By Michael Donaldson (who won Beer Writer of the Year!)
If you’re looking for a reliable guideline on great tasting beer, the New Zealand Beer Awards are a great place to start.
The annual awards – announced on Saturday night in Nelson – offer an independent verdict on great tasting beer. The judges’ views may not necessarily align with your personal taste – after all beer is pretty subjective in that way. But the judging, which is done “blind” by some of the best palates in the industry, is as good a pointer as any if you’re looking for well-made, reliable beer.
The one downside of the Beer Awards is that not everything that wins a gold medal is necessarily available to buy online as many breweries who enter just do kegs or have a limited distribution network. So, I’m here to help sort things out for you and give a few bits of advice on what’s rated as a great beer.
Let’s start with the prize for Champion Exhibitor – this is awarded to the most consistent brewery at the awards. Breweries get points for medals (3 for gold, 2 for silver, 1 for bronze and 0 for no medal). The total points are divided by the brewery’s entries for an average score.
This is the first year this trophy has been offered and the inaugural winner was Bach Brewing. They entered six beers, winning two gold, two silver and a bronze. This tells you everything you need to know about Bach – they make reliably, consistently good beers across the range.
One of their gold medal winners is the Kingtide IPA. I just love this beer. It’s one of the best IPAs on the market. Packed full of hops from New Zealand, Australia and the United States, it’s literally a trans-Pacific IPA jammed with juicy hop goodness. There’s tropical fruit aromas and refreshing lick of pine resin underlying that. The malt is smooth and creamy, making for the total package.
The other bead on which breweries are doing a great job is the champion brewery trophies.
The awards honours three tiers – big, medium and small.
The big breweries are Lion, DB, Independent (aka Boundary Road), Tuatara, Moa and Emerson’s.
Lion scooped the prize there and they did it thanks to some great beers in the Mac’s range. Lion have really upped the ante with Mac’s – beers such as Green Beret IPA, Birthday Suit Double IPA, Interstate APA – are all great takes on modern hoppy beers and at an affordable price. And they all picked up medals at the awards so you know they’re good. But Mac’s also do the classics extremely well with beers such as Hop Rocker Pilsner, Mac’s Gold and Sassy Red.
The standout result for Mac’s was the trophy won by Sassy Red in the British Ale category. Sassy Red is a gently-hopped amber ale with a biscuity malt base and just enough of a bitter finish to please your palate without overwhelming it. It’s been one of my favourite “mainstream” beers for a while. It’s super-quaffable, tasty and – at 4.5 per cent – a nice session beer.
The champion medium-sized brewery was probably the toughest fought prize in the awards. This is the category where a lot of well-loved craft breweries are placed – the likes of Liberty, Epic, Good George, 8 Wired, Panhead, Urbanaut, Deep Creek etc.
It was no surprise – but a still a huge delight – when Parrotdog from Wellington were named the champion medium-sized brewery.
These guys did a big crowd-funding project a couple of years back to raise $2m for a new brewery in Lyall Bay – right next to Wellington airport – and it’s fair to say they’ve taken off, with that investment starting to pay dividends. Quite simply, every beer I’ve had this year from Parrotdog has been superb.
Their classic Bitterbitch is unique IPA with some nice English-style character overlaid with New Zealand-hopped charm while their Pandemonium Pilsner is my summer go-to for a refreshing but flavoursome beer. It’s got some great hop character – a kind of dusty citrus note (in a good way) but the bitterness is kept in check to make it refreshing and thirst-quenching.
But to me the star of the show is their Falcon APA. It has become a gold medal-winning machine – claiming gold not only at these awards but also the New World Beer and Cider Awards earlier this year.
ParrotDog Falcon is poised nicely at 5.4 per cent ABV but delivers a truckload of flavour. There’s melon and ripe tropical fruits on the nose, some dank, tobacco wafting underneath with hints of leather. But it also has a luxurious mouthfeel that’s broad and deep and oily with hop resins adding to the slickness. It’s packed full of flavour – way more flavour than you’d expect for a middleweight ABV. It really is one of best APAs you can hope to lay your hands on. And Wine Central have it for a scarcely believable $3.99 a bottle.
Another thing I look for in the awards is breweries that win lots of silver and bronze medals. Why? Well, having judged at these events, I understand beers that are extremely well-balanced, drinkable and coherent can often be overlooked for gold medals. That’s because the judges are drinking 60 or 70 beers a day and they can get what’s known as “palate fatigue” which means it can be hard for a subtle, balanced beer to standout from the crowd.
A couple of breweries struck me as being kings of the silver-bronze area – to me that’s a good sign.
The two I noticed popping up a lot in that area are Emerson’s and Liberty. And that reflects my experience of these breweries – they make great tasting, approachable, well-balanced beer that you can happily have a few pints of without suffering palate fatigue from too many jagged edges or getting bored by lack of flavour. And you can’t say that for all modern beer.
Some good examples from Liberty are the Elixir Extra Pale Ale, a bright, lively pale ale, and the bigger, rounder Yakima Monster APA. And for summer drinking, as the weather starts to warm-up, you can go past their Divine Wind Japanese Lager.
In the Emerson’s range, a couple of medal winners that I really love include the 1812 Hoppy Pale – an English-style pale ale that’s always great drinking – and (on a more complex level) the JP 2018. It’s a Belgian Strong Ale that clocks in at 8 per cent but is packed with fruity, spicy character while being super-drinkable.