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Great Western Cleans Up at CBAs

cbalogo2014The results of the 2014 Canadian Brewing Awards (CBAs) were announced last night (find the full winners list here). While I might describe the results for prairie brewers as disappointing, one prairie brewery had lots to celebrate. The good folks at Great Western Brewing scooped up four medals. By my unofficial count Great Western’s four medals is topped only by eventual Brewery of the Year winner Great Lakes Brewing in Ontario, who scooped up five (including three gold).

Not surprisingly, Great Western made most of its hay in the pale lager categories, scooping up a gold for its Brewhouse Pilsner in the North American Style Lager category and scoring both a silver and a bronze in Light Lager for its Great Western Pilsner Light and Great Western Light. But what I think might be its most noteworthy result is a silver in the Cream Ale category for Original 16. I have long argued that Original 16 is a well-made, enjoyable beer. At its launch I harrumphed at the marketing, but have long since gotten over it and can appreciate the beer for what it is. The recognition is overdue.

Other prairie winners include Half Pints for its Pothole Porter in Strong Porters and Bushwakker Brewpub for its Regina Pale Ale in the English Pale Ale category. In all, the prairies 6 medals is dwarfed by the other regions. While Atlantic Canada also only picked up 6 medals, Quebec was awarded 22, B.C. gathered 39 and Ontario topped the list with 41. (Note: This is a quick Monday morning count, so I may be off by one or two).

I have not had a chance to inquire whether the bulk of prairie craft breweries entered or not, so the results could either be due to lack of entries or simple lack of success. In the past, I was mildly critical of the CBAs and wondered if there was a regional palate variation subtly in play. I no longer believe that is the case. I think TAPS Magazine (organizers of the CBAs) worked hard to improve the competition by switching to BJCP judges and, importantly, moving the competition around the country. This year’s was held in Fredericton, New Brunswick. [EDIT: An alert reader has pointed out the judging still occurs in Ontario. So, while I fully trust the skills of the BJCP judges, I retract my retraction and argue that moving the judging around the country would be a very useful thing for the credibility of the competition.]

So, if we can’t moan about judging biases and travel shock and other easy excuses, what is causing the lack of success? First, I think it is sheer numbers. We have fewer craft breweries on the prairies than any other region.  My Prairie Beer page lists 24 operating craft breweries with a couple in planning stages. In comparison, the four Atlantic provinces have 27 operating breweries plus a few more being planned (I may be missing some). I can safely say Ontario has more than 120 breweries and brewpubs, while B.C. has 90ish (rough counts – I will do a more careful analysis in the future).

More breweries means more variety and more motivation to brew something that stands out. If there are 20 other IPAs in your market zone, you need to make yours reach the front of class in some way. There is just more jockeying for space.

What I am NOT arguing is that craft beer is superior in those other provinces. I was just in Ontario for a week and while I enjoyed a number of excellent beer, I would not argue the average Ontario craft brewer is making better beer than the average prairie craft brewer. I think I am arguing that if I have a choice, theoretically, of 20 IPAs in Ontario but only 3 on the prairies, the odds are that I am going to find one or two Ontario IPAs that rate higher (according to whatever criteria you might use) than the prairie IPAs.

The second reason, I think, is the under-developed consumer palate on the prairies. Sitting in the Winking Judge gwboriginal16(see my homage to the Judge here) allowed for some comparison to the time I spend in the Sugar Bowl, Beer Revolution or such. My observation, in brief? Prairie beer drinkers are less adventurous (so far) than Ontario or B.C. or Quebec consumers. Light ales and lager, fruit beer and wheat ales are the largest preferences among even more craft-y prairie beer drinkers. It came as no surprise to me when I learned that the best selling beer for every prairie craft brewery and brewpub was their fruit beer, if they have one. That speaks volumes.

This is not a criticism of prairie consumers, nor of prairie breweries. I think it is a simple recognition that Edmonton is not Montreal, Regina is not Toronto and Winnipeg is not Vancouver. In many ways that is a good thing, even in beer terms. We need not emulate what others do, we need to work out our own beer culture and make beer that fits our prairie lifestyle. And if that is fruit beer for now, so be it.

And that is what competitions don’t measure. How well does a beer fit its market? Asking a bunch of judges to pick out the  “best” of a style is fine and can tell us a lot. But the beer has been de-contextualized, taken out of its environment. How suited is the beer for a February snowstorm or a harvest dinner? How good does it taste at a curling club, or in a music festival beer tent? I realize you cannot award points for that kind of situational experience, but it does matter when deciding what beer I want to drink, which is just as important as judging points (and I say that as a certified BJCP judge).

I am disappointed prairie brewers don’t get more accolades by our national compatriots. But the lack of medals neither means the competition is flawed, nor does it mean prairie beer is sub-standard. The just is what it is. Maybe one day the medals will come. Or maybe not. Either way our job is to make good beer that is welcomed by ever larger numbers of prairie beer drinkers.

Oh, and by the way. Congratulations Great Western!

6 comments to Great Western Cleans Up at CBAs

  • Mark

    The judging is still done in Ontario, it is the Awards Ceremony that they move around.

    • beerguy

      Oh. Thanks for the correction. Clearly my research skills are more light lager than Russian Imperial Stout.

      • Mark

        I only know this because I get invited to judge every year.

        I am indeed glad they have gone to using BJCP judges. The early years of the CBAs were very shaky. I actually pitched to them back then to let us do the judging in AB/SK as we have the most experience with judging and running large comps… they didn’t go for it, but at least cleaned things up.

        By the way, when I ran the numbers back in January, SK easily has the highest concentration of judges per capita at 33. Nova Soctia (14 judges) and Alberta (49 judges) were next closest, but only had half per capita what we have. The rest of the provinces were half of that again. In terms of TOTAL judges, the top 3 provinces rank as follows:

        Ontario – 70
        Alberta – 49
        Saskatchewan – 33

        What these numbers don’t tell you is how much more experience the prairie provinces have, the ALES Open has been running for 20+ years. Anyone who has entered comps across Canada are well aware of the quality and consistency of the prairie judges… and this aint just bragging, we regularly get this kind of feedback.

        So while the majority of the general public on the prairies are still “dipping their toe” in the pool of craft beer compared to the rest of the nation, we have some extremely savy craft beer experts here, frankly among the best in the country. I have always found this dichotomy a little odd, and will be doing my best to close this gap.

  • Owen

    I feel like I got invited to judge there this year, but wasn’t able to make it, but they were definitely looking fairly far afield for judges, so they seem to be serious.

    Feel like I missed out on a party, but maybe next year.

  • I thank you for the kind words!

    [blush]

  • Graham

    Hate to say it but I don’t think it is the prairies that had a dissapointing showing so much as Alberta. Currently visiting ON and from the handfull of new offerings I have tried it seems like the province has upped their game overall. Wonder if AB breweries are double-checking the batch quality before or just grabbing some cans and bottles and shipping them out…

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