1939 and 1950 because of World War II and postwar rationing. In 2005, the awards were moved to Munich to be held as part of the DrinkTec exhibition. The move to Germany strained finances and caused the awards to be reorganized. They returned to Burton in 2011 and have been held there three times in this decade.
The evolution of the International Brewing Awards helps mark changes in brewing history. Lager began to be judged in the 1960s. The foreign competitors, originally limited to breweries in the British Empire, became British Commonwealth awards in 1968 and international awards in 1972. “Mini breweries” made an appearance beginning in 1983.
Another substantial change occurred after 1983, when the awards split from the Brewers’ Exhibition (which had been renamed “Brewex”). The trade show subsequently folded, while the awards continue to thrive.
Today, Tierney-Jones reports, the International Brewing Awards are very friendly to American breweries. New Glarus’ Wisconsin Belgian Red was a champion beer of 1996, an early recognition of that brewery’s excellence. At the 2015 International Brewing Awards, held this past February, Deschutes won seven medals, while Alaskan and Samuel Adams won two and Firestone Walker won one. (An additional gold medal was given to Samuel Adams Boston Lager, which is made under license by Shepherd Neame in Britain.)
Brewing Champions is a thoughtful look at one of the brewing industry’s oldest and most important awards.
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