At the beginning of March I announced a major new beer writing competition, for which I'd been asked to be a judge.
The incredibly generous £2000 prize offered by Wells & Young's certainly did the trick - we had 42 entries by the time entries closed just over a week ago, giving us a huge judging task over one weekend, ready for the winner to be announced last Friday during the Oxford Literary Festival.
We managed it, but the short timescale and weight of entries meant we were less than professional about announcing the winner publicly, for which I apologise. It's the first year of the competition. Hopefully it will happen again, and the learning will make it more efficient next time.
There were two things I really liked about judging this: one, the prize attracted some very established beer writers, and some people I've never heard before. Two, I only found out who these entrants were after the prize was awarded. An independent administrator processed the entries, and posted them out to the judges with the names removed - my fellow judges and I had no idea who we were reading. Everyone was on a level playing field, and we were only able to find out who had written the ones we enjoyed after we'd made our decision (though I admit some stylistic tics gave me a clue here and there).
Having never judged a writing competition until recently, this is the third I've done in a year. In all three, the pattern is the same: one or two rubbish entries, a lot that are competent, interesting but quite similar to each other, and a few that really stand out and make me very happy as a reader, quite jealous as a writer.
The brief this time, as summed up by my fellow judge, food and drink writer and telly pundit Charles Campion, was to sum up "the joys and jolliness of beer". The judges were looking for something that was lyrical, positive, optimistic - something that, if published in a national newspaper, was actually capable of forcing non-beer drinkers to re-evaluate the most sociable drink in the world.
(Speaking personally, and definitely NOT for the other three judges, essays that began by slagging off beers the author thought were inferior, before moving on to those they liked, kind of missed the point.)
The majority fell in to two camps: personal journeys of awakening to beer appreciation and the incredible role beer has played in the author's life, and/or historical treatises on the cultural role of beer. There's nothing wrong with either approach, but the sheer volume of entries meant that all the entries that simply did one or both of these well were hard to differentiate from each other.
A few stood out - a grasp of language, an interesting construct, a mastery of storytelling, maybe even an original perspective - seven or eight - and I hope we're able to publish all of them, somewhere, in due course. The eventual winner was the best of these.
For his essay, 'The Stonemason's Tale', the winner was Milton Crawford.
Milton may not be a familiar name in the world of beer writing (especially as it's a pseudonym - no, not for an established beer blogger or writer) but he achieved a measure of critical and commercial success last year for the Hungover Cookbook, praised on both sides of the Atlantic, and paired rather unfortunately on Amazon with some unpleasant corkscrews designed to look like little men with massive curly metal cocks.
Milton's entry showed that he can write lyrical as well as laxative, and it genuinely moved all the judges.
We're still hoping to publish it somewhere more noteworthy than this blog... but I'll save the tales of appalling newspaper idiocy and disgusting snobbery for another post.
This competition was the first salvo from Oxford Brookes (home of Oxford Gastronomica and the national brewing library), Wells & Young's, and celebrity patron Charles Campion, to attempt to create a more positive image of beer in the UK. (With occasional involvement from me, and Mike from Utobeer.)
There are much bigger plans in the works, subject to sponsorship that is starting to look more definite than hypothetical. All competition entrants will be contacted by the judges and, with your permission, kept informed of future developments. It's early days yet, so if you feel like you should know about it, but don't, that's only because there hasn't been anything to tell you so far. But stay tuned - hopefully this could lead to something.