Food and Drink: How I got the brewers over a barrel - Michael Jackson joined an international jury of beer-makers as they tasted 862 different brews at the 1994 Burton awards

Which beers do brewers prefer? I once went for a drink with a man who makes some of Britain's best-selling lagers, the sort that pretend to come from continental Europe, Australia and America but are really made 'under licence' in such places as south London and West Yorkshire. 'What will you have?' I asked. 'A pint of Fuller's London Pride,' he responded expectantly.

I sometimes find myself in social mode in Britain's - once the world's - brewing capital, Burton-on-Trent. If my fellow drinkers work at different breweries, their ecumenical choice is always Marston's Pedigree.

I have just been in Burton for a massive sampling in the company of three- dozen working brewers, two-thirds of them from various corners of Britain, the rest from another nine or 10 countries, ranging from Finland to New Zealand. They were to spend two days tasting their way, in groups of four or five, through 862 lagers, ales, porters, stouts and barley wines from 30 countries.

Taking into account different strengths, and the distinctions between cask, keg, bottles and cans, there would be 50-odd awards. Entries ranged from the risibly named Aass Fatol of Norway, and John Willie Lees's Moonraker from Manchester to the proudest brews of Vietnam and Swaziland. By the end of the two days, each judge would have sampled about 100 beers, and the verdicts would decide the 1994 Brewing Industry International Awards.

These biennial awards, established a century ago at the height of British imperial influence, are unusual in their geographical compass, and in the fact that they are judged exclusively by working brewers. It is all very well to decorate a beer label with grand-looking gold medals from the 1909 World's Fair in Ruritania but a brewer would much prefer to win in Burton.

The competition is held in stone- cloistered rooms, lit by stained-glass windows, in Burton town hall, originally the Liberal Club. It was given to the town by Michael Thomas Bass, third patriarch of the brewing dynasty. Outside sits a statue of Michael Arthur Bass, first Baron Burton.

There was no question of my being allowed to judge, but I was - after several special pleadings - allowed to sample, and to talk with panellists after they had voted. I sat next to Vera Honigova, who is in charge of quality at the biggest lager brewery in Prague. She was enjoying the lagers but having some difficulty with the fruitier flavours of the ales. Her friend Kiki Fredman had no such problems. 'British ales? I love them]' she rejoiced. Her brewery, in lager-drinking Sweden, has just launched a pale ale. I tried it later, and found it deliciously honeyish.

'I haven't had a bad beer all week,' the American judge told me. Such enthusiasm was not evident when the panels were actually in action. In August, when the Campaign for Real Ale holds its annual judging, activists will be heard praising the soothingly rich maltiness of this brew, the appetisingly hoppy dryness of that one. When brewers judge beers, they aim to identify faults, and to eliminate on that basis.

One judge complained that the hops in a particular beer were 'biting my nose'. Another found a beer so bitter that it was 'shrinking my tongue'. Seamus McGardle of Guinness, rejected a lager on the grounds that it was cabbagey. 'Sulphur dioxide,' pronounced Esko Pajunen from Finland. He is another lager-brewer whose company has recently launched an ale, as Finland's answer to Newcastle Brown.

The classic Continental lagers do have a slightly sulphurous note, though it is most often compared to onion or parsnip. Have a sniff next time you sample a Lowenbrau or a Grolsch. This characteristic, called dimethyl sulphide, derives from Continental malts and methods. Without a hint of it, a lager does not taste truly Continental. With too much, it smells like soup.

The most traditional lagers come from the Czech Republic and Germany, but those two countries were together represented by only six breweries. When the town hall Wurlitzer struck up rising chords to indicate section winners, one brewery, Dominion of New Zealand, had won seven awards for lagers and three for ales.

I expressed surprise, and one of the organisers reminded me that the judges were charged with identifying beers that were not only well made but also likely to be commercial. Whatever they themselves drink, brewers clearly think that beers need to be rather bland and sugary-tasting to sell well.

'A really characterful beer could never win,' one judge shrugged. With prizes for Fosters and Castlemaine, but none for Pete's Wicked Ale or Chimay Grande Reserve, I could only agree.

When it came to cask-conditioned ales (with 267 entries), I found it easier to go along with the judges. Bass, seized the mild-ale award with its chocolatey Highgate Dark. Mansfield Brewery won prizes for two nutty-tasting bitters. The section for extra-strong bitters was deservedly conquered by the aromatic, dry, hoppy Spitfire Ale, from Shepherd Neame of Faversham, and the same brewery's Bishop's Finger came second, with the robust Firkin Dogbolter, from London, third.

Then there was the question of which beer the brewers drank after judging hours. The beers were numbered, not named, but a clamour of judges found their way to one in particular. When all was revealed, that turned out to be Timothy Taylor's very hoppy Landlord Bitter, from Keighley, Yorkshire.

The overall winners were announced yesterday. Champion draught lager was Coors Extra Gold from Colorado, brewed under licence by Scottish and Newcastle in Manchester. The top cask-conditioned ale was Riding Bitter from Mansfield. Other champions: bottled lager, D B Export Dry, New Zealand; mild, Cameron's, Hartlepool; keg ale, Bombardier, Bedford; strong brew, Stallion Stout, Barbados.

(Photograph omitted)