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When “International” Isn’t Really International

I have the greatest respect for the hardworking staff at the CBC. Due to my beer column on RadioActive in Northern Alberta, I get to interact with many of them on a regular basis. I know they are good journalists and good people.

Why am I saying this? Because earlier this week, they got a story quite wrong. On Monday they posted this story, which extols the success of Alberta breweries in “international competitions”, the headline going so far as to talk about “international accolades” pouring in.

Except there is nothing international about it, aside from the name. The story talks about Alberta breweries winning 50% of the medals at the recent Canadian International Beer Awards (CIBA). Sounds impressive.

But the competition in question was at the recently held Calgary International Beer Festival which is a product of Alberta Beer Festivals. Now, the ABF guys are great and contributing in significant ways to growing craft beer in Alberta and their upcoming Edmonton Craft Beer Festival is a must-go event. So no criticism there, either.

My point is that it wasn’t a true international competition. It included only those breweries that agreed to exhibit at the festival. This caveat restricts the scope in two ways: it means only breweries selling beer in Alberta are going to enter; and it excludes anyone who decided, for whatever reason, to give the festival a pass.

Lest you think I am being Statler and Waldorf (look it up if you don’t know them), I will note the same issue with the recent Northern Lands Festival competition, for which I was the head judge (which I write about here).

The problem is not with the competition itself – you can only win if you enter – but with the description of it as “international”. The CBC got the wrong end of the stick because they saw the word “international” in the title. And rather than do a bit of digging, they interviewed a couple people and satisfied themselves that it was an accurate representation of reality. Which it isn’t.

Alberta breweries make good beer. Of that I have no doubt. Would they win 50% of the medals at a real international competition, where beer from around the world takes part? Not a hope. That should have been the first clue.

In and of itself the results are interesting, and I am glad for the winners. The only reason I am writing about this is because it has been circulating on social media for days. Clearly people are happy to perpetuate the misinformation in the story.

Here is the nub of my concern. The story isn’t accurate. This wasn’t an “international” competition. The medals are well earned, but they are of a distinctively regional nature.

The issue is how does this kind of thing happen? It takes multiple parties. Allow me to summarize the situation:

  • Media: They are under-resourced and stressed. They are pushed to create local content and something like an “international” victory is a story that writes itself. Except crucial context got missed.
  • Alberta Breweries and Related Supporters: They liked and retweeted and reposted the results because it made Alberta beer look good. I don’t blame them for that, but they did it knowing full well it was a restricted competition and willingly promoted the results without context.
  • Alberta Beer Festivals: They are honest folks trying to create interesting craft beer events. Fair enough. Their Calgary name is problematic, however, because it promises something it isn’t, which is being international. As I think about it the problem isn’t really the name of the festival, but more the name of the competition, which started this whole mess. It is also problematic the call themselves “Canadian” as if they represented a national competition (but that is a story for another day).
  • Alberta Craft Beer Consumers: We all share the blame because we don’t distinguish. We rightfully support our local breweries but we can’t ignore context. It is a good thing to win a festival competition. Any accolade is a good thing – it says you make good beer. But we need to remember that the beer world is big and there is A LOT of good beer out there. We shouldn’t put blinders on.

My intention is not to diminish the value of the awards. I just want to place it in the proper context. A World Beer Cup or GABF medal (or even a Canadian Brewing Award) has more significance than a regional competition. Both are good, but different.

I just get irked when I see things torqued beyond what they should be. I regularly take the corporate breweries to task for their excessive spin. To be consistent I also need to call out when craft beer is selling consumers something less than sincere.

I am not mad at anyone involved. I just felt the need to say something. Take it or leave it.


8 comments to When “International” Isn’t Really International

  • I saw the CBC story this Monday, and some of the statements in the original version definitely raised my eyebrows. Way to call it like you see it, Jason!


  • Thank you for keeping your integrity Jason. This is important, because you know that some breweries will use those accolades to sell beer. Or restaurants/liquor stores may use those accolades in promoting beer, which I agree, is misleading. We need watchdogs and whistle blowers to keep this industry growing in the right direction. Good on you, Sir.

  • Great piece – and I hope it gets traction. The ‘Canadian International Beer Awards’ moniker has always made me chuckle – but it is good for the exposure these brewers need. I too rolled my eyes when I saw the CBC article, and I too failed in failing to lend a hand putting it in perspective.

    Well said Jason – perhaps a more ‘regional’ rebranding is in order for ABF and their competition…


  • Aaaaah yes the CBC !!! Keep the radio and get rid of the rest of the riffraff is what I always say. Great piece Jason U the man.

  • Grant

    Largely, I’m inclined to agree. There’s a lot of semantics to be dismantled and analyzed. (Well.. before you got to it, that is)

    I’m not personally enamored by the ABF events, having sworn off going since 2012 (more on that later), but they appear to be doing more good than harm. I believe the very dedicated craft beer community in Alberta aren’t seeing the festival and accolades as more than they are, and to the casual drinkers who just went to drink themselves sideways it at least gives them the venue to experiment and learn. I see it as a MASSIVE in-store tasting at a liquor store. A gathering of, “hey, I bet you didn’t know this was available to you.”

    This year I was asked by a friend to help him out by pouring for one of the breweries he represents, and was pleased to be greeted by a completely different crowd than I had last encountered at the event. In 2012 I was swarmed by people looking for the strongest beer for the few tokens, typically wearing Boxer Lager boxers on their heads. This year I had many informative discussions with people, explaining what sours beer, Czech Pils vs. German Pils, and why one brewery would feel the need to make two IPAs.

    TL;DR – The general population are thirsty for more knowledge and, misleading or not, the beers that win gold are still great examples of what’s available to consumers on our market.

  • Interesting comment Grant and seeing that I have no skin in the game I will say that Minhas has been a volatile player in the Alberta beer scene and in my opinion has harmed it more than helped. The tax payers are still being duped and nothing about this scam will ever change my mind. Those are my opinions. Thanks for listening.

    • Grant

      Oh, I’m right there with you for Minhas. They’re my biggest reason for swearing off Calgary International Beer Fest back in 2012. Perhaps this year I was just far away enough from Minhas that I didn’t see the “drink everything cheap and do it quickly” crowd. The owners are specifically positioning their business to find the biggest tax break that they can get, and pay absolutely no attention to the quality of the product.

      However, the ABF events I feel are largely more positive for the community. I can’t think of another venue where Caravel could go to get as much traction as they did literally a week after they had opened, or where Cascade Brewing could be poured to such a large crowd. It’s bringing not only the best beer available in Alberta (imported internationally) to the forefront, but also a veritable showcase of all the new local players in the game.

  • Tyler

    Is the judging at this event even blind? I’m under the impression that it’s not. And that would make it equally as unimpressive as being limited to those who buy exhibition space.

    But like Jason, I appreciate the event itself, if not the awards.

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