Thursday 27 May 2010

The Politics of Tweeting

There's a stark contrast between judging in America and over here, which I wrote a piece on for the British Guild of Beer Writers newsletter and have pasted below, however, I'm also struck by the fact that I feel slightly uncomfortable with the concept of tweeting during the judging process.

I don't know whether it's because often my first thought when I'm unsure about something is to put myself in the other person's shoes and if I had entered some of the categories in recent competitions and heard them so roundly slated before the results were even out I'd be a lot less inclined to enter the following year or whether it's just because I don't think it's professional.

I think the mobile ban at both the GABF and the WBC is well worthwhile, partly because you often think that you know a beer and end up being completely wrong and could tweet about it being in fine form and give false hope too. My best example of this is that one beer competition I was convinced I was drinking Deus, as it's such a distinctive beer, and it turned out I was actually judging Eisenbahn's Lust - so it just goes to show how wrong you can get it!

I think part of the problem I also have with the social networking during competition is the flaw in our systems and this is that the brewers rarely get a copy of the judging feedback in the UK, which is totally opposite to the US, where the judging sheets make carbon copies of all your notes, which also makes me question slightly why you'd even enter as a brewer if you can't find out why or how your beer won/didn't make a medal.

This is not a pop at anybody/competition in particular by the way, quite a few people have done tweeted/Facebooked during these comps and I'm not even entirely convinced I haven't, but I've decided definitively I won't be doing so in future, I'm just airing my views and wondering what you think about my points both below and above?

Brave New World
You may be aware that nothing is done on a small scale in the States and in keeping with that Herculean sense of bigness the GABF is the GBBF super-sized. And I’m not just talking about the festival itself, but also the judging. The sheer level of professionalism at the GABF is something to behold and I believe all of us who run, or participate in, beer competitions can really learn from this.

Here’s just one example: on the night before judging commenced we attended the judges’ briefing session, which took us through the whole process and provided us with our categories. Then, and here’s what let me know straight away I was in a different league, we were given some sensory training using different hop products and asked to rank them in order of bitterness — at this point I’m thinking okay, a little bit nerve-wracking for the new girl, I’ll give it my best shot. 

So after tasting all these products and ranking them I begin to relax a bit when the majority of the show of hands in the room agreed with my assessment… only for the presenters to announce that these compounds were actually all the same IBUs and to be careful about using our ‘perceived’ bitterness in beer as an absolute benchmark; this was fascinating, insightful and extremely valuable. 

And when it comes to the physical judging itself, there are 78 different beer-style classifications, some with sub-categories, to be judged — and okay we may not have, or be willing to, break down our beers that minutely, in the UK but I feel we are currently failing to accurately reflect the diversity of beer styles available and that this needs addressing. Without doubt the most useful tool of all is the style descriptor sheet you get and this is something I’d really like to see adapted and adopted over here — here’s just one small extract:

Bohemian-Style Pilsner: Bohemian Pilsners are medium bodied and they can be as dark as a light amber colour. This style balances moderate bitterness and noble-type hop aroma and flavour with a malty, slightly sweet, medium body. Extremely low levels of diacetyl and low levels of sweet corn-like dimethyl sulphide (DMS) character, if perceived, are characteristic of this style and both may accent malt aroma. A toasted, biscuitlike, bready malt character along with low levels of sulphur compounds may be evident. There should be no chill haze. Its head should be dense and rich. Original Gravity (degrees Plato): 1.044-1.056 (11-14 degrees Plato); Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (degrees Plato): 1.014-1.020 (3.55 degrees Plato); Alcohol by Weight (Volume): 3.8%-4.4% (4.5%- 5.5%); Bitterness (IBU): 18-25; Colour SRM (EBC): 4-5.5 (8-11 EBC)

Now I’m not necessarily advocating this as the definitive format, as the technical aspect may prove overwhelming for some, but what I wanted it to demonstrate is the gulf between our methods and
those in the US. Here in the UK we quite often don’t even provide the category descriptions the brewers
were given to enter the competition, and whilst I applaud the fact we have significantly more focus on drinkability in most of competitions, there’s also a lot to be said for raising the professionalism of the industry as a whole by ensuring beers do meet the criteria set for their entry.

All this aside, the most lasting impression that I got from the overall experience I feel is the most important one that we can learn from in the UK — and that’s the positive attitude. Glenn uses the word collegiate and I can’t think of a better term with which to describe the brewing community out there; people work together so closely, they care about what happens to their neighbouring brewery and they refuse to give in to any doom and gloom.

I know we’ve been having a rough time here over the past few years but the outlook is brighter now than it’s ever been, with more craft breweries in the UK than at any other time since 1945, and I strongly feel it’s time we started focusing on that and sending out the good news stories.


Unknown said...

I can understand the reasons why the judges tweet during the judging - after all, I assume they are doing it for fun rather than for financial reward. For many the immediacy of social networking is part of what they do, I'm the same, to be barred from doing so would be like cutting off their right arm.

However, having seen some of the tweeting I think there are some issues that ought to be addressed; certainly I feel that any comments about specific beers are best avoided.

Cooking Lager said...

Having a pop at Dredgie?

Laurent Mousson said...

Well, I very much understand the reasons for banning the use of mobile phones and other similar devices during judging times at the WBC and GABF.
In terms of ensuring any possible interference is being kept at bay whilst the beers are judged, and thus safeguarding the credibility of the competition, it's IMHO only common sense.

The styles thing in US competitions such as WBC and GABF is mostly useful because, since a decision is reached through discussion, the competition form not making use of points, but of 'adequate / not adequate' boxes... If you have to be able to justify an inadequate, you need a reference frame with well-defined boundaries.
But let's also keep in mind that these style guidelines (BA, BJCP etc.) are tools meant for competitions, not the last word on beer styles classification ! ;o)

As to the brewers getting copie sof the evaluation forms, plus a summary leaflet, it's only fair, if the idea is to help them know if there is an issue with the beer (and possibly correct it) or if there simply were better contenders.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

I think there should be a ban, christ in a bucket it’s not much to ask of people to concentrate on the job in hand is it?

Stoke Newington LIterary Festival said...

Very interesting point. As social media changes we have to think of new etiquette all the time.

As a tweeting judge, I'd say it depends entirely on the nature of the tweet.

Certainly anything that mentions specific beers being judges should be well out of order. I mentioned Utopias at the end so maybe I'm bang to rights. On reflection I shouldn't have, but I think it is an exceptional beer in every respect and I didn't indicate how it would be judged (though being excited to have it was probably a giveaway).

But I don't see anything wrong with more general banter.

Personally I think the yanks take it all too seriously. There are not 78 different styles of beer, and the point at which we start arguing about whether something is a double IPA or an Imperial IPA and debating the differences between the two id the point where I loose interest in the whole thing.

It does touch on another point, which Dave raises: while I will always think it's an honour to be asked to judge a beer competition, we give up days of our time and are often out of pocket for doing so. If we started being treated like kids in an exam on top of that, then I'd stop taking part.

It's horses for courses and I don't want to pour cold water on your enthusiasm for the American way of doing things, but for me personally I've decided it wouldn't be much fun to do and I wouldn't actually want to do it. I'm just less interested in the technical niceties of beer than other writers are.

Thinking aloud, with so many beer competitions there should be some diversity within them. I think it's important that there are some that are incredibly strict about stylistic definitions etc, and some that just say 'this is a great beer', and I personally would prefer to judge the latter kind.

Rob Sterowski said...

It's only a beer competition, not the election of the Pope. Keeping the progress of judging doesn't achieve anything (except making judges feel important).

And importing a load of imaginary, essentially arbitrary, made-up style definitions like "Bohemian Pilsner" to judge beer by is about the worst idea I've heard this week.

Rob Sterowski said...

Apologies, should read in above: "Keeping the progress of judging secret doesn't achieve anything."

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

now a tweet feed from the Vatican when they start burning all their dodgy dossiers would be great fun…

Melissa Cole said...

Hmm, to address a couple of issues here; I don't judge beer competitions for fun, it's part of my job as a beer writer & expert to do so; I do get some financial incentive to judge most of them, even if it's only expenses and a small honorarium, and it allows me exposure to a wide range of beers I may not otherwise be able to get, which again is part of my job to disseminate information about them.

HOWEVER, that's me, if you do this for fun then that's fine - I have no major issue with that - but if I was a brewer I think I'd like as much professionalism to go into the judging as goes into the beer, I see some competitions where Fred from the local is dragged in who slates all beer styles that he doesn't like - which isn't judging a beer on technical merit or proficiency, it's too personal and untrained a way to go about it.

I don't see any issue with enjoying it at the same time but let's not forget this can have a significant impact on a brewery's financial future!

Winners of GBBF past have, for example, had to, on occasion, use other breweries or expand their operations to cope with the increased profile and popularity of their beers and if we want to encourage further growth in the UK industry I feel we should hold ourselves to a certain standard.

Pete/Cookie - as I said it wasn't aimed at anyone in particular, it's fairly ubiquitous and I just find myself uncomfortable with it and wanted to gauge others reactions.

Barm - I agree it shouldn't be kept secret, as I said, I advocate giving the brewers proper feedback on their beers, which few UK competitions do, which must be terribly frustrating as a brewer, I don't know that all brewers feel this way I can only go on the feedback I get from the parts of the industry that I've spoken to on this matter.

Cooking Lager said...

Anyway, don't the beer judging exams cover topics like professional behaviour and attitude?

Don't the Guild of Beer Judges have a policy on tweeting?

Do beer judges wear wigs like proper judges?

Melissa Cole said...

@Cookie - nah, you've just seen a picture of me on a bad hair day!

Alan said...

Being involved with matters legal that are where the whole idea of judging comes from, I see a couple of questions:

First, if you are going actually judge, then you can't also be the professional writer at the same moment. Both are good things but I think the writer's role is more important and distinct. Getting information out is quite important in such an odd marketplace as that of good beer.

Second, which is really the other side of the coin, judging is not really judging in this context. It is giving an opinion rather than the actual judicial role of making a determination. If there were real beer judging going on, beers would not be sold which ranked poorly. It does happen. Our booze monopoly here in Ontario participates in this sort of judging and just banned Samichlaus from our shelves. Sadly, they rarely judge on the consideration of quality of the fluid as the shelves are notoriously stocked with infected craft-esque brews from known offenders.

So, that being my take, I would think Melissa's role at a beer reviewing session as a pro would better be a sort of peer review of the outcome, taking the results and tell us whether the judges know their heads from their arses.

Does that mean tweets are not allowable? Our judges in the law courts take notes during hearings and trials but those are held in the utmost secrecy. Because they are interim documents building to a final ruling. Is the reviewing of a beer of the same exalted status? I don't think so. No one is going to jail. Tweet away.

Whorst said...

What actually makes you an expert?? I'm assuming you mean beer expert? Just a guess, but I'd say that's rather subjective.

Velky Al said...

Whoever wrote that description of "bohemian pilsner" really needs to get his or her facts straight. The original Pilsner doesn't qualify as it has an IBU rating of 40 rather than under 25.

Anonymous said...

Don't understand why some brewers would enter a UK competition without receiving full and frank tasting notes?

Rather a protest too much comment? Surely as a beer writer you understand the cronyism that goes on in the enclosed world of beer?

Everything you write on this blog suggests you have the utmost integrity but, come on, look at some judging historically?

Mark Dredge said...

There were no rules against tweeting. Maybe mentioning names of beers is wrong but the nature of the competition means that it almost doesn't matter - the first round of judging is looking for good beers, individual taste and rate and then as a group these are discussed and an overall score awarded. It's not looking for the best beer or one overall winner. It's no secret that Sam Adams send their beers into the competition, just look at the last few years of results. It's also no secret when you drink Utopias - it can ONLY be Utopias. As long as the tweeter doesn't reveal the results then there's no harm. Plus, being actively involved in social media, people are interested in what's going on and the judging process.

If the rule is no phones then it's easily sorted. And to be honest, maybe that's for the best.

Melissa Cole said...

@Mark - as I said it wasn't aimed at anyone and you're right there aren't any rules, which I think is what the problem is; as you say when you're drinking Utopias it can only be Utopias, unless of course some other brewery has been working on a super-strength beer... it's dangerous to make assumptions as I said about the Deus/Lust incident.

@Anonymous - I agree openness is key which is why I'd like to see proper notes go back to the brewers, and it would also allow for a copy to go to the organisers who should be able to assess whether particular judges are wildly out of step with everyone else and whether perhaps they'd benefit from some sensory training.

@Montague - it is subjective I guess, but that's because I know my subject!!

@Velky as I said, I'm not saying it's definitive, just perhaps we'd benefit from giving people a bit more guidance if we are going to judge in style, if not then it's moot really!

crownbrewerstu said...

More feed back would be great, since working for Crown I have only had experience of my beers being entered in camra festivals and the only feed back has been a list of winners.
When I worked at Kelham we entered beer in to the siba comps but I don't remember getting any feed back from them either.

As for tweeting I don't see the problem as long no one tweets the results or a preference/dislike to a particular beer.

Its got to be fun and interesting being involved in a beer tasting otherwise no one would both doing it. Its also got to be professionally run.

I think there is some work to be done on improving the way beers are categorised in this country, we don't need as many as 78, you wouldn't get any beers in half the category's.

Séan Billings said...

I find it very interesting that the taste training was set up to show you how the same IBUs can taste different and they then went on to warn you about your ‘perceived’ bitterness, as if your perceptions are wrong. Bitterness is a perception and if the IBU measurement doesn't reflect what people perceive, that is because bitterness is more than simply a measure of the amount of iso-alpha acids, which is all that an IBU figure indicates.

You and your fellow judges did not get it wrong. The failure is on the part of the IBU scale, which fails to adequately measure the human experience we call bitterness and it is the bitterness of a beer that matters, not it's measured IBUs.

This is representative of the attitude I find among some beer enthusiasts (most of the American), where the numbers are seen as right and anything that conflicts with them has to be wrong. The same thing happens with style categories.

The BJCP style guidelines were designed to classify beers for homebrew competitions. The idea was that amateur brewers are trying to brew beers of commercial quality at home, so they set up criteria for judging whether people had actually managed to do that. The BJCP styles were designed to represent the spectrum of commercial examples which define a given style. The problem is that people now see the style guide itself as the definition of a style and commercial examples which fall outside the definition are criticized for doing so. This is a destructive form of self reinforcing feedback which can only stifle diversity, by punishing those who dare to make a beer which steps outside of the boundaries defined.

Rob Sterowski said...

It can't stifle diversity that much if they've ended up with 78 styles of beer, can it?

Séan Billings said...

Do you really think that lots of pigeon holes equals diversity Barm?

I have heard people criticizing commercial beers for not being "to style". What the hell is that supposed to mean? Commercial beers define beer styles. A Bohemian pilsner is not "wrong" if it has 30 IBU of bittering, or happens to be a bit darker than 11 ECB, but that is the sort of thinking that rigid style classifications leads to.

Rob Sterowski said...

I mean that it doesn't appear to stop anyone brewing the kind of beer they want. If it doesn't fit in one pigeonhole, they build a new pigeonhole. I think it's stupid, but I think competitions and style guidelines are stupid in general. I read some idiot the other day saying Schneider Weiße was really good, and the only reason it didn't get a perfect score was because it wasn't true to style. Some people just can't be saved.

What the hell's a "Bohemian Pilsner" anyway? Do these folks still think the Czechs only have one kind of beer?