I didn’t win a lot of awards as a child. When your most athletic childhood pursuit was riding Yoshi, there weren’t a lot of awards forthcoming, or even possible. Other kids had ribbons, trophies, medals; I had brooding resentment masked by affected indifference. So, it’s with a somewhat jaundiced eye that I look upon awards as an adult. Except beer awards...those matter.
Or do they? It’s possible that a major beer award or medal in a high profile competition can change the fortunes of a particular beer, brand or brewery. But how often do beer awards translate into increased sales for the winners? Winning a medal can provide a small or upstart brewery with a valuable promotional tool, at least in the short term, and in my experience there’s definitely a period of increased interest from retailers and consumers in trying winning beers. The medals awarded at the Great American Beer Festival, held annually in Denver, Colorado since 1983, are some of the most sought after, as the competition is huge, the judging expert-level and the awards are some of the most recognizable in the business. Snagging even a bronze medal at the GABF competition is a great achievement, and can definitely boost a brewer’s profile with drinkers.
"I think there’s certainly a niche of consumers that take notice of specific beers and category winners,” said Tony Corder of Columbus Brewing Company. "The majority of beer drinkers are likely very unaware, and any awareness is probably fleeting. However, if a brewery is known as a perennial award winner, then I’d like to think there’s a cumulative positive effect on their reputation.”
Columbus Brewing Company have won their share of awards over the years, including three GABF medals: Bronze in 2010 for their SummerTeeth kellerbier as well as gold for their imperial IPA Creeper and bronze for their much-beloved American IPA Bodhi, both in 2014. Corder pointed to the GABF medals as being particularly significant for the Columbus Brewing team. "For a brewery to medal in both IPA and Imperial IPA in the same year is tremendous and has only happened a couple times in the history of the fest,” Corder said.
The connection between the popularity and success of a beer does not mean it will medal or perform well in a competition environment.”
By contrast, one of Ohio’s other best breweries has relatively few awards under their belt: Jackie O’s, in Athens, OH, is hugely popular with casual beer fans and super-geeks alike, winning over drinkers with fresh hoppy ales and accessible seasonals, while also garnering national attention and long release-day lines for their mixed fermentation and barrel-aged beers.
Brad Clark, Head of Brewing Operations for Jackie O’s, is sanguine about their lack of medals: “We have not won anything considerable, so I have not seen any spike in sales directly tied to awards. But competition is real and it is pushing the industry in different ways. Hype, styles and techniques are driven by the consumer and the breweries’ desire to be relevant and turn a profit which is not a bad thing at all.”
And just because his brewery lacks hardware, doesn’t mean they are any less popular, especially during award season. "The connection between the popularity and success of a beer does not mean it will medal or perform well in a competition environment,” Clark said. “The same can be said for a beer that receives top honors but is not a beer that performs well in a taproom or market environment. Something to remember is that the driving forces [in the market] are not trained judges, and [brewers] have created their own critical criteria in relation to appearance, residual sugar, fruit character and adjuncts.”
So while awards can be important for a number of reasons to both brewers and drinkers, consumers to some extent call the tune of the industry with their tastes and buying habits—no lack of medals is going to slow down the turbid IPA trend, for example, just like no amount of laurels is necessarily going to make a Dusseldorf Alt the most popular beer in America. So what do (or should) medals and awards mean for you and I, the everyday beer drinkin’ public?
If I know about a beer winning a Great American Beer Festival or World Beer Cup medal, specifically, it affects my habits, but I don't often know that.”
Bill DeBaun is, like many of us, a beer geek with a day job. As co-editor at DCBeer.com, Bill is also an outspoken tweeter and amateur beer lover. His take on awards echoed many of those from casual craft fans I spoke to: It’s hard to determine which awards really matter.
“The Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup are the only competitions that have any real cachet for me, mostly because I know how hard they are to win and the regard with which they're held by brewers themselves,” DeBaun said. “There are a lot of other competitions out there, but they're largely white noise because I don't know about the level of competition, size of the pool or the judging process.”
In DeBaun’s long drinking career, he could only recall a handful on instances when he chose one beer over another because it won an award. One of those beers was Alaskan Smoked Porter, which most recently received gold for Strong Smoke Beer at the European Beer Star Awards. “If I know about a beer winning a GABF or WBC medal, specifically, it affects my habits, but I don't often know that,” he explained. “How often I know about the beer winning a medal is a different question. For example, I'm not buying Bell's Two Hearted or Victory Prima Pils because they won GABF Silver Medals in 1998 and 2007, respectively. I'm buying them because they're incredible examples of their styles whose quality and consistency are unsurpassed. All else being equal, I'll give a beer with a listed GABF or WBC medal a try first. Hint hint to beer directors and menu writers, I guess.”
In an ever-more crowded craft marketplace, highly publicized awards can sometimes help beer drinkers separate the wheat from the chaff, or rediscover old favorites that are worth another look. Any and all of the beers mentioned above are worth your time and money, and with hundreds and thousands of more entrants and honorees at these competitions with each passing year, there’s likely to be an award-winning beer to try from one of your own local breweries—so get out there and try one.
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo