Recently I found myself in a Twitter conversation about beer competitions spurred by this article. The issue resurfaced because of the recent World Beer Cup (and the wonderful successes of San Diego Craft Brewers like Societe Brewing Co., Alesmith, Coronado Brewing Company, Mike Hess Brewing Co., Pizza Port and others). Should you be reading this and thinking about a trip to the San Diego area, please consult the map of breweries (here) to really enjoy the quality and variety that makes San Diego the nation’s leading visitor destination for craft beer (no, the weather doesn’t hurt). While the focus of this conversation is awards and ratings for beer, the underlying topic has broad applicability for other products. I decided to read Jacob McKean’s article (linked above) and offer some thoughts. As a preliminary matter, this is not a subtle promotion of Modern Times Beer, I’m not that clever. I do very much like Jacob, Derek, and Blazing World (one of their beers – 9/23/15 update: add Aurora, Fruitlands and Monster’s Park), but the conversation could have just as easily happened with people I disliked and beer I didn’t care for. Also, I am not particularly wed to any system consumers may use to judge quality of the beer they drink or the reasons for choosing one beer over another. This is merely a counterpoint to what I see as Jacob’s central argument that competitions ought not be celebrated because they are an ineffective way to consistently judge quality. First, a quick snapshot of our Twitter conversation
This tweet led to a short series that revealed Jacob’s primary point
This led to one final exchange before I could properly sit down – in a bout of early-morning insomnia – and offer some thoughts
With all this as background, we can settle in on the core of my responses. My central argument is that Jacob may be right about a competition’s inability to consistently judge quality and still be wrong in his conclusion that we ought to therefore avoid celebrating/promoting such competitions. As I lay out below, there are several other reasons to support – indeed promote – competitions even if we concede they are not the ideal means of consistently judging quality. I lay out three such reasons.
Getting into the details
There were several points raised in Jacob’s article, but this passage seems to get at a core part of his concern:
“It’s not that I’m hungry for someone to unfairly compare my beer to someone else’s, or to thrash my beer based on an ancient, ill-treated sample. It’s that I know, on the whole, the average of all those ratings will eventually be the best, most qualified feedback I will receive about my beer.”
I can’t argue with this point. Well, I can actually because I think the demand for his beer is likely to provide the best, most qualified feedback about his beer, but that’s a topic for another day. And if Jacob’s only objection to competitions was that it isn’t a good gauge of quality for an individual beer, I suppose that would be at once both true and unremarkable. The bigger point he seems to be making, though, is that competitions in general are not worthy of promotion or celebration because they are not the most reliable judge of beer quality. It is this point with which I take issue.
My view is that there are several reasons to celebrate and promote successes at competitions such as the World Beer Cup aside from the focused issue of whether they are the best judge of quality. Here are three (in no particular order):
Reason #1 – Increasing employee engagement
One reason to support awarding of medals in competitions is that pride in one’s company increases employee engagement and performing well in these competitions increases that pride. This is not to say that success in competition among peers is the only – or even the best – example of something that fosters company pride. But it is certainly one such example. The studies about the impact on employee engagement are numerous, here is one, and they confirm that employees who feel good about the company they work for are more productive people at work. A related topic is the notion of employee recognition for a job well done, written about here. Again, this factor has a significant impact on a company’s bottom line even though it may not be an obvious upside to something like a beer competition. I’ll save the biggest drivers – relationship to one’s immediate supervisor and professional growth opportunity – for another day.
Reason #2 – Increasing product differentiation
When one region excels at a national or international competition, it impacts the way consumers and investors view that region’s reputation for producing whatever thing was the subject of the competition. Is this an example of the fallacy of composition? Yep. But so what. As this article and the TED talk below suggest, consumers are not exactly rational decision makers.
My interest in beer competitions has very little to do with the quality of the beer as determined by the competition. I drink what I like. But I try new beer based almost entirely on three factors: 1) does the brewery have a track record of making beer that I have liked in the past; 2) does the brewery (or its head brewer) have a reputation for making quality beer, even if I’ve never personally tried it; and 3) do my friends whose tastes I value recommend I try it. I suppose Jacob’s opposition to competitions gets at the weakness of using winning awards as a proxy for factor #2, above. Whatever the difficulties that may exist related to how a competition beer was stored or the subjectivity in judging, I think the positive characteristics for performing the economic sorting function outweigh them.
Reason #3 – Regional Competitive Advantages
There are incredible craft brewers all over the United States and the world. And when I travel to any unfamiliar place I make it a point of finding new local craft brewers to try. But the competitive advantage that winning awards creates both in encouraging industry growth and in consumer preference is an important reason to support competitions.
My point as to this particular reason for supporting competitions is that they provide a way for breweries – and more important from my perspective as someone who cares about economic development broadly – regions to market themselves. If brewers from all over the world compete and my region fares well, it is useful in highlighting the region’s assets to be able to share that with people. Is it possible that a few beers sneak into the medal category that one person might find do not deserve to be there? Sure. But at some critical mass consumers will feel comfortable believing that there must be something to the quality of beer in that region otherwise the beer from that region wouldn’t do well on such a consistent basis.
A word about ratings
Alesmith is a fantastic San Diego brewer with a long track record of brewing quality beer. It recently was selected the best brewery in the world. Yes, you read that right. I can rattle off several of their beers, starting with Speedway Stout, that I find to be tremendous. But as good as they are, a rating system offers just as many challenges as a judged competition. Even with a formula and quality control, the rating system still comes down to the subjective judgments of individual people. Aggregating these ratings does not make them less subjective and it does not provide any more information about the ability of the raters to judge quality. Worse, raters actually know the beer they are rating so it is much easier to be biased in favor of (or against) a particular beer or brewery based on some characteristic other than the quality of the beer. This isn’t a huge deal. But it waters down the argument that consumer ratings are necessarily better than blind competitions.
Moving to a better system
One question this debate might trigger is whether a system that is better than either ratings or a competition might exist. I don’t have the answer, but I do know it depends on the question. If the sole question to be addressed is the quality of one beer –or one product or service of any kind – in relation to its peers, perhaps there is something better out there than a competition like the World Beer Cup. But if, as here, there are many other important considerations, then perhaps there is room for the good old-fashioned competition after all.
For those still reading and curious, yes, it was intentional that I wrote a whole post about why competitions are valuable and ratings systems aren’t necessarily better and still decided to link to Blazing World’s Beer Advocate rating above. I found it ironic. Oh, and here’s a cool graphic I got from the Brewers Association website. Enjoy