If you passed by the Gladstone Hotel Tuesday evening, you might think beards — not beers — were being judged inside. They’re a furry lot, those brewers who occupied the Queen West landmark. Many resemble what I imagine the Gladstone’s original visitors looked like in 1889.
This mild, spring evening however, was indeed about handing out the Ontario Brewing Awards; a mostly celebratory affair (although one winner received a less-than-enthusiastic salute) that brought together many of the province’s better known and lesser known brewers for some good-natured networking and bragging rights.
Last year, just over 30 entrants submitted 160 beers for judging. This year, the 10th Anniversary of the OBAs, 46 breweries sent in close to 220 unique blends.
One of the chief architects of the annual event, Roger Mittag, says the OBAs have seen huge growth in the past three or four years, and 2014 should be even bigger, with about half a dozen new categories.
Best Barrel Aged beer, for one, will likely be split into more defined subdivisions. This year’s winner was Amsterdam‘s Order & Chaos; a Belgian wheat beer aged in Chardonnay barrels. Runner-up honours went to Great Lakes‘ 25th Anniversary Bourbon Ale, while Cameron‘s VSPA (aged in Cognac barrels) took home bronze. Next year, expect to see barrel enhanced brews split between those done with wine, brandy, and whiskey notes.
Most of this year’s prize takers can be seen on the Ontario Brewing Awards website, although two of the big victors aren’t listed; top overall beer was awarded to Amsterdam Brewery, for its Spring Bock (a doppelbock), and best new brewery went to Ottawa’s Big Rig.
The low point in the evening was the announcement, or the reaction to the announcement (depending who you speak with) of Labatt winning best Belgian Style Wheat Beer for Shock Top. A low, protracted groan greeted the news, with several not-so-quiet mutterings of it not really being an Ontario beer.
Mittag begs to differ. “It’s made in Ontario.” Full stop.
At the mention of the Anheuser-Busch product primarily being brewed outside Canada, Mittag defends the judging, saying the rules are clear. “My point is, you could put Keith’s in, because Keith’s is made in Ontario. When we made the criteria for brewers to enter we made the criteria quite simple: you have to brew the beer for commercial purposes in Ontario.”
“It bothers me when people make comments like that, because everything I do, I do to open up the industry, so that big brewers and small brewers can share in the opportunity. Labatt is a very good quality brewer, and they make good beer. This is not a craft brewing award. This is a beer award,” stressed Mittag.
It’s worth noting all the beers were juried blindly, which makes it all that more interesting that the expert judging panel draped a gold medal not just around the neck of a bottle from Labatt, but also Niagara Teaching College (a school) and Magnotta (primarily a winery).
It’s also worth pointing out that the beers are being judged according to predefined criteria — how experts say a fruit beer should look, taste and feel — not on what your senses say. BlogTO’s Ben Johnson offers several more criticisms in his most recent blog post.
Generally though, as Johnson also acknowledges, this is a very well organized and positive event– and that’s testament to the goodwill the industry has cultivated. “It’s going to continue to grow,” insists Mittag. “That’s a cool thing. It really is about celebrating Ontario brewers, and we’ve got some really great beers and I think everybody needs to know that. It’s about celebrating beer as a whole.”
Dan Grant is currently working towards his Prud’homme Beer Certification. Follow him on Twitter at @BrewScout.