Our male-about-ale Pete Brown on judging the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards
One of the best things about being a beer writer now people actually want to read about beer is that we’re starting to escape our little ghetto. It used to feel like beer bloggers, writers and enthusiasts were just talking to each other in a bubble that was entirely separate from any flavour of mainstream discourse.
More recently, I’m increasingly asked to talk about or represent beer in a broader food and drink context. Beer is taking its rightful place alongside foodie delights such as artisanal bread, interesting cheese, proper charcuterie and everything else down Borough Market as something with flavour, character and integrity, to be enjoyed by anyone who cares about these things, anyone who thinks that food is more than fuel and alcoholic drinks are more than intoxicating substances.
The BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards were launched in 2000 to celebrate the very best food producers, farmers, markets and initiatives in food and drink. The category of Best Drinks Producer was introduced in 2010, and since then the title has been won twice by brewers and once by a cider maker (with a cider brandy producer taking a special award in 2009, the year before the category was introduced).
I was invited to be one of two judges in the Best Drinks Producer category in 2012 alongside Daily Telegraph wine critic Victoria Moore. We returned to the job this year to find double the number of entries – more than half of them from brewers and cider makers. It’s not just about alcohol – as well as English wine makers and small distillers, there were also fruit juices, soft drinks and cordials. It’s nice to see such a diverse spread, but often it feels like alcohol brands have the bigger stories.
How do you get down from hundreds of entries to a shortlist of just three?
Nominations can be made by any member of the public, or by producers themselves. It’s great to read though them, because they form a catalogue of care, a sparkling endorsement of our drinks producers by the people who love their products. Many entries come from people who have got to know the producers, often through buying from them personally at farmer’s markets or festivals.
The most common style of nomination varies very little across different drinks and different parts of the country: “X gave up a shitty job to do something he/she really cares about, and it shows! Their range of drinks is truly excellent, far better than the mainstream commercial dross we are force-fed in supermarkets. And what’s more, the people who run it are so nice! They’re so warm and friendly. But don’t take my word for it – just taste the products and you’ll see what I mean!”
There’s no doubting the passion. And there’s very little doubt that the product is worth drinking.
But in the ultimate example of the “high quality problem”, that’s simply not enough when there are hundreds of other producers who are just as good. That in itself is worthy of celebration.
So we looked for something more. We looked for producers who were not just making really great stuff, but telling a bigger story about the drink they create. Inspiring others to follow in their footsteps, introducing new people not just to the brand, but the drink itself. Championing British produce on a broader stage. Doing something that was genuinely new and newsworthy.
That got us down from hundreds to about a dozen. An even higher quality problem.
That dozen included every single one of my favourite British brewers, and a couple of cider makers I care about very much. Victoria and I took our recommendations to a meeting of all the judges from different categories. Each of us had to justify our choices to the rest of the group. With as many products on the table as we were able to source in, our category came last and was debated loudly.
We ended up with a shortlist of two brewers and a wine maker: Thornbridge, BrewDog, and Gusborne Estates. We had to decide the winner by visiting each one, with a radio crew in tow. (The awards programme is still available on iPlayer.)
We knew from the start that each of these three deserved to win. I was obviously rooting for a brewer, but I was blown away by Gusborne. English wine is enjoying a similar revolution to that in brewing, with English sparkling wine winning acclaim around the world. But it’s always at a disadvantage compared to brewing thanks to the scale of investment required. Imagine being a brewer who has to plant your own hop garden and barley fields and wait for them to come to fruition, and being totally reliant on them, and being utterly screwed if your crop fails, and you start to appreciate how much more difficult wine making is.
Onto the brewers, being asked to choose between these two in particular was like being asked to pick a favourite from your children. I’ve known both pretty much since day one. I was a junior beer writer when they were start-ups, and our careers have grown together. I’ve often likened these two to the Beatles and the Stones, or in this competition, Blur Vs. Oasis. The bad boys of BrewDog versus the more refined Thornbridge, both revolutionising their market, both inspiring new generations of brewers, both taking British beer in completely new directions and establishing an international reputation.
Occasionally BrewDog are in danger of being better known for their PR gimmicks than their beer, which is why I was delighted to have them on our shortlist, so we could talk about their beers and their approach in a more thorough, considered manner. The British craft beer scene simply would not be where it is today without them. They’ve grown the playing field for everyone else, and are genuine standard bearers for a cause that’s much bigger than one company.
In the end though, Thornbridge emerged as the winning choice, as they have in so many other competitions. Sometimes easy and accessible, sometimes bold and experimental, their beers are always classy and elegant. Having mastered British real ale and American style craft beer, they’re now off exploring the vast library of classic beer styles from other countries, creating German Kolsch-style and Weizenbock beers, wheat beers and pilsners, barrel aged and sour beers, and thoughtful collaborations with peers from around the world. And, yes, the people who run it are really nice!
It’s a murderously hard decision to make. But every time I’m lucky enough to judge something like this, it reminds me why I first started writing about beer. It’s one of the few times when somebody says “You have the best job in the world!” that I don’t protest. I can only nod and smile.
Pete Brown is the author of the newly published Shakespeare’s Local, an amusing romp through six centuries of history through the George Inn near London Bridge, watering hole to Chaucer, Dickens and the Swan of Avon. It is currently Radio 4’s book of the week.Pete is also celebrating being crowned Beer Writer of the Year for a second time.