There is one day every year that I consume more hops than any other¹ – the Malthouse’s annual West Coast IPA Challenge. On Friday the 13th of July, the fifth annual Challenge attracted 17 entrants and hundreds of drinkers, and I was smart enough to start work early that day so I could make it to the Malthouse before the crowds arrived.
Being faced by 17 hoppy beers is pretty daunting, but I had my mind made up on what I would try first even before arriving at the bar. For the first three years of competition, the Challenge was strictly a Hallertau vs Epic hop-off. It was expanded to accommodate any West Coast-inspired contenders after massive interest (and much nagging) from many of New Zealand’s craft beer brewers and drinkers. And while I tried, and loved, several beers that day, to me, the Challenge will always be strictly a Hallertau vs Epic battle.
I asked the bar staff what the ABV’s of the Epic and Hallertau entries were, and I ordered the slightly less alcoholic 5.8% Hallertau Brojolais Red IPA as my first beer of the afternoon, and took a seat at the bar.
Currently, Red IPA is my favourite beer style. Red IPA’s are generally incredibly sexy beers, with deep red colouring, a sweet, rich malt character, well-balanced bitterness, and hoppy aroma. Unfortunately, the Brojolais disappointed on the initial impression. It was a very cloudy, almost opaque, orange-brown colour with an off-white head. Not red, or even amber, at all!
The aroma and flavour were far more impressive, however. It smelled of earth and sweet malt, and had the same base flavours, with lemon, passionfruit, a hint of pine and a bitter, dirty finish. It was well-balanced with the fruit and earthy characters, and was a good, robust beer. It did feel quite heavy in the mouth though, and the aftertaste was rather unappealing.
And so on to the Epic First Batch NZ IPA – a completely new offering from Luke Nicholas, in that it was an all-New Zealand beer, quite a change from the American hop-bombs Epic is so well-known for. It poured a clear golden with a white head and smelled oh-so tropical, with passionfruit, mandarin, mango and lemon aromas all jumping out of the glass. It tasted of lemon, grapefruit, earth and was slightly grassy, with a big bitter bang. But it wasn’t perfect. The beer was very fizzy in which distracted from the flavour, and it was a touch grainy in the mouth. But overall, the First Batch was a good, hoppy beer, more refined and hop-focused than the Brojolais, and so named my 2012 winner in the Epic vs Hallertau annual battle.
The actual West Coast Challenge winner, for which the brewer is awarded the prestigious golden gumboots, was Epic for the ever-popular Hop Zombie IIPA. While it was only first released last year, it was thought that the Zombie wouldn’t be able to be re-brewed until 2013, due to one of the four hops used in the beer being sold out the world over. But after searching everywhere, Nicholas was able to find a small amount of the missing hop² in the UK, and so Hop Zombie was able to be reborn.
The 8.5% Zombie pours clear golden with white head and has a powerful aroma, with grapefruit, mango, pine, and a hint of vanilla. It tastes of pine, earth, and slightly dirty, rustic hops, before making way for big lemon, lime and passionfruit flavours .It’s clean, fresh and has sweet mandarin and mango flavours on the finish. Well-deserving of the Malthouse golden gumboots and a beer I must stock up on before it all sells out.
The 2012 West Coast Challenge will also be remembered as the most successful one yet for me personally, after I had the most minimal of hangovers the next day³. And there was no shortage of great stories about post-WCC antics shared in the days after – always the best indicator of how successful the Challenge was among the punters. I look for to more stories and tasting the 2013 challengers next year!
¹ Probably. Some homebrew tasting nights at home may come close, thanks to the hop-head boyfriend.
² Epic have kept the hops used completely under wraps. But perhaps it’s the ever-popular Simcoe?
³Thank goodness! With a full day of volunteering at the SOBA Winter Ale Festival the next day, I was rather impressed with my sensible attitude when so much good beer was so available that evening.