And the winner is…

New Zealand’s biggest beer weekend always kicks off on a Thursday evening in August. Brewers, beer bartenders, beer enthusiasts, and other beer-y people descend on Wellington en masse for the Brewers Guild of New Zealand awards. This year, the Michael Fowler Centre hosted more than 200 of the beer industry’s finest and most famous, all dressed to the nines in their best (and sometimes loudest) shirts or their most striking dresses. I slipped into my favourite dress¹, actually put on some heels, and joined them.

The tables before the masses arrived. Photo courtesy of the uber-talented Jed Soane* and the Brewers Guild.

In the days leading up to the awards, about 20 beer judges and trainees sniffed, tasted and discussed more than 450 beer and cider entries from New Zealand and the rest of the world – about the same number as last year. As well as those entries in the 13 beer classes and one cider class, there were also the non-drinkable submissions to be considered for the innovation, packaging, and (the brand new) beer writer awards.

The local comedian, Te Radar, was chosen to guide us through the evening this year – and what an evening it was! We were treated to several hilarious stories from Te Radar’s past, coupled with a few cheeky digs at some of the bigger breweries². In fact, I got the impression we were treated to more of Te Radar’s thoughts and tales than even he had intended, with the award sections of the evening passing by very quickly. This was helped in part by the trophy winners having very little to say when accepting the awards³, but mainly because there were fewer medal winners to read out than in past years.

Te Radar doing his thing. Photo courtesy of Jed Soane and the Brewers Guild.

Admittedly, this is only my third Brewers Guild awards evening, but in previous years, it has seemed that the judges were far more generous with the medals. In 2011, 151⁴ medals were awarded and there was at least one gold awarded in each class. But only 136⁵ medals were given out this year, and there were no gold medals awarded in six of the 14 style classes.

The British Ale Styles class ended up being the most hotly contested for the best in class trophy, with seven golds handed out, five of those to New Zealand breweries. Emerson’s Brewery won the trophy for the brainchild of Wellington’s Kieran Haslett-Moore, Regional Best Bitter, with Cassels & Sons, Harrington’s Brewery, Renaissance Brewing and Sprig & Fern the other gold-medal winners.

Some of the really cool trophies waiting to be awarded. Photo courtesy of Jed Soane and the Brewers Guild.

Some of New Zealand’s newer breweries also made a good impression on the judges. Taranaki’s Liberty Brewing won the US Ale Styles trophy with a gold medal for its Yakima Monster American Pale Ale. The brewer, Joseph Wood, accepted his award with an excited, teary-eyed speech, after eating a spoonful of hot sauce just before getting on stage. Wellington’s ParrotDog beat out Epic for the International Ale Styles class trophy for its ever-popular BitterBitch, with the three Matt’s in shock when they walked onto the stage to accept the award. And Garage Project, located in the heart of Wellington’s Aro Valley, won two trophies, taking out the Flavoured & Aged Styles class with its Dark Arts Coffee Bock, and the Festive Brew class with Ziggy’s Carrot Cake.

But while many of the newer breweries made their mark on the judges, one of the older New Zealand breweries, DB, won surprisingly few awards. DB Breweries regularly dominates the awards, and was the Champion Brewery winner in 2010. But this year it only won one beer award – a bronze medal for its Monteith’s Black – and three medals in the Cider & Perry Styles class, after buying a majority stake in the Nelson-based Redwood Cellars earlier this year.

While the other big player in the New Zealand brewing scene, Lion Breweries, was very successful with eight medals, it was also the topic of much discussion on the night. Lion submitted all of its entries under the brewery name ‘The Pride’, presumably after the brewery’s new facility in Auckland’s East-Tamaki, which opened in 2010. Is Lion trying to re-brand itself in New Zealand’s growing beer scene? Perhaps something to keep an eye on…

Everyone having a good time. Photo courtesy of Jed Soane and the Brewers Guild.

But it wasn’t just the brewers and their beers which were celebrated this year. The Brewers Guild had decided to include a new award for Beer Writer of the Year. While in its first year it may not have received the number of nominations such a category probably deserves, it seems the media judges were just as taken with one of New Zealand’s most popular beer bloggers as much of the beer community. Phil Cook, of Beer Diary fame, took out the inaugural award, with his tales of kegtris, humour, and blunt commentary of both beer and the industry, winning over the esteemed panel of judges.

But for the night’s most prestigious award, the New Zealand Champion Brewery, it was anyone’s guess as to who might take out the title. The lack of gold medals made impossible to even calculate who was in the running for the top award. Wigram and Garage Project had won two trophies each, while Tuatara had three, one of them for the packaging class. But with almost half of the trophies being taken out by silver medal winners, and Champion Brewery going to the one with the most golds, no one could quite work out which breweries sat where in relation to the others.

The coveted Champion Brewery trophy. Photo courtesy of Jed Soane and the Brewers Guild.

In the end, it was Harrington’s Brewery, with two gold medals, two silvers and a bronze, that was awarded the title of 2012 Champion Brewery. Based in Christchurch, Harrington’s has had a tough past two years with the ongoing quakes. It lost its Ferrymead brewery and bottle store in one of the more severe aftershocks on December the 23rd last year – a big blow for a brewery that not only has such an extensive range of beer, but also has been heavily involved in New Zealand’s booming contract brewing scene.

So congratulations to Harrington’s – and hopefully the award will be a big boost for the whole Christchurch brewing community, which still has to face day-to-day challenges after almost two years of shaking.

*****

* My favourite photographer, Jed Soane, did a fantastic job of documenting the evening. You can check out all of his amazing work here: http://thebeerproject.com/photos/index.html

¹ The one that is uber comfortable and hides my beer belly-bump.

² Mainly just DB, now that I think about it. “…because it hasn’t been trademarked yet” (though this could also be a jibe at Stoke), and the good ol’ one where the bloke at the supermarket thinks they like IPAs because they’re a Tui drinker.

³ Though brewers do tend to be people of action, rather than words

Not including the packaging class.

See above.

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