WRITTEN BY: Enrique Barrios
“The best of the best in beer in Ontario, see what’s brewing in 2013 ”
It’s two weeks before the 10th annual Ontario Brewing Awards (OBA) gala and more than 40 of the province’s finest breweries have sent their best libations to be judged by veteran palates at downtown Toronto’s Beer Academy. Since taking on an assignment to write for Toronto’s Festival of Beer’s blog, everything has been building up to this moment—the beer tastings that determine the winners of the OBAs.
As I walk through double doors, I’m greeted by a small room that manages to fit seven tables with three judges each. The atmosphere is abuzz with excited murmurs of the beer tasting that is about to take place.
I find myself wondering how the hell I got here as I relive my entire beer-drinking experiences in five seconds—my first pint of beer in a back-alley Irish pub in downtown Vienna, Austria; 42-second keg stands in my undergrad when I weighed 128.5 lbs. pounds (soaking wet); my first bottle of Duggan’s No. 9 India pale ale after my friend’s then-neighbor, who helped brewer Mike Duggan with the recipe, suggested we try some after its initial sale at the LCBO. My conclusion: I’ve come a long way.
I’m here to meet Roger Mittag, lead organizer of the OBAs and owner of Thirst for Knowledge Inc., a leading Canadian beer education company. He explains that the beer submitted doesn’t necessarily focus on the latest beer fads. “The awards are less about what’s popular with beer consumers than they are about what’s popular with beer brewers,” Mittag explains.
That’s where the judges enter the picture. The brewers are evaluated by officials from the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), an internationally recognized beer-tasting organization. These expert beer tasters award points based on taste, color, texture (think heady froth and carbonation) and aroma relative to the style of beer. And since judges aren’t paid (beer doesn’t count as compensation), they earn points for every competition they participate in to enhance and maintain their judging credentials.
With any awards program, there are winners and losers. However tonight I’m reminded of something my friend’s grandfather always used to say, “There’s no such thing as bad beer, just some’s better than others.” And that’s what the OBAs are about – celebrating brewers big, small and everything in between.
The judging process itself creates an air of anticipation among the brewers, who must wait nearly one month for the winners to be revealed at the OBA gala. “Each beer entry is assigned an anonymous number so nobody knows which brewer wins at the time of judging,” Mittag says.
Towards the end of the tasting, I’m able to get a few words in with Victor North of Three Brewers, a competitor and judge at the OBAs, who has brewed commercially for two years. I ask him why brewers enter this competition. “Because it leads to a better understanding of beer and provides an opportunity for recognition,” North says. “It’s also an opportunity for brewers to receive valuable feedback since they can choose to see the tasting notes.”
Since the OBAs began in 2003, the number of categories has grown considerably. In 2006 there were just 10 categories; today there are 24 and even that’s not enough to cover off 65 essential beer styles, Mittag notes. This year, the awards feature over 210 beers submitted by more than 40 brewers, from lagers to India pale ales to fruit or vegetable beer.
The OBAs will also continue to hand out an award in the popular home-brewer category, which is sponsored by Lake of Bays Brewery. Anyone who works for a brewery in any capacity is barred from entering this category. The home brewer’s prize, apart from bragging rights, prestige and the respect of their peers, is the right to brew a full-sized batch of their own blue ribbon at the Lake of Bays brewery (see what I did there?).
“Every once in a while you see someone who comes in for the first time and does an amazing job on their beer and they get rewarded for it,” says Mittag.
Given this will mark my first (and hopefully, annual) attendance at the OBAs, I’m literally counting the days to the gala where the winners will be announced. I have a vague idea of what to expect, but if you’re like me and you love beer, it doesn’t even matter as long as that golden, auburn, amber, black, copper (and all of the other colors it comes in) are there for sampling. Did I ever mention, “There’s no such thing as bad beer, just some’s better than others?”