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Supreme Suds

There’s no such thing as the world’s best beer

With a unanimous decision over Evander Hollyfield, Canada’s Lennox Lewis – he did represent Canada at the Olympics, not the U.K. – became the first heavyweight since Mike Tyson in 1987 to hold all three pro boxing belts.

The rest of the time there were two or more belt holders and therefore no clear idea of who was the best. Boxers dodged one another to keep the belts, and even when the top contenders wanted to punch it out to see who’s best once and for all they were constrained by the three different boxing federations who had other ideas who they should fight.

With no definitive sports federation or belt, and matches scheduled six to eight months apart, you never knew at any given time who the real champion was. If you were a boxing fan, you always felt cheated.

The same situation applies to beer. There are literally dozens of beer contests out there, but no definitive championship.

While you can argue that it’s irrelevant, that beer consumers are all winners, serious beer drinkers have a right to know who the world champion really is.

The nearest there is to a definitive voice is the Association of Brewers’ World Beer Cup International Competition. Like the World Track and Field Championships this is held every two years, starting way back in 1996.

The Brewing Industry International Awards are also prestigious, being held every two years since 1886. They were the first and they believe they’re the best.

Other claimants to the throne include the Australian International Beer Awards, the Champion Beer of Britain Awards, the New Zealand International Beer Awards, The Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the North American Brewers Association Excellence in Brewing Awards, and the World Beer Championships in Chicago. There are also a large number of European and Asian beer awards, many of which specialize in specific types or styles of beer, or are regional in nature.

All of these competitions are attempting to position themselves as the number one judging body, which complicates matter even more.

With all of these international awards out there, you’re right to be suspicious of any beer company’s claim that a particular brand is "award-winning," or the "best in the world."

What’s a beer drinker who demands the best from themselves and their beer to do? Obviously the best beer would depend on the individual, but at the very least beer drinkers should be able to try the very best in the world and decide for themselves whether to stick with the usual.

With beer and liquor stores offering a wider selection of international beers these days, awards can be an important piece of information in deciding what to buy.

According to Kihm Winship of All About Beer, "Brewing competitions recognize exceptional beers and provide an incentive to brewers to improve their product. Gold medals, the universal symbol of quality, are the winning brewer’s best advertisement."

All of the major competitions claim to have judging that’s beyond reproach, and most of the judges probably are.

The most infamous beer judging controversy took place in 1893 at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in which 24 breweries took part. From the beginning the eastern breweries were complaining that all of the judges were from the west, the west being about as far as St. Louis in those days. The western judges countered by saying that the eastern judges didn’t know their beer. All of the judges agreed that 20 points out of 100 was too much for "commercial importance."

The judges favoured Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser before hearing the chemical analysis. When they discovered the presence of salicylic acid, which is found in aspirin, they gave the award to Pabst’s Blue Ribbon.

Annheuser-Busch appealed and the judges ruled that there would be no first prize winner that year. Annheuser-Busch then threatened to sue, and the judges voted one more time based on preference, which put Budweiser in the lead once again. Then Pabst persuaded the judges to return to their second judgement after the chemical analysis.

The controversy raged after the exposition was over, with Adolphus Busch sailing to Europe and obtaining a sworn statement from one of the judges that there was no salicylic acid in Budweiser. Upon his return the commission refused to reopen the controversy.

The problem is that all of the awards these have different scoring systems, different beer categories, and different judging criteria. While they are consistent within a contest, there is no consistency across the board. The number of judges used isn’t standard, either.

As well, many beer companies have better things to do than travel the world entering competitions so some brands aren’t even present at the various awards. Most of these abstaining brands are so well-established that they no longer feel the need to compete. For all of the specialty beers on the shelves, the market is still ruled by a few big-name brands.

If someone were to host a definitive beer awards, it would need to include every brand of beer in the world, which would be almost impossible unless the companies were motivated to take part. Maybe we could make it an Olympic event.

"In spite of the talk of ‘medal fatigue’, the judgings, entries and awards continue to increase," writes Winship. "The success and proliferation of brewing competitions testifies to the fact that a great many people have something to gain from them."

The last World Beer Cup was held in Aspen, Colorado in 2000. This is truly an international event, featuring 74 categories with as many as 30 brands in any category, although the average would be around 20 beers. Breweries from more than three dozen countries were present, from the U.S. and Germany to Malaysia to Haiti.

The judges are selected from a list of internationally recognized brewers, consultants and writers. They will taste no more than 30 beers in any given judging sessions, and are never allowed to evaluate their own product where they have a history or a concern.

The problem with these awards is that with 74 categories they’re far too comprehensive for the average beer drinker. Unlike other competitions they don’t have a best of the best competition either, which means you have to do your homework.

For Canada they chose Alpine Lager by New Brunswick’s Moosehead Breweries to be the top American Lager/Ale or Cream Ale. Moosehead Light was the silver medal winner. The silver medal in the American-style lager category went to Labatt Blue. In the Canadian-style golden ale category, Labatt 50 won gold, and Keith’s, which is now brewed by Labatt, won the bronze medal.

A number of American brands also won kudos. Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve won for American-style premium beer, and Amber Ale won for best amber lager.

At the Brewing Industry International Awards, which bills itself as "the Oscars of beer," the top international lager was Castle Lager of South Africa. The best international ale, was Bridgeport IPA from the U.S.

At the 2001 Australia International Beer Awards, Schofferhofer Kristallweizen of Germany was deemed the Grand Champion. The Champion international beer was Hollandia from Holland.

Samuel Adams brands, from the Boston Beer Company, cleaned up winning Champion Dark Ale, Best Brewery. Their Boston Lager, Winter Lager and Honey Porter also won awards.

The New Zealand Beer Awards also went with Samuel Adams. The best pale ale was their Boston Ale, the best dark ale was their Honey Porter, the best dark lager was their Double Bock, and the best specialty ale was their Millennium Ale.

All of the competitions are accepting entries for 2002, with most of the finalists being chosen between April and July. You can find all of these competitions online.

Watch out for French judges. Go Canada.