New Zealand International Beer Awards 2006

I’ve just returned home from Nelson where I tasted almost 200 beers in just three days! But before you accuse me of reckless alcohol abuse I should probably explain that it was strictly business: I was a member of the judging panel at the 2006 New Zealand International Beer Awards. Working from nine in the morning until after six at night the seven of us - four New Zealanders, two Aussies and an American - sighted, sniffed and slurped our way through no less than 196 beers in forty or so style categories. By the end of the week we’d awarded 15 trophies and 79 medals and found ourselves a supreme champion – and it was great news for Kiwi brewers. Although the judges only awarded five gold medals, all but one of them was for a New Zealand beer and the supreme champion trophy went to an American-style Pale Ale brewed in Auckland! But don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Epic Pale Ale; although the beer has been available on tap for a month or so (in the Cock & Bull chain of pubs in Auckland and Hamilton), the bottled version was launched only on Monday of this week. “This kind of recognition from a panel of noted judges is a fantastic. We are confident that New Zealand beer drinkers will enjoy it just as much,” said a delighted Luke Nicholas, Cock & Bull’s head brewer. "At the end of 2004 we acquired a new larger brewery and bottling line. We are now set up to expand and brew and bottle a range of high quality, full flavoured beers for a national audience." “High quality” and “full flavoured”? Nicholas isn’t joking. Sipping the new beer for the first time during the judging, the signature grapefruit-like aroma and lollyish resins of Oregon-grown Cascade hops were obvious enough to convince me that I was sampling a top-notch American Pale Ale from one of that country’s craft breweries. When the results were announced I was both amazed and delighted to find out that the beer is actually made right here in New Zealand - albeit with those very distinctive American hops. Also striking gold was Hawkes Bay’s Limburg Brewery with its potent and delightfully aged Oude Reserve Barley Wine. It’s a shame this warming (10.5%!) brew is in short supply and is available only direct from the brewery. Golds also went to Speight’s Distinction Ale, which had been cleverly entered into the American-style dark lagers category, and to Alpine Ale, a traditional Kiwi draught from the Dux de Lux brewpubs in Christchurch and Queenstown. Dux de Lux also won the NZ Lagers class with Dux Lager and took out the ‘non-low alcohol’ category with a deliciously fresh tasting alcohol-free ginger beer called Non Tom. Another Christchurch brewer, Wigram, was probably the most successful small brewery at the competition. Wigram Brewery took two silvers for its Vienna Lager and Bavarian-style Hefe Weizen - the latter also awarded the trophy for the best wheat beer. The brewery’s smart aviation-themed labelling also earned it the trophy for best packaging. Two Marlborough brewers, Renaissance and Moa were also amongst the medals. Renaissance took a silver for its hugely malty Stonecutter Scotch Ale – a remarkable achievement for the fledgling Blenheim brewery, which only began trading six months ago. Also from Blenheim, Josh Scott’s bottle refermented Moa Beer received a bronze in the experimental beers class. First held in 1999 the Nelson awards are well known internationally and the competition always attracts strong interest from around the world. This year, as well as beers from Australia and the Pacific, the event attracted 69 overseas entries – some 35% of the total - from as far afield as Germany, Argentina and the US. Matilda Bay was Australia’s most successful brewery with best in class trophies and silver medals for two of its beers; Bohemian Pilsner and Barking Duck, the latter a generously spiced interpretation of a Belgian Saison. Meanwhile Kiwi brewer Graeme Mahy, who designed the original recipe for Moa Beer, upstaged his former employer by gaining two silvers for his new venture, Murray’s Brewing Co. As usual two of America’s most respected craft brewers, Rogue of Oregon and The Boston Beer Company, each entered a hatful of beers and took away a swag of medals. Sadly none of their beers are imported into New Zealand. Last year’s supreme champion couldn’t quite match that achievement this year but the massively intense Rogue Imperial Stout (11.5%) was still good enough to win a silver medal and take out the stouts and porters class. Rogue’s other major success came from its similarly potent and delightfully named Old Crustacean, which took a gold medal and topped the Barley Wines category. This astonishingly chewy, resiny, copper coloured brew is massively hopped and claims no less than 120 BUs (units of bitterness) making it around eight times as bitter as a mainstream draught like Speight’s or DB Draught! Talking of ‘extreme’ beers, this year the judges had the ‘pleasure’ of sampling two different vintages of the world’s strongest beer. After a series of fermentations with Champagne yeast and many months in wooden casks, Samuel Adams Utopias emerges at an almost unbelievable 24% - yes, twenty-four percent alcohol by volume! The resulting brew pours liqueur-like and completely flat and smells and tastes more like a cross between brandy and vintage port than a beer! Despite challenging many peoples’ understanding of what beer is and can be Utopias merely reinforces the widely-held view that Uncle Sam just has to do everything bigger and better. Cheers! By Geoff Griggs (Malborough Express & Catpital Times)

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