Every year the Brewers Guild of New Zealand has its awards ceremony and every year there’s a flutter of excitement on Twitter, a flurry of happy photos on Facebook, and a general feeling of goodwill and happiness. And then, within a day or two (or even sometimes on the night itself), the quibbles come out. That brewery didn’t deserve this, this brewery really missed out on that. This year the quibbles had me asking a different question: what is the point of the Awards? Or any beer awards for that matter? I don’t have any of the answers, but I thought it would be great to get the conversation started.

On the one hand, the Awards are an industry event. It’s a chance for brewers to catch up socially and professionally. To see how their beers have improved (or not) from the year before. To identify and acknowledge excellence in the industry and encourage everyone to try and better this already high standard.

On the other hand, it’s the beer industry’s night in the public eye. A chance for new brewers to make their mark and older breweries to show they still have what it takes. To promote good beer to the people who matter the most: those who are buying it. But is the beer industry capitalising enough on this showcase of New Zealand beer?

Personally, I think there’s a couple of places we could improve.

To educate the public on beer

I had thought that the Awards were moved away from Beervana to give the Awards more of a  chance in the mainstream media. And they did. Kind of.

Phil Cook has put a pretty good round up of this point on his blog, so I’m not going to rehash that.

What I will add to Phil’s piece is the challenge of explaining beer. It can be very difficult to explain beer to a lay audience. Are the beer awards too complicated to explain in five to ten minutes of air time? Will the big story only ever be about the Champion Brewery? If this is a case, do we want to reconsider why the Champion Brewery is awarded? Should more broader considerations be taken into account than simply how well a brewery can stick to the style guide? And if not – how the hell would one judge that?

(The answer to the last question is why it probably won’t and probably shouldn’t change – for an explanation on how the current system works, see this excellent post on BeerTownNZ).

This is in no way a comment on the Brewers Guild. They’re improving every year on their PR and the speed at which they get the medals list, graphics and photos out is impressive. An alternative could be wider coverage of the SOBA Awards or a Sundance-type celebration that the lads from the Beer Diary podcast have always promised (and never delivered on….).

To help the public make beer selections

Let’s assume people have decided they like beer and are going to drink more of it. And then, let’s go on a complete tangent.

I buy wine maybe twice a year and usually as a present. I have almost no knowledge of wine, so I look for the pretty medals and choose one of those. Which is fine for a one-off purchase. But what if I wanted to learn more about wine and the styles I liked? I’d need to know that the style listed on the bottle was accurate, so I could buy that style again.

And this, quite frankly, is where beer is failing.

Yes, the lines between styles are blurry sometimes. Yes, if we get obsessed about style it could be the end of interesting beer as we know it. But something needs to be done about the labelling of beer.

Dad messaged me the day after the awards, a little confused that one of his favourite porters – Black Duck Porter – had won a medal as an International Lager. Now Dad likes his beers, but he’s no beer geek. He gets his information from the bottle label and was a bit annoyed.

“So how does someone new to craft beer decide what they like by style? After drinking Black Duck, you could say that you like porter, but actually you like international lager,” he commented.

And he’s spot on.

This has already been acknowledged by the Awards to a degree. A recent change to the rules ensures that no beer can win a trophy in a style that it is not marketed under, i.e. Tui ‘East India Pale Ale’ can no longer win the New Zealand Lager Trophy. But it can still be awarded a medal – which it did, taking home a silver.

You could argue that the style system is overly complicated and no layperson is going to understand it anyway. But I disagree. The selection of beers available in New Zealand now is now very large. Stand Joe (or Joanna) Blogs in front of the selection at Thorndon New World, Regional Wine & Spirits, or Liquorland Newmarket, and it’s overwhelming. I understand – it’s the same feeling I get when I have to buy wine.

This wealth of styles is something we should be promoting, if only to convince people that not all beer is fizzy and yellow and not all dark beer tastes like Guinness. The opportunity to explore flavours is one of the most (if not the most) exciting thing about beer – but we need to provide people with a map, so they can find the flavour locations they like again.

Can we change how beer is currently marketed by style? Probably not. Rebranding all those beers would be a massive, expensive undertaking that would confuse the public even more. Can we start putting mechanisms in place to encourage change in the future? Certainly – and the Awards would be a great place to start.