It was a heck of a problem. I had planned to sample all of the winners of the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards at the event known as Beervana. Some of you may remember my trip there last year in which I just tried interesting beers that caught my eye. This year I just wanted to try what the judges thought were the best.
The problem I faced was that one of the winners wasn't there: Tui.
No, I shit you not. DB Breweries' Tui won the Best New Zealand Draught category. Right now you're either thinking:
- WTF? How can Tui be the best beer in any class? or
- WTF? How did normal Tui beat Tui Extra Strength? (an abomination that did once exist)
The truth of the matter is that
no other beer was entered into the New Zealand Draught category UPDATE: eight other beers were entered in that category, none are listed as medalists, so Tui was the best of that bunch. Many of the brewers I spoke to thought that the award was a bit of a joke and that Draught as a style of beer is dying out. Beer drinkers now want rich flavour; something that will compliment food; and less fizzy junk. That is except the binge drinkers who just want to sink cheap piss.
To add to the confusion, the awards are given out a bit like the old Sixth Form Certificate. There are a certain amount of Golds, Silvers and Bronzes to give out. So the best in a particular category may not actually be a gold-level beer, while another winner might be the best of a number of golds.
The other surprise winner was Speight's Distinction Ale that won Best International Lager. That's right; an ale won the lager category. The Speight's brewer seemed to be genuinely surprised by the win, so much so that they hadn't brought any with them. He even alluded to the fact that he thought their Pilsner was a much better beer.
But the controversy continued. Some brewers were annoyed that international breweries were allowed to enter and could claim medals (though they weren't allowed to win trophies). Deschutes Brewery came away with the overall International Brewery award and Sam Adams also picked up a few medals.
The New Zealand brewers argue that, like the New Zealand wine awards, International breweries shouldn't be allowed to enter. It's hard enough to carve out a niche without having to compete with imports. Damn foreigners taking our beer awards!
Still those sneaky Ruskies managed to take one away and that was my first drink. The Baltika No.7 won European lager. Baltika, you may remember, is the largest producer of beer in Europe, pumping out 50m hectolitres of beer every year. The young lady I spoke to didn't know what a hectolitre was, neither did I, neither did Mike, Jed or the other guy behind the bar. She tried to explain it thusly: "You know a hectare? It's like that but in litres".
Blinded by science, I was lured into trying their non-alcoholic beer. The standard joke is right; there is no point to it.
I never actually discovered why Baltika (a beer brewed in Russia) was allowed to win a category. Perhaps it was because the only other medal winners in that category were also foreign (Sam Adams and Maui Brewing Co.)
Dying to try a decent beer I headed to Harrington's for their best in class European Ale Style beer, the Pig and Whistle. I have to say for my second beer it was quite dark and heavier than I expected for an ale. But when I looked at the list of other medallists (Emerson's Bookbinder, Mata Artesian, Monteith's Celtic Red) I could see that the category was quite varied.
Brewer Matt Thomson said that they were surprised they had won because they had been (like the Speight's brewer) concentrating on other beers. I noted to Matt that it was a very malty flavoured beer; he said that it was because of tea-bagging. I caught the spit-take before it happened.
Naturally tea-bagging is the process of planting a muslin bag filled with crushed malt into the boil near the end of the process which creates a stronger malty flavour. It is not anything dirty.
Next up was the Epic Armageddon IPA; winner of the Best New Zealand, US & International Ale Styles award. But not just any Armageddon out of the (snazzy-looking) bottle, this was poured from a barrel. And, for that matter, not just any barrel, a barrel that had been at sea for months, with the beer aging inside.
Luke's two barrels (named Pete and Melissa after international beer authors) were placed aboard the Awatere ferry and set sail to replicate the original voyage that first created Indian Pale Ale. Beer brewed in England was transported around the Cape of Good Hope to India for the colonies and by the time it arrived it had evolved into the wonderful IPA we drink today, sort of.
As we sipped the rather oddly textured beer, I caught Luke taking a piece of something out of his glass, he joked that their first thought was that the beer would disintegrate the wooden homemade barrels and the beer would be full of splinters (it wasn't). But at the end of the first day of Beervana small pieces of black "stuff" was floating in some glasses, Luke told folks not to worry, "it's history".
The first barrel actually did almost break. The metal bonds broke and it threatened to split, but the beer filled the cracks and held it together. Is there anything beer can't do?
It was strange not having a cold beer. So how did the judges try it? Yeastie Boys brewer Stu McKinlay said that they were one of the later entries to be judged so he assumed his award-winning Pot Kettle Black porter wouldn't have been too cold. But then again, some beers are served too cold. Brewers can ask that judges sample their beers at particular temperatures. One brewer (allegedly from a certain Russian brand) told the judges that their beer was to be drunk at 0°C.
I mentioned this to Gaby Ruiz, sensory expert for Lion Breweries, and she was bemused. "At that temperature, you'd be lucky to smell or taste anything". Gaby was running the sensory testing sessions where she added chemicals to Mac's Gold and then got us to try and pick them up (whether this assumes Mac's Gold has no natural flavour, I couldn't say). Interestingly "flavours", like diacetyl (that gives a buttery feel), that are prized in some wine varieties but are defects in beer because it masks or washes out other flavours.
Gaby has the best job in the country. She trains all of Lion Nathan's tasters and drinks beer all day (for those interested in following her career moves, she started with personal care products, then moved to ham and sausages, then cookies, and then beer).
But the brewer everyone wanted to be and that every brewer I spoke to commended was overall Brewery Winner Emerson's. Their Dunkelweiss and Weizenbock both won Gold, Bookbinder and Southern Clam Stout got Silver, and Taieri George won Bronze. On top of that the JP 2009, BeWITched Festive Brew and Organic Pilsner all won best in class.
I sat down with a brewer from Emerson's (Update it was James Falconer) with a glass of the Pilsner (and later a JP).
Did you catch me saying "leverage" and him saying "springboard"?
Now to you fill your beer fridges over the coming year, here are the beers I tried:
- Moa Dark Reserve – a dark beer with strong hoppy flavours that won Best Specialty, Experimental, Aged, Barrel & Wood-Aged Styles.
- Tuatara Hefe – possibly my favourite beer of the day and described by it's maker as a "South German Hefeweisen, which means it's a beer that's fermented with malted wheat as well as malted barley, … ours is more of a clovey sort of one, the fermentable esters you get from wheat give you banana and bubblegum and clove flavours, a very refreshing style." Easily the longest description elicited from a brewer all day.
- Yeastie Boys' Pot Kettle Black (porter) – Cold it tasted like a strong ale, but as it warmed up (during my conversation with the brewers) it took on chocolatey-orange flavours. A very good beer for (what remains of) winter and recommended if available on a hand-pull
- Epic Armageddon IPA (sea-aged in a barrel) – the beer was cloudier than the bottled stuff and it had a creamier texture to it. It also didn't have the harsh hops taste that some people don't like in the Epic pale ales. Age had mellowed it. From the bottle the beer has an overwhelming hops flavour that may need a few sips to get used to.
- Twisted Hop Golding Bitter – As an alternative to a NZ Draught Sean at the Twisted Hop poured me a glasss of their Golding Bitter. It is marketed as a "session beer", meaning one that has a lower alcohol level (3.7%) and so can be drunk in larger quantities. Light and easy to drink it had nice bite to it, but not my kind of thing.
- Baltika Non-alcoholic – drink this only if lemonade is not available (or you want to pretend you're drinking when you're not)
- Baltika No.7 Lager – drink this only if lemonade is not available. Light fizzy, not a lot of flavour
- Harrington's Pig and Whistle – a dark ale. Heavy and flavoursome, it would be a nice alternative to a stout or porter
But of course Beervana is about the drinkers. There were no boozed up idiots hurling abuse or any other kind of nonsense you might usually associate with a large group of people. There was Andy, the brewer from Renaissance who started making wine at 12 and beer at age 15; Eric Armstrong, the amiable Scotsman who talked our ears off in front of the Tuatara stand; Josh from Moa who could only see bright stars in New Zealand's brewing future; Dominic, the owner of Wellington's newest boutique beer bar that has Flying Dog Ales (Hunter S Thompson's brewery); and everyone else…