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Ale be the judge of that ...

beer glasses

Sue Cane, coeliac and beer expert, muses on the beer-judging session at the 2012 FreeFrom Food Awards.

It was late in the afternoon when London’s finest beer experts (and three resident cats) sat down for the beer category tasting for the FreeFrom Food Awards. There were beards, but no sandals, and unlike the rest of the brewing industry, half were women.

Beer tasting is hungry work. A fine platter of cheese and biscuits awaited our attention at the end of proceedings, but first a large list of gluten-free beers had to be put through their paces, ranging from the lightest, most delicate nettle-beer to a rich, dark ale.

The tasters who gather each year for this annual event are a team of award-winning brewers, CAMRA members, food and drink writers, journalists, drink experts and beer drinkers. Some make beer, some write about it, but we all like drinking it.

At the FreeFrom Food Awards beers are tasted blind, their identity hidden. Tasted from light to dark, weak to strong, beers are presented in numbered glasses and the tasters, wielding clip-boards like an army of unconventional Health and Safety inspectors, comment and award marks according to set criteria.

Not normally known for their silence, this particular band of experts examined, swirled, sniffed and tasted quietly at first, banned from discussing the beers they were tasting. Only their knowledgeable nods gave away the fact that there were pleasant surprises on the table.

Beer experts are fussy people. No matter that in most pubs beer is served ice cold. In the Awards all the beers are given their best chance to shine and this means serving them at their respective recommended temperatures, facilitated by a team of skilled backroom operatives, using the one thermometer in the awards HQ.

As the afternoon sun disappeared behind the trees and the increasing clusters of glasses glowed amber on the table the quiet hush of the tasting turned to animated discussion of the numbered beers. It was a keenly fought battle for the winner this year as there were 4 new entrants to an already strong field (making the UK the best country in Europe in which to source bottled GF beer, a point of which, sadly, most catering outlets still seem unaware).

We sat round the crowded table - the experts, 130 glasses, clipboards, biros, the rapidly decreasing platter of cheese, emergency cups of strong coffee - and hammered out the shortlist. This took time and we needed more beer to help us decide. Much more, unfortunately. And thus in a very happy haze I finally tottered to the tube.

The shortlisted beers are:

Daas – Ambre Beer
Daas – Blond Beer
Foodswild – Cornish Stingers Nettle Beer 
Gluten-Free Shop – Ambar
Green’s – Bottle Refermented Blonde Ale
Green’s – Premium Golden Ale
Wold Top – Against the Grain

The winner of the FFFAwards beer category will be announced on 17 April 2012 at the annual FreeFrom Food Awards invitation-only presentation party in West India Dock.


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