Professional Beer Taster: The Best Job In The World?

The ins and outs of being a beer judge and why it's not always the life of riley.
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The ins and outs of being a beer judge and why it's not always the life of riley.

Factory floor sweepings, roast lamb, baked beans, paint with a dusting of cocoa on the top. On the other hand, Çointreau, the soft seductive caress of milk chocolate, the cheekiness of slightly ripe bananas, the zest of Seville orange, the bite of bitter lemon, and the musky husky eroticism of ripe soft fruit that’s been in a bowl in a sunlit bowl. I’m talking about beer by the way not just going on some obscure Heston Blumental inspired riff of unmelodious tastes.

As well as writing about beer I often judge the stuff and get paid for it. Which is why I’ve just spent two days judging dozen of beers at the World Beer Awards in Norwich and then another one at the Great Welsh Beer Festival in Cardiff. The aforementioned comments were just some of my thoughts on the hordes of beers assembled in front of us in the manner of Huns at the gates of Ancient Rome (and for those with sensitive livers, obviously just as perilous, milk thistle anyone?).

Beer judging, people might ask. Beer judging? Does that mean drinking beer until you fall over and expose a dark damp patch in your ash grey trousers? Or maybe it’s the chance to gather in congress with like minded souls on the park bench and swap fulsome notes on the cans of Special Brew with which you start the day — just to say what this fine draught might have to say to you (the phrase ‘you’re an alcoholic’ might feature).

Beer judging? Does that mean drinking beer until you fall over and expose a dark damp patch in your ash grey trousers?

Sorry this is serious stuff and brewers like to win awards and beer writers like to be part of the judging process. We get to taste all sorts of beers and spend hours talking about all sorts of beers. Besides, everything is judged these days. I’ve sat down in my local pub on Exmoor and spent 10 minutes in the company of a Carling — golden in the glass, cornflour on the nose and sharp and carbonic on the palate. Fail. In my time I have also judged pork pies at Ludlow Food Festival in the glorious company of food writer Charles Campion (crumbly pastry, yes or no, demanded a bosomy matron-like woman) and cider. Oddly enough, this was a bit more solitary (perhaps a metaphor for the dubious pleasure of the West Country version of aviation fuel): I was sent the bottles and sat in my office writing notes and mumbling to myself until my wife shouted out from downstairs that it was Friday and would I be coming out for the weekend. I’ve also done sausages and chocolate brownies (not at the same time obviously) but that just was about being greedy.

The first place where the beer was evaluated (what a lovely word, nothing to do with excess) was Norwich, glorious little Norwich. Except there is nothing particularly glorious about the road that leads down to the station, close to where I stayed — pole dancers shaking their sweaty bits in the evening and Special Brew drinkers performing their urgent ablutions in the morning dew. Nice pubs though, especially the King’s Head, where a man brought in a bag of his own spring onions for another man.

There are downsides to this sort of work: I wasn’t particularly impressed with the porter that had stale cocoa on the nose, or the lager that expressed its individuality with a hint of burnt tyre rubber when sniffed.

As for us, we were a gathering of ten in a room spending two days being drip fed all manner of beers by a bevy of blondes — this obviously sounds like a modern day version of Valhalla, but it’s actually hard work. Honest. On the first day I didn’t start tasting until gone 11am, while on the second day I went to work at 9am and was offered a wheat beer, so I’m not going to deny the pleasure that’s involved. However, there are downsides to this sort of work: I wasn’t particularly impressed with the porter that had stale cocoa on the nose, or the lager that expressed its individuality with a hint of burnt tyre rubber when sniffed. My fellow judges were a mixture of beer writers from the UK, Holland and the Czech Republic, with a couple of local brewers who were taking a busman’s holiday. We chatted about whether beers fell into style categories (is this a Helles or a Dortmunder, an IPA or a Dunkel? Cue the cat falling asleep) and managed to keep sober until we finished in the late afternoon — and went straight to the pub to have something else to drink. In all I reckon I must have tasted about 80 beers over the two days — some were great, but quite a few were either bland or just wrong (you should have seen the face of the three judges when they were told that they would be evaluating non-alcoholic lagers and wheat beers…but hey I was the chairman for European beers and the boss…)

Meanwhile at Cardiff, we only had nine beers to plough through — a mere bagatelle of ales that had been picked out the day before from a much larger tasting round. Several really stood out, including the eventual champion beer, a dark mild that featured lots of mocha coffee, chocolate and subtle orange jelly flavours. This didn’t take too long, just over an hour and then it was down to the main hall to have a real drink (a 7.5% IPA in my case).

Yes it’s fun, yes it’s enjoyable but we do take it seriously. We drink water, chew on Jacob’s crackers (they help to cleanse the palate), make notes and engage in debates. You sip rather than slurp or you get into the state that I remember a publican getting into many years ago when I started at this judging game. We had about 40 beers to do and he finished every glass — which normally held about half a pint in it. The last I saw of him was a swaying, reedy figure in the murk of Newton Abbot as he went off in search of a curry. Needless to say, he never came back.

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