The Malthouse West Coast IPA Challenge is one of the most hotly anticipated events on New Zealand’s beer calendar, attracting beer geeks from across the country. I’ve been attending the annual event since way back when it was just Epic and Hallertau competing for the title: it has grown a wee bit since then, with 31 beers vying to take home the Golden Gumboots and be crowned the 2020 Champion IPA.

I was honoured to be asked to judge this year’s event – the 13th time it’s run. It was my first time joining the West Coast IPA judging team, though far from my first time at a beer judges’ table.

Twenty of us were charged with finding the 2020 winner; a mix of BJCP qualified judges, brewers, beer industry representatives, chefs and writers – with many people ticking multiple boxes: there was certainly no shortage of experience in the bar that morning.

We were split into four groups headed by a table captain to keep us on track and in check. I was placed on a table captained by bar owner and experienced beer judge Colin Mallon, with Shaun Clouston of Logan Brown fame and the Epic founder Luke Nicholas making up our panel. Head judge Geoff Griggs oversaw all four teams and was the only one tasked with tasting all 31 entries, with the individual tables tasting between 7-10 beers each.

The judges were directed to evaluate each beer as a West Coast IPA – so if we received a beer that was hazy or black or filled with noble hops, it wouldn’t make it on to the final judging. Griggs asked us to pick the top two beers at each table, which would then be judged again to determine the top three. However, he also stressed that if the table felt three beers – or only one beer – deserved to go through to the taste-off, then we should stick to that.

Having only to taste up to 10 beers meant our palates could remain fresh and finely-tuned, and meant every beer had the chance to be judged as fairly as possible. Every beer was judged blind – we received a glass each and a number that corresponded to the beer, and at no point were told which number belonged to which brewery. In fact, I still don’t know which beers I judged during that first round.

There seemed to be a bit of a theme to the entries this year – the vast majority were yellow-gold in colour, rather than the gold to orange hues often associated with the West Coast style. Those lighter malts did some of the entries a disservice, with many finishing astringent or harshly bitter. While a reasonable to high level of bitterness should be expected in this style, the lack of malt complexity in some of the entries just meant that bitter finish was way out of whack, leaving an unpleasant aftertaste.

The popularity of hazies also seemed to have an impact on some of the brewers; my table tried one beer that, while crystal-clear, was full of fruit on the aroma and at the start of the mouthful, before falling away with no perceivable bitterness at all – similar to the taste experience of many Hazy IPAs.

Our table felt that only one of the beers we tried was worthy of a top three spot, as did a couple of the other panels – meaning there were only five beers judged worthy of potentially making the podium.

I was among the six people without a connection to one of the breweries and asked to judge alongside Geoff Griggs at the final table. We methodically tasted each of the beers and discussed them. We were looking for a clean, fault-free beer with a strong new world hop aroma and flavour, a balanced body, and a bitter or resinous finish – all without being too sweet, nor too bitter.

Taking all of that into consideration, there was one stand-out among the five which ticked all of those boxes, and the judges unanimously voted it to take out the top prize. The second and third place beers also fell within the style and, while there was a bit of haggling as to which should be named runner-up and which would get the third place spot, there was no disagreement that they were the beers that should make it onto the podium.

Throw ahead to 9pm on Friday night, and The Malthouse was packed full of people as the winners were announced. Epic, the brewery with the best West Coast IPA Challenge record and reigning WCIPA champion, won the people’s choice award for their Grain Dead, though it didn’t crack the top three this year.

Coming in third place was New Plymouth’s Shining Peak with their entry The Twins – a double dry-hopped IPA, which impressed with its drinkability and balance.

Second place went to the Wellington-based JuiceHead for The Devil’s Rain, which had a punchy fresh fruit aroma and flavour. They also got the loudest cheer from the crowd, with the team all having met while working at The Malthouse and having served many a West Coast IPA to most of the punters in the past.

The title of West Coast IPA Challenge champion for 2020 and the winner of the golden gumboots went to the Auckland’s Behemoth, with Here’s Churly which showcases the Simcoe, Mosaic and newly-named Nectaron hop, resulting in a solid example of the traditional West Coast IPA.