Does anyone care about beer show medals and competition results? Beer expert Jono Outred surveys the scene to discover if all that glitters is really golden.
Across the expansive wine industry in Australia, medals and trophies can often be a crucial definer. On shelves where similar labels, grape varieties and geographical areas can muddle consumers' thoughts, displaying an array of lustrous medals provides an undoubted edge.
But what about beer? Do medals matter? Do they shift the needle to drive beer drinkers' perceptions?
With wine, the awards, and the respective competitions that yield them, have existed alongside the wine industry for generations and are often highly regarded. They're typically (although not by everyone) seen as a powerful and attractive tool for driving positive marketing, sales and consumer perceptions.
In the beer world, however, the competition circuit is much smaller and younger, and the practice of displaying or discussing the medals and trophies that come from them is still in its infancy. The question of their validity and impact is a hot topic, especially when many brewers can focus more on innovation and creativity than stylistic accuracy.
For one perspective, Will Irving, chief judge of the Perth Royal Food Awards (Beer) and brewer at the soon-to-open Slumdog Brewing (and Feral before that), believes that medals are valuable for measuring and improving quality.
'Awards are the best source of non-bias feedback you can get on your beer. If you are new to the industry and need guidance, there are no better avenues than a competition. On the other end, gold medals and trophies are what we strive for in the brewery. They are the best marker for showing you what direction you are headed'.
As valuable as medals and trophies can be, Will believes there's still more to be done for brewers to get the most out of entering competitions.
'Breweries entering competitions need to take way more time and effort when entering. You could be paying $100 plus per entry, and irrelevant information or incorrect style entry will not only push you out of a gold, but it will limit your feedback to improve your beer.'
The cost of entry that Will mentions is a consideration for many brewers when contemplating beer shows. For example, Carla Naismith of Adelaide's Shapeshifter Brewing believes there could be a potential imbalance within competitions due to the comparative budgets of 'bigger' and 'smaller' breweries.
'Competitions are expensive, and often, small independent breweries just don't have the budget. A lot of bigger breweries have seemingly endless resources, and someone dedicated to entering awards. It gets harder for us little guys when we have to strategically plan which awards we can or can't afford to enter throughout the year.'
But cost isn't the only challenge for brewers, Carla continues, with limitations in judging and the diversity of those who determine the winners.
'Trying to break down categories and style guides can be confusing. Most awards are judged using the BJCP guidelines and I don't feel that they are always current or reflective of trends in the industry at the time, I've assisted in judging previously and it is upsetting when you come across a great beer that's been entered in the wrong category, and therefore doesn't score as well as it should.'
'Judging panels are not always inclusive or representative of all peoples and palates. I think it's important to provide opportunities for new people to join the table every year. I don't think awards should be judged by the same group of people year in year out. It's really important to see diversity amongst judges and fresh blood coming through.'
As is the way with many aspects of the craft beer industry, competitions and awards seem to have a polarising position among brewers and the greater craft beer community. However, you only have to look at the entry stats to see that brewers seem to care - in 2022, the Perth Royal Beer Show attracted 511 entries, with almost 70 gold medals handed out. Further, the Australian International Beer Awards, the largest annual beer competition in the world, attracts over 2,500 entrants annually from across 21 countries.
Ben Carwyn of Melbourne's Carwyn Cellars isn't convinced of the value of awards, at least not from the perspective of a beer retailer.
'Consumers don't really know they exist. They're not relevant besides what you see on social media, which is usually only content from the winners. We don't find medals particularly relevant for sales and never buy beers because they've won medals.'
His sentiments also mirror Carla's regarding the metrics in which beers are judged.
'The nature of judging isn't actually relevant anymore and the judging criteria doesn't mean anything to consumers, it really just tells them that the beer is true to style'.
While it can be hard to get a true idea of the medal impact across Australian craft drinkers, social media serves as an excellent barometer for how much the industry cares. You only have to see how the barrage of awards-themed content immediately after results are announced (especially for events like the Perth Royal Beer Show Awards and the Australian International Beer Awards). What's more, it's not just those winning brewers demonstrating bragging rights either, but drinkers, commentators, craft beer publications and retailers too.
So the question should be, how much longevity and sustained impact do beer awards and trophies have for brewers and consumers alike?
For brewers, competitions and the medals or trophies might appear to be more of a benchmarking exercise. However, with the rise of social media and 'hype beer' culture being a driving factor for many craft breweries regarding marketing, perhaps the awards circuit will garner more attention and clout into the future.
On the other hand, consumers seem to have a short memory when it comes to awards which also, funnily enough, matches current trends surrounding social media campaigns.
(Images sourced from Royal Perth Show & Shapeshifter Instagram)