A midwinter celebration of all beers dark and decadent was held in Christchurch in July. 

I had the honour of pouring the beers at the judging just a few days before and I was eager to see how the judges’ picks (and some of my own personal favourites) would fare against the tastes of the Christchurch craft drinkers when they cast their votes en masse during the event.

Far from the (comparative) razzle of the New World Beer & Cider Awards or NZ Beer Awards, the Stout Challenge is low-key through and through.  No temperature-controlled conference centres here, it was jackets-on as the judges joined their tables in the loft above 12 Bar in St Asaph St, as yet another night of rain hammered on the windows.

As much as the challenge is a small competition by national standards, the sheer potential and explosive diversity of the stout style makes it one of the most exciting from my perspective.  Peppermint, peanut, cocoa and cake; almost anything can work in a stout with enough brewing passion and expertise to make it happen. 

The judging too, is some of the most robust a beer can get in New Zealand.  Using the long form BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) judging infrastructure, each of the 20 entries got vastly more time and scrutiny than the scant handful of minutes afforded at a big competition.  The other benefit here is the detailed feedback generated for the brewers who entered, giving them the telemetry to tune their future beers.

The rain, if not the cold, held off on the day of the challenge itself.  Myself and a panel of “local experts” went in with our usual mission: Taste. Every. Stout. And aside from the entry from Kereru (which had already been drunk dry by the time we got to it) we succeeded for another year. 

Stout challenge

The logistics of this are made easy with a free shuttle between the two venues effectively joining them together as one. 

Our favourite on the night (by just half a point) was Chocolate Coconut Piefrom Wilderness Brewery.  I’m not normally someone who really goes all-in on dessert stouts, but the sheer precision with which this one captured the nature of its adjuncts was just staggering.  The judges’ pick was a gloriously fruity Baltic Stout from Beer Baroness, while the public at large cast their vote for a triple chocolate milk stout Ode to Malvafrom Three Sisters.  The trophy remains a road cone.

Stout challenge

The challenge was again jointly organised and hosted by Moon Under Water and Punky Brewster, and though it’s only a few years old, it attracts entries from up and down the country. 

In fact, it’s so competitive, places have to be issued by ballot.  As frustrating as this must be for brewers who miss out, the public nature of the event means that every beer needs to be on tap, and there just aren’t enough to go around each year.  If nothing else this shows just how much potential there is for the competition to grow.  While this can only be an exhausting proposition for Moon and Punky’s respective proprietors Matt and Rachel, I can only see the Stout Challenge getting bigger as the years go on.