Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Good Beer Week - Saturday - The Great Beer Debate

Yikes...I'm awake again (...I think)! Unfortunately, I have been awfully time poor and brain power limited for the last 3 months, hence the lack of postings. Nonetheless, I remain determined to post about each Good Beer Week event that I attended during May...because it was just a marvelous celebration of Australian craft beer...and more!

Working backwards through the week, I have already covered the Slowbeer Tasting and the BeermenTV Hair of the Dog breakfast. Now it's time to recall (...which is very difficult!) the festival's marquee event...the Great Beer Debate. This was the hardest event to write about...because the preceding 24 hours had consisted of the AIBA dinner, the BeermenTV breakfast and the Local Taphouse Kiwi I was fully drained and hardly sober. we go... 

It was the event that started the Good Beer Week ball rolling. A public debate that would gather together passionate characters from the beer industry and see them verbally battle for the cause of good beer, over beer, in front of beer lovers and the beer curious.

The original idea for a beer industry debate was born over a causal chat and a few beers between James Smith (The Crafty Pint), Barney Matthews (ex-Beer DeLuxe, now Murray's at Manly) and Miro Bellini (Beer Atlas). They shared a collective concern over an approaching void in Melbourne’s beer scene. Many luminaries from the global beer industry would soon be in Melbourne for the Australian International Beer Awards, yet the occasion lacked any exciting events that would allow these good beer champions to engage with the public of this craft beer flourishing town. The common desire to fill this void turned into a beery brainstorming session, in search of a new showcase for Melbourne's beer scene.

"People like a bit of debate when it comes to beer. Whether it's just arguing over who makes the best, what is or isn't craft beer – even whose round it is next – beer and banter go hand in hand", noted the Great Beer Debate and Good Beer Week organiser James Smith on his website The Crafty Pint.

Inspired by the Festival of the Frothy Trivia Night held at Melbourne's Ormond Hall in 2009, the same venue was chosen to stage this "Great Beer Debate", with the team from Beer DeLuxe coordinating the event. Using the lure of the Friday night AIBA dinner as a springboard, the debate was locked in for the following night.

The plan to stage this Great Beer Debate soon spawned a week long calendar of beer focused events that would create the Good Beer Week festival. This debate would to be the jewel in the GBW crown.

Several phone calls later the panel of debaters was settled, assembling six renowned figures of the local and international beer industry.

One team would consist of AIBA Chairman and former Foster's Master Brewer, Peter Manders; Chief Brewer at Tasmania’s Moo Brew and well known stickler for brewing detail, Owen Johnston; and Ambassador for one the most influential breweries behind America's craft beer renaissance, Sierra Nevada's Steve Grossman.

The opposing team brought together The Local Taphouse founder, Steve Jeffares (who attended the night dressed as a sheep, after a day of overseeing his Local Taphouse Kiwi SpecTAPular); True South Head Brewer, the energetic Sam Fuss; and Scottish brewing punk, BrewDog's James Watt.

To further ensure the night would be a light-hearted affair, comedian Damian Callinan was hired to MC the proceedings. Seasoned beer dinner host Professor Pilsner (Pete Mitcham) was also engaged to work the floor with a roving mic, allowing mid-debate vox-pops with the notable beer industry folk in the audience. In addition, musical entertainment from local blues and rockabilly band, The Detonators, was lined up to play several sets throughout the night. Music-comedy duo, Elbow Skin, was also a last minute inclusion to bookend the event with their popular Good Beer Week anthem. Within weeks of forming the original idea, the event had a full program of industry and entertainment talent that promised the showcase that Smith, Matthews and Bellini had desired.

When the night arrived the organisers, panelists and attendees were generally all weary but on a high following the success of the inaugural Good Beer Week. The debate would be the last major event of the festivities, so the atmosphere was one of celebration.

The 130 strong audience filed in, receiving a complimentary glass of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on arrival. The crowd mingled randomly then took their place at the Ormond Hall's dining tables for dinner. The bar was pouring craft beers that had been the talk of the week - such as Wig & Pen, Feral Brewing, Thunder Road Brewing, BrewDog, Sierra Nevada, Stone & Wood, as well as the Good Beer Week collaboration brew.

In the Green Room the debaters and entertainers enjoyed the "best rider ever", according to James Smith, which included beers from Sierra Nevada and BrewDog along with the 4 Pines Stout and recently bottled Murray’s Heart of Darkness Imperial Belgian Stout. "Normally it's Melbourne Bitter", exclaimed the delighted Elbow Skin duo.

The event formally commenced with a live performance of the Elbow Skin Beer Song. MC Callinan then warmed up the crowd by leading an audience participation game to discover who was a real beer nerd. Adding to the laughs, James Smith's "The Crafty Pint" entered the stage dressed in Queen's Counsel court attire and grasping a gavel, taking his position at the adjudicators table.

Next the panellists were brought on stage one by one and introduced through five questions from the MC, including:
  • "If you could only have one beer for the rest of your life, what would it be?" – Steve Crossman: "Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale"
  • "What would be your last beer?" – Peter Manders "Crown Lager"
  • "Which beer do you feed an Amazon tribe who have never tasted beer before"? – Steve Jeffares: "Stone & Wood Pacific Ale"
  • "What beer would Jesus drink?" – James Watt: “"actical Nuclear Penguin"
  • "What ingredient should never be in beer?"* – Sam Fuss: "KY Jelly"
*Karl van Buuren of Moon Dog made note of every answer given for "What ingredient should never be in beer?" with the intention to brew a beer with all those items in it! haha...unlikely!

The opening had been long and the audience was beered up, but it was finally time for the debating to begin. And the first topic: "Extreme beer's for assholes! Brewers should brew to style!"

The Affirmative side of Manders, Johnston and Steve Grossman jumped into the debate with advocacy for beer styles as the cause for increased beer quality and consistency. They fought for the merits of the BJCP style guidelines improving brewer accountability to produce beers of a high standard that would be more enjoyable for all. An initially restrained debate was opened up by Owen Johnston with his flippant attack on the enjoyers of such beers, declaring "extreme beers are for extreme assholes!"

For the Against team, Steve Jeffers noted that "extreme beers are responsible for getting people interested in craft beer". He drew heavily on the examples of beers produced by Murray's Craft Brewing Co, regaling the audience with the favour his Local Taphouse patrons find in the spectrum of Murray's extreme beers.

Sam Fuss lived up to her cheeky reputation with a visual analogy of why extreme beers are better. Sam presented Tina and Gina to the audience, two blow-up dolls, one dressed conservatively and one dressed in only a bikini. Drawing on her recent trip to Brazil and comparing extreme beer to beach eye-candy, Sam asked “Doesn’t being a little bit risqué and eccentric make the beach a better place to beer”, receiving much applause in response.

BrewDog's James Watt cemented a win for the Against team by declaring "beer is about having fun", highlighted by stories of BrewDog's endeavours to brew the highest ever ABV beer, resulting in the 55% End of History, which was done purely for fun.

After an interval, more live music and beers, all returned to their place and the second, more serious, debate was launched: "United we stand, divided we fall - without working together Australia's microbreweries will be crushed".

By this stage the arguments became somewhat hazy and loose as the two teams battled with a poignant topic for Australia's local industry whilst in a not-too-sober state.

The Affirmative team used the success of international examples, such as CAMRA and America's Brewers Association, which have driven the promotion and protection of small and craft brewers’ interests, leading to tax relief and accountability for the craft of brewing.

James Watt attempted to rebut with "CAMRA is EVIL". He supported the claim by noting how the campaign's strict Real Ale guidelines had been a roadblock to craft beer innovation in the United Kingdom. An amusingly incoherent Jeffares returned to the example of Murray's Craft Brewing as he sited the success of the fiercely independent Murray Howe. Sam Fuss highlighted the question of who would run such an organisation in Australia and when anyone would have the time to commit to it. However, lead by Sam's own admission that Australia's brewers did need to unite and work together, it was clear that the majority of the panel members along with the industry folk in the audience agreed.

The debate pointed to the sense in propping up Australia's creatively flourishing yet commercially fledgling craft beer industry with a united representative organisation. It was a conclusive result. The topic win was awarded to the Affirmative team of Manders, Johnston and Grossman.

The night was wound up by a beer soaked encore performance from Elbow Skin and more action from The Detonators, along with plenty of mingling and merrymaking between industry and the public in the bar.

Through all the frivolity and beer, the underlying battle of the night for the audience was trying to determine whether they were watching a comedy debate or a serious industry debate. Can these two scenarios mix? Both topics have a strong and passionate presence within the local and international beer industry. Whilst arguments presented by each side were often genuine and thought provoking, the jocular pretence of the night detracted from the desire to take the arguments seriously. Time, or just the preference for everyone to simply say their own piece, also limited any proper rebuttal of the opponents’ arguments.

The event may have also suffered from the scheduling, but that was simply a consequence of its own success in spawning Good Beer Week. Ultimately, the debate succeeded in providing an integrated beer event that the Melbourne beer scene demands.

Mark Hibbard, who attended the event with his fellow homebrewers from the Bayside Brewers Club, told Beer Bar Band "it was a good opportunity for those not in the industry in-crowd to hear from the insiders. I thought Sam Fuss and Steve Crossman performed well. The first debate topic was of general interest whereas the second was more for the insiders. Overall as an event, I give it a tick."

For me, it was a good but lethargic night. The best part was the mingling between the beer industry and everyone else that happened in the bar after the event. I just wish I was more...lucid (one too many Heart of Darkness for me, after enjoying two during breakfast and then scoring another during the debate...thanks Miro!)

Planning is now in progress to stage bigger and better Great Beer Debate in 2012.