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14 June 2022

Storytelling matters

Creative beers | At its premiere at the European Beer Star competition held in 2021, the new specialty beer category “Free-Style Beer” immediately evoked an outpouring of excitement and enthusiasm. More than 60 breweries submitted their beery creations for consideration, which otherwise would not have fit into any other category. Along with beer quality, aspects such as the concept behind the beer and its story were part of the evaluation. But what is it exactly that makes this particular category of specialty beers so special? This article provides insights and background information to the new style category at the European Beer Star, in which storytelling plays a central role.

The European Beer Star is one of the most important beer competitions in the world. Year after year, the event reflects the changes occurring in the international brewing industry. Which trends are here to stay, and which are fleeting? Every year, the organizers of the European Beer Star adjust the list of categories to reflect goings-on in the industry, and last year a new category for specialty beer joined the ranks. How this category came about was summed up this way by Stefan Stang, Director of Private Brauereien Bayern e.V. (Association of Private Breweries in Bavaria) and one of the founders of the European Beer Star: “I have long desired that the European Beer Star would provide a category all its own for specialty beers which otherwise do not fit into another category due to the strict guidelines for each beer style. In 2021, we introduced the new category of Free-Style Beer to recognize the innovation and wealth of ideas that these brewers bring to the table on a global level.”

“I have long desired that the European Beer Star would provide a category of its own for specialty beers which otherwise do not fit into another category due to the strict guidelines for each beer style,” says Stefan Stang (Image: Private Brauereien Bayern/Volker Martin)

One person, who has really provided momentum in the conceptualization of this specialty beer category, is Dr. Michael Zepf of the Doemens Akademie in Gräfelfing: “Although there are more than 70 categories at the European Beer Star, this is not enough. Time and again, breweries come up with fantastic ideas for creative beers which simply do not fit in an existing rubric. The Free-Style Beer category was created to give these beers a fair chance to compete on a level playing field.”

How are the beers judged?

The idea behind the beer is of the essence. What compelled the brewery to create this beer? What is the story behind it? How is it marketed? In short: storytelling assumes an important role in this style category, which is why a description of the concept behind the product must be sent in with each beer submitted for this category.

In the end, however, it is the sensory characteristics of the beer that must win over the judges. The most remarkable story, as convincing as it might be, does not necessarily mean that the beer is good. When it comes down to it – just as with the other categories in the European Beer Star –, in order to satisfy the judges, the sensory attributes of the beer must be outstanding as well. Only the entry offering the best overall package will earn a highly coveted gold, silver or bronze medal.

The winning beers of 2021

An inkling of how broad the spectrum for this category could become was already evident in its first appearance at the European Beer Star. More than 60 beers were submitted in the category “Free-Style Beer” in the 2021 competition. These included a beer that fuses the tea culture of China with the art of brewing, a smoked beer from Mexico with dried chili peppers as a special ingredient and a beer from Japan that is fermented with “koji”, a mold culture that plays a major role in Japanese cuisine – to name just a few.

The three winning beers delivered the best overall package of convincing storytelling and outstanding beer quality:

The bronze medal went to Vivabrews from Belgium for their “Viva Extra Brut”, an aperitif beer that combines the Belgian beer culture with the technology of winemaking. Made from barley malt and Chardonnay grapes, then fermented with several champagne and wine yeasts, this outstanding beer exhibits a surprising aroma and flavor profile.

Faubourg Brewing of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA secured the silver medal for their liquid interpretation of a local pastry specialty. The “Beignet au Lait” – an Imperial blond ale complemented by cold-brewed coffee, vanilla and lactose – evokes the local flavors of that extraordinary city.

In the end, the judges were most impressed by “El Duderino”, awarding the gold medal to the Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei of Hamburg, Germany. Inspired by the White Russian cocktail – the favorite drink of the main character in the film “The Big Lebowski” – the winning beer was brewed with a creative recipe, and its quality was exceptional while also boasting an impressive story.

A new edition in 2022

“We were surprised by the positive response to the new category, and we, as the organizers, are very pleased that the category of Free-Style Beer was so well received by the breweries. In light of the positive reception, this specialty beer category will be continued at the European Beer Star in 2022 – of this we are certain,” says Kilian Kittl, Project Manager for the European Beer Star.

In order to facilitate the assessment by the judges of the breweries’ stories behind their beers, the organizers have created a set of criteria for the description of the submitted beer. As a means of orientation, a description of the winning beer will also be made available on the European Beer Star homepage.

“As if this were made just for us!”

In the short interview below, Olli Wesseloh of the Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei discusses what constitutes good storytelling and talks about winning the gold medal at the European Beer Star 2021.

“If we manage to generate an image in the minds of our consumers by telling a good, authentic story, and this is associated with enjoying our beer, then people will always remember our beer,” explains Olli Wesseloh (Image: Private Brauereien Bayern/Volker Martin)

As the name suggests, the Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei stands for creative and innovative ideas for beer. What were your thoughts when you first heard about the European Beer Star launching the new category “Free-Style Beer” in 2021?

Olli Wesseloh: My first thought was: “Wow, it’s as if this category has been created just for us!” But seriously, I was very happy, because this category makes it possible for us to send beers to the competition which are outside of clearly defined style categories.

What role does storytelling play in specialty beers or what does good storytelling mean to you?

Wesseloh: It’s extremely important! Of course, the focus is on the beer, but what makes the customer choose a particular beer from the seemingly infinite number of beers out there? And what is it about a beer that makes a consumer remember it?

We all know what this is like: “I had a beer that was absolutely delicious, but I can’t remember what it was called ... or which brewery made it...?” Our brain stores experiences – including aromas and flavors – in images. If we manage to generate an image in the minds of our consumers by telling a good, authentic story, and this is associated with enjoying our beer, then people will always remember our beer!

In the description you submitted with your entry for evaluation by the expert panel of EBS judges, you explained how your beer “El Duderino” was inspired by the cult film “The Big Lebowski”. Many will be familiar with this movie, but how do you explain this beer to consumers who know nothing whatsoever about “The Dude”?

Wesseloh: Here is the short version: “El Duderino” is an interpretation of the White Russian cocktail but in beer form. However, I would resort to the word choice of “The Dude” and call the cocktail a “Caucasian”.

The beer “El Duderino” won the gold medal for Free-Style Beer, a new category introduced in 2021 (Image: Kehrwieder Creative Brewery)

What has been the response like after you won the gold medal in the Free-Style Beer category at the 2021 European Beer Star?

Wesseloh: The best I could have ever wished for or imagined! For example, after the awards ceremony, I found out that one of the judges, whom I personally hold in very high esteem, left the response “full house” in the tasting comments and awarded it the maximum number of points. Or that after the final round of tasting was complete, all of the judges at the table were certain that the beer had been brewed by an American brewery since such complex and exceptionally creative beers could only come from there. This is more than I could have ever dreamed of!

Do you already have plans to enter a beer in the Free-Style Beer category at the European Beer Star this year?

Wesseloh: (laughing) Well, now I’m under a great deal of pressure! Of course, on one hand, this is a category where we’ve shown we can excel, so we’re expected to and almost “have to” participate once again. On the other hand, the beers also have to be developed – just simply being creative “on demand” usually doesn’t work out. So if we do come up with a promising beer, then of course we submit it; if not, then hopefully we can do so the following year.