SIBA Judging at Bolton Beer Festival

Tony Mitchell recounts his experience judging champion beers

Bolton Beer festival held at the University of Bolton Stadium, (or U-Bolt for short), opened on Thursday 10 October, at 6pm for customers but for a chosen few the day began at 10.30 with registration for judges of the best beers competition. For not only was it a beer fest, but it was the SIBA (Small Independent Brewers Association) North West championship for which I was one of these chosen few.

There are many types of people able to judge a beer, not just aficionados; – a trained palate is not a prerequisite as these beers are on sale to the general public and not specifically to any one class of drinker.

I arrived by bus and train in plenty of time and was presented with my name badge and a lanyard, and was offered tea or coffee and biscuits, which I duly did before having a look around. There were a few faces I recognised from similar events in the past and after a short while I was approached by Ian Addleston of Belmont Labels who had asked me to represent his company at last year’s event. This was typical of the companies associated with the beer trade as I also found representatives from maltsters, hop farms, brewery equipment, even a sales rep who sold cardboard boxes, plus of course from the breweries themselves. This latter group however were not allowed to take part in the judging, they could possibly recognise their own beers and thus give them better marks, so were asked to act as runners, bringing the beer to our tables when the time came to judge.

There was a free bar set up for us with five localish beers available, Peerless Skyline, 4.2% Blackedge U.S.Ale 4%, Bank Top Bad to the Bone 4%, Northern Monkey Last Drop 3.6%, and from Ulverston Stringers Copper 3.9%. These were racked bright though as I noticed early on that they hadn’t been spiled or tapped.

©Tony Mitchell

We received our call to arms at 11am, and there were 12 tables of judges, all containing between 4 and 6 people on each and each trying different categories – Pales, Best Bitters, Speciality, Bottle and Cans, IPAs etc. My first table was dark beers of up to 4.4% and included stouts, porters, milds, browns and dark bitters. Guy Sheppard from Exe Valley Brewery in Devon was our MC (despite his badge proclaiming him as ‘Head of long speeches’) and explained the task ahead. We each had a printed sheet on which we would write the beer number and our marks for appearance, aroma, taste, aftertaste and saleability. marks out of 10 for most, though 20 for taste, of course it was all blind tasting. We had Mark from Lancaster brewery to take our questions, pour our drinks and remove our finished glasses while our runner was Claire from Bank Top who would bring us jugs of our beers and tell us what the beer was, mild, porter or whatever, and whether it was fined or unfined. We also took water and crackers to clear our palates (I was told of one instance at a previous event where the first drink was a chilli beer which left a lingering taste in those judges’ mouths and affected the taste of the subsequent beers). Of the last two of the eight we tested on this run, one of them was unfined, yet it was the other which was cloudy. We all thought that there might have been a mix up in the delivery, but this wasn’t so. Needless to say the cloudy one was marked down by all of us.

©Tony Mitchell

There was nothing however which jumped out at me as being a really good ale and all in all my marks tended to be in the top 30’s and 40’s out of a maximum of 60 points.

Round one was finished and we left the tables to be cleared for the next round, which was soon to follow and this time I was on table two, which was Cask Bitters 4.5%-6.4% which we were told included Bests, Blondes, Goldens, Pales and Premiums. However we were told in advance that all but one were premiums, the other being a pale, and that all had been fined. The first one looked good and was marked high for appearance but the taste was disappointing. Drink with your mouth and not your eyes aye! The rest would be either darker or a light almost Boddingtons colour, with the last being an enigma as it was the best conditioned, but poor in all other aspects. So it received the fewest points from me.

Once again it was time to let the tables be readied for the next round and by now the aforementioned free bar was open.

Now I bumped into an old friend of mine, Eric Cruise, who has been helping to organise this event for years; the festival itself is to raise money for Bolton Lads Club which is in turn supported by Bolton Rugby Club, where the event used to take place and Eric is a retired player but is still a committee member. I also bumped into a familiar face who until recently was Chairman of Greater Manchester CAMRA. Graham Donning was propping up the free bar. It was also lunch time. as drinking judges we all need that blotting paper to soak up our intake and the choice was Irish stew, Meat pie or Cheese and Onion pie, with mushy peas.

We were called back for the third round and everyone slowly drifted back to the tables, many with their free drink in hand. I was back onto table one with Claire and Mark in attendance, and back on the dark beers up to 4.4%. It transpired that these were the best of earlier tables’ choices in that category and so we expected better things than round one had produced. Yet one of them came along which quite obviously was not a dark beer. It was good but had been put into the wrong group. One member of our table had had bitters in a previous round and said it would have done well in that category. We consulted Guy over this and he agreed with us but said we should make our own decisions and as it was a good beer, I gave it appropriate marks as such but had to mark it down on appearance as it was definitely not a dark beer. On all these tables we had taken a sip or two and done our scoring. Obviously with so many beers to taste it wasn’t advisable to drink too much and like wine tasters, we spat a lot out. However some people kept hold of theirs to enjoy more leisurely once everything else had been finished

Judging was over for me and most of the others with just twenty people over two tables to work on the finalists. But before this could happen the scores had to be totalled up to see which beers had made it that far. As for the rest of us, well there was still the free bar.

Sometime not long after 4pm the results were made known and the presentations were made. There were certificates for 1st, 2nd and 3rd, with a plaque for each of the winners. When each was announced it was assumed that somebody from the winning brewery would go on up to receive their prize and have their photos taken, but not every brewery had sent a representative. I had found myself sitting near the people from Bollington brewery, who would also go up to collect on behalf of Red Willow. Unfortunately for them Red Willow won more prizes than they did, and as they sent up a different representative to collect each time they were running out of recipients. (I honestly thought they might send me up for one.) There were a lot of categories, consequently it took a lot of time. Finally the SIBA North West Champion Beer for 2019 was announced and of all the breweries throughout the region it was the one from two miles away which won: Blackedge’s ‘West Coast’ (4.1%).

The Winners (©Tony Mitchell)

Now the festival beers became available to us an hour before the general public were allowed in. which was good as the free bar had been emptied and was now dismantled. But to us judges this was free too. And with looser tongues, more networking was done among the tradesmen, more friends made all round, and generally more things discovered about our fellow tasters. While many did have that trained palate, or a hearty interest in all things ale, even to the point of knowing what hops are in that particular beer, there was one chap who confided in me that his regular tipple was a pseudo Australian lager. It just shows you, it takes all sorts to judge a beer competition.

Post judging socialising (©Tony Mitchell)