The HonestBrew Independent Beer Awards 2020: The Winners

It’s our favourite time of year again! We’ve brought the HonestBrew Independent Beer Awards back for their fourth year and have made a few changes to the format, this year bringing in a few of our friends from the wide world of beer to help us decide some of our worthy winners.

If you follow us on Twitter and Instagram you might already be aware of some of the activity going on. If not, give us a follow and keep your eyes peeled on any more announcements and bonus content from the awards. We’ve also assembled a limited-edition 6-beer mixed case featuring brews from some of our winners, should you wish to raise a glass to our champions!

People’s Choice Award: North Brewing Co

There were some incredibly close calls in this year’s People’s Choice Award. From the initial shortlist, composed of the top 8 breweries voted for by our email subscribers, to the final itself – nearly every stage was decided by fine margins.

After the initial shortlist vote, the 8 breweries who made it to our Twitter semi-finals were: Verdant, Cloudwater, Siren & Pressure Drop in Group A, with North, Northern Monk, Tiny Rebel & Polly’s Brew Co in Group B.

Group A was led all the way by Verdant, who finished with an impressive 41% of the vote. The second qualifying place was then clinched by Siren, who pipped Cloudwater right at the death with just 1.7% more of the vote. They were then joined in the final by North & Northern Monk, the Leeds brewers both able to qualify at the expense of their two Welsh rivals.

The final was a closely contested affair but, after 3,800 votes, with only 144 separating 1st & 3rd place, it was North who claimed this year’s title.

At just 4 years old, North have quickly cemented their status as one of the nation’s favourite brewers. Eye-catching design, exciting collabs with brewers from both near and far, while community spirit fostered through their various venues and events, have all led to North beers becoming a no-brainer order for our customers.

Visual Excellence: North Brewing Co.

We’ll be honest with you now – North have won every single award this year… Just kidding, but they did manage to bag themselves a second gong with our Visual Excellence award.

With visuals being so important in capturing a potential customer’s attention or ensuring that the breweries’ ethos and attitude resonate with audiences, you have to give credit to those who do it well. We compiled a shortlist of the HB team’s favourite breweries and then enlisted a panel to help decide our winner.

Our panel consisted of our own lead designer Elaine Yeung, award-winning blogger Matt Hickman and editor-in chief of Caña magazine, James Davidson.

Matt is a photographer and writer who is particularly drawn to the drinks industry. His travels have taken him to brilliant breweries all over America and Europe, from Tommie Sjef’s garden shed in Den Helder to The Beer Farmers’ mountain retreat in British Columbia.

Caña is a magazine about craft beer and its culture that is currently online only, yet has grand designs to be a beautifully designed high-quality print publication. The concept is simple: that beer is something that extends far beyond the liquid itself- the culture spans art and design, food and associated drinks, the social lifestyle and beyond.

Our 8 breweries were Cloudwater, CR/AK, North, Northern Monk, Polly’s, Pressure Drop, Pühaste and Track. Each of these was scored on originality, consistency and how their visual branding made their products easily identifiable as being of that brewery. All visual outputs were taken into account, from website experiences to social media presence and, of course, label designs.

North were praised by our judges for their originality in the Ute project, with the lines between “packaging and genuine art being blurred” as North collaborated with Plaey Workshop & Studio.build to create an immersive experience through visuals, sound and taste. There was also a shout out to Track for their 5th birthday project, which utilised abstract photography, as well as commendation for Northern Monk’s Patrons Project.

North’s consistency is pretty clear for all to see, particularly when you line their cans up together, but there was also mentions for CR/AK, Cloudwater and Track – with the latter’s excellent social media photography receiving high praise as well. The consistent nature of North’s output has led a brand that rivals “multi-million pound conglomerates” and spans across the majority of their work, ensuring that North beers are always easily identifiable.

Brewers’ Choice: Pressure Drop

We polled the breweries who we work with to decide this one and were pleased to see Pressure Drop come out on top. The Tottenham brewers have stayed true to their 8-year history and core range while also finding plenty of time to experiment and win new fans. With plenty of beers that keep haze-mad NE IPA fans happy, they also appeal to those who like to mix it up, with refreshing Pilsner, Brown Stouts and Gose being thoroughly enjoyed by intrepid beer geeks.

Add in their excellent visual approaches, with some ridiculously fun social media launch videos, the wonderfully abstract manual that adorned Understanding Whole Systems, as well as the continuing excellence of The Experiment venue that they share with Verdant, and we couldn’t agree more with this selection!

Introducing our panel…

To reflect our desire to include more members of the wonderful beer community in our awards this year, we enlisted the help of some friends and colleagues to form a panel to help us decide some key awards. Representing HonestBrew and providing the insight we have from our customers, we had our very own purchaser, Cormac Wall, who has played a big hand in deciding our winners in previous years.

Joining Cormac was Chris Hall, beer writer and marketing manager for Howling Hops and Tom Powell, a journalist who has worked for Foodism & Escapism among other titles, and a nominee for the British Beer Writers Guild Young Writer of the year 2019. We were also delighted to have that same awards’ Beer Journalist of the Year and founder of the Craft Beer Channel Jonny Garrett, as well as the brilliant Alex Sewell, writer and founder of the Black Malt Bottle Share Club making up the panel.

We hosted a panel evening at the HonestBrew HQ, full of amazing brews, great debate and some necessary negotiating and compromising, resulting in the winners of our UK Brewery of the Year, International Brewery of the Year, Beer of the Year & Best Festival.

UK Brewery of the Year: Burning Sky

In a tightly contested debate that came down to a vote, Burning Sky narrowly edged it over Pressure Drop. Regarded by our entire panel as one of the most consistently excellent breweries in the UK, they were rightfully praised for their foeder-aging program, the result of which was some pretty marvellous sharing bottles. “Quietly confident” and never guilty of following trends, Burning Sky set out to provide a varied and nuanced selection of beers from delightful cask ales, to big and bold West Coast IPAs and, of course their phenomenal Sour beer selection.

This award represents an acknowledgement and appreciation of a diversity of beers that never varies in quality, and a humble, yet assured attitude that speaks volumes.

International Brewery of the Year: Finback

A giant on the international scene, but also a down-to-earth neighbourhood brewery at home, Finback represents exactly what we were looking for in our International Brewery of the Year. First of all, the beer is fantastic, their NE IPAs always stand out in a ever-busy crowd, while their Imperial Stouts are complex, while remaining infinitely drinkable. Secondly, Finback have stayed true to their roots, with their Queens-based brewery a fixture of a neighbourhood and community, yet have also becoming increasingly involved in the UK and European scene.

This real enthusiasm for collaboration and helping to develop and provide a platform for the younger European scene means that Finback have endeared themselves to brewers, writers and drinkers on this side of the pond, and make them worthy winners of this award. They are also, allegedly, the last ones standing at any beer industry afterparty – which definitely deserves some recognition.

Beer of the Year: Northern Monk – Striding Edge

We’re sure this decision will ruffle a few feathers. This is a tricky award to decide, so as well as looking for a great tasting beer, we asked our panel which beers represent an interesting idea or a shift in thinking. The result was this effort from Northern Monk, a beer that shows that lower percentages need not mean any compromise on flavour.

As much as we love a juicy DIPA or a hearty Imperial Stout, it simply isn’t sustainable to exclusively drink beers that break the 8% ABV range. When you look to the top-rated new releases, a lot of the time you can be faced with a smorgasbord of these decadent delights, without something a little more session-appropriate in sight.

Striding Edge is packed with the flavour intensity of a beer two-and-a-half-times its size, with citrus and pine notes dancing on the palate in a symphony of refreshment. Also brilliantly affordable, it’s perfect for breaking up some the aforementioned heavier beers. Northern Monk have now set the standard for widely available table-strength beers.

Best Festival: IndyManBeerCon

Across the UK & Europe, beer festivals are expanding, becoming bigger, bolder and better as the brewing scene develops and more and more curious drinkers emerge. With our panel having visited a number of different festivals across the year, this was a hard one to decide. Thankfully, we could all agree on one thing: we love IndyManBeerCon.

2019 was the best edition yet, somehow cramming even more exciting happenings into the same space, while still running like a well-oiled machine. Great branding, a gorgeous venue, friendly staff and bucketloads of choice make it a must-attend in any beer fan’s calendar.

The panel also wanted to give a shout out to Craft Beer Cares, for a festival that is improving year on year and works towards a wonderful cause, raising over £15,000 for Hackney Night Shelter. The team behind it are throwing another festival, Love Beer London, from 13th-15th February – so get down to that if you can!

Spirit of Collaboration: Wylam

This award always goes out to a brewery who we feel goes above and beyond with collaboration brews. While there are some strong opinions about collabs out there, they’re still very useful platforms for highlighting younger, international or slightly more underground brewers. In a country where craft beer makes up a tiny percent of the overall market, it’s important that breweries band together in the name of independence, rather than compete against each other. Our breweries must all grow in order to change the current state of affairs.

A scroll through Wylam’s Instagram will show you just how many great breweries they’ve joined forces with in 2019. From Northern peers like Track, North & Northern Monk to international friends like Other Half, Stigbergets & Naparbier, to the gang from IndyManBeerCon and many more, Wylam are the true social butterflies of the craft beer scene. Appearing on other’s releases as much as their own, Wylam are happy to share their spotlight and make the effort to do a return collab with anyone who’s visited them.

The result of course is brilliant beers. Brews like The Cold Condition Pilsner with Donzoko, Is There Music In Your Dreams with Other Half and the sadly keg-only Welcome To My World with Hop Hooligans (amazing if you managed to get your hands on some!), showcase world-class brewing as well as a heart-warming sense of camaraderie.

Breakthrough Brewery: Pühaste

Quantifying someone’s breakthrough credentials for the year is a tough job. After discussing who had pushed themselves into some uncharted territory, while succeeding in winning over a new audience, we agreed that Pühaste were deserving of this award.

This was the year when this small team based 70km from the Russian border launched themselves into the upper leagues of European brewing. Showing their versatility at both ends of the ABV spectrum, Pühaste brewed one of our favourite sub-3% beers (Mikro DDH IPA), as well as one of our favourite plus 14% beers (Midnight Macchiato BA). Their range of Imperial Stouts cemented their reputation as one of Europe’s best dark brewers with drinkers at festivals across Europe (including their own birthday bash in Tartu) proclaiming beers like Impetus Noir Imperial Stout and Trinity In Black Stout as some of the best dark beers to grace the market this year.

To fulfil the ever-growing demand for their beer, Pühaste also launched an acclaimed restaurant, offering a cutting-edge menu paired with their beers, as well as a new Tallinn based taproom. They then finished the year with the announcement of a forthcoming brewery expansion, with other plans also include utilising a new state-of-the-art zero-alcohol brew kit, which will make them one of the first craft brewers in Europe to utilise this technology for IPA and Stout creation.

And, with that, we conclude our Independent Beer Awards 2020. Thanks to all our customers, breweries, panellists and social media followers for getting involved and making this year our biggest yet. With some brilliant beers already released and some great festivals coming up very soon, we’re certain that 2020 is going to be an even better year for independent beer! Why not celebrate our wonderful victors with our award-winner’s case? It’s packed with 6 examples of why these breweries are so deserving of a little bit of extra recognition!