With the approach of the 30th anniversary of the launch of CAMRA’s tasting panels it’s a good time to look at the development of the panels and what they do now and will do in the future, writes Paul Moorhouse, pictured left.

CAMRA agreed to set up tasting panels at its AGM in April 1988, to be “more discriminating” in the beer descriptions published in its annual Good Beer Guide. The idea was aimed at enhancing the public image of real ale by promoting the complexities of beer flavours in similar ways to the then well-established use of tasting notes largely confined to the wine trade.

With considerable help from Keith Thomas of Brewlab, CAMRA’s Technical Committee set up a tasting system and training involving scoring of real ales for flavour levels in aroma, taste and aftertaste against sets of expected levels that were drawn up for different beer styles, and converting the results into written tasting notes.

Regional tasting panels were hastily set up, and the 1990 edition of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide included their extended tasting notes for 30 per cent of the cask beers then available. The project was ambitious. The original intention was also to score the matches of real ales to their nominal styles and publish ratings. A top 50 ‘beers of the year’ were recognised in the 1990 Good Beer Guide, based on these scores. After this, in view of the booming ranges of real ales, the rating system was dropped, and the scheme was focussed on producing tasting notes for publication. A vital spin-off, though, was the use of the panels’ scores to nominate beers for judging in CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain awards, and this has been done every year since then.

From the start, the training for CAMRA’s tasting panels has been thorough. It involves assessing the ability of participants to detect and recognise basic flavours, and practice at recognising and scoring levels of beer flavour components separately and then combined in beer – much more difficult.

These days, with more than 1,700 real ale breweries on stream in the UK, the task for CAMRA’s tasting panels has grown, and more CAMRA members are needed to join and run area tasting panels to assess the real ales produced in their local patches. There is a network of area tasting panels, each headed by a taste-trained panel chair appointed by a regional coordinator, who also allocates breweries for tastings. Panel chairs appoint their tasting panel members, who taste beers individually when opportunities arise in pubs, or sometimes in group tastings set up by the panel chair, either in pubs or breweries. Tastings are recorded on-line or on cards for later collation by the panel chair and development into tasting notes and nominations for Champion Beer of Britain and Champion Winter Beer of Britain competitions.

Some of the tasting notes in the Good Beer Guide are derived from other sources – in some cases direct from the breweries – and some of the beers entered for judging for CAMRAs’ Champion Beer awards are nominated by an annual vote of CAMRA members.  But the tasting notes and nominations from tasting panels are more authoritative, as they are based on multiple detailed assessments by independent panels of trained tasters, which is why more tasters and panel chairs are needed.

CAMRA has achieved accreditation for a range of training courses delivered by its volunteers, to enable more trained tasters to join in.

Many beer drinkers would say that, although they know which beers they enjoy, they are unable to explain why or describe their characteristics. CAMRA’s training can transform beer tasting skills and enable recognition and assessment of beer flavour components, empowering an ability to describe beers and better understand the impacts on beer flavour of different brewing ingredients and processes as well as aspects of cellar management.

The accredited training provides courses in Beer Appreciation, Beer Judging and Taste Training for CAMRA Tasting Panels. The Beer Appreciation course is an introductory course for CAMRA members who are interested in learning more about beer.  ‘Beer Judging’ training is aimed at those wishing to participate in judging panels for CAMRA’s Champion Beer awards. Those attending the more advanced Taste Training for CAMRA Tasting Panels are expected to commit to actively participate in an area tasting panel.

The courses last up to around half a day. Christine Cryne, chair of the London tasting panel, runs these and other tasting courses in many parts of the UK. Dates and links for bookings for Christine’s training can be found on her website: http://cryneinyourbeer.sitelio.me/

Taste Training for CAMRA Tasting Panels is also run by other tasting panel chairs around the country for those who are committed to involvement in a panel. Anyone interested in joining or running a tasting panel should email paul.moorhouse@camra.org.uk  to be put in contact locally.


Paul Moorhouse is a CAMRA Volunteer. He is chairman of CAMRA’s Tasting Panels Advisory Group and was CAMRA’s Technical Director and chairman of its Technical Committee from 1988 to 1996, when he was responsible for setting up CAMRA’s network of tasting panels.



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