In March of this year, just as the hop harvest was beginning, the judging for the New World Beer and Cider Awards took place.  After Covid restrictions forced it to splinter into regional cells the previous year, this time it was back in Christchurch at the Addington Raceway, and I once again had the great privilege of attending as a junior judge. 

It’s become something of a tradition for the (usually highly stable) Christchurch autumn to really turn it on for the contingent of largely North Island judges whenever there’s beer judging going on, and this year didn’t disappoint, breaking a month-long stretch of mild conditions and offering up a brutally cold afternoon of rain on arrival day.  Myself and the small contingent of local judges joked that you could spot the out-of-towners by the shorts.

Over the next two days the judging tables sipped their way through 700-plus entries; deliberating until the list was finally winnowed down to some of the hardest-won recognition in New Zealand beer, the Top 30.

Before I levy any opinion towards this year’s results, I should explain some of the eccentricities of the Top 30 compared to other competitions.  First (and probably most obviously), the winning beers must be in the New World distribution network.  That isn’t a requirement for entry, but winning beers will need to be on-boarded into the distro before they’re inducted into the list. Furthermore, large volumes are needed to meet the demands for packaged stock across all the stores.  This naturally excludes smaller breweries and those who lack the capacity to produce packaged beer.  So don’t look for any very small or super-regional breweries that might otherwise show up at more general competitions like the Brewers Guild Awards. 

Big brewing a rising threat

Competitions like this regularly throw a surprise win for a big factory brewer like Lion or DB, but this year’s results were positively teeming with them.  Between them, Asahi and Tiger claimed the Low/No Alc & Low Carbbracket in its entirety, and in Lager & Pilsner, Lion popped up with Mac’s Gold and Steinlager Pure.  Monteith’s (DB) Tight Lines even claimed a spot in the far more craft-dominant Pale Ale category.

This ground gained by the big brewers can be viewed from a few different perspectives.  Cynically, one could see this as a failure from craft breweries.  If they can’t outcompete the big guys on scores then how can they justify a higher price point?  That’s vastly simplifying things, but it’s a question consumers will ask nonetheless.

More positively, I see this as a sign of mass-produced beer learning from craft and gradually getting better because of it, and ultimately if a beer can be cheaper and good then I’m all for it.

We’ve finally hit peak haze (maybe)

Last year I made a bet that we were finally going to hit the ceiling on hazy beer and that 2023 would see it plateau.  Based on entry numbers for this competition alone, I was wrong, but only by three beers… Last year 135 hazy beers were entered, and this time that rose to 138.  Compared to the vast increases seen over the preceding years, this does indeed suggest that hazy beer has finally levelled off.  It won’t be until the telemetry gained from the Brewers Guild Awards coming up this August that we’ll know for sure, but I’m confident that the entry numbers there will indicate the same.  Then it’ll be time for the rampant speculation of hazy beer’s eventual downturn to begin in earnest.  

Garage Project Takes a Year Off

Go to any beer competition and there’s one horse you can comfortably bet on every time. Indomitable Garage Project is one of the most reliably awarded craft breweries in the nation, but they were conspicuously absent from this year’s list.  You have to go all the way back to 2017 to find a similar result (or lack thereof).  They didn’t have any trouble at the Brewers Guild Awards mid-way through last year and had four in last year-s Top 30, but I’m reliably informed that the bulk of their beers scored well so it’s perhaps they just got unlucky rather than hitting a speed bump. 

The King is Dead.  Long Live the King

Garage Project wasn’t the only thing shockingly absent from the list this year.  Panhead’s Port Road Pilsner has kept a seemingly unbreakable grip on the Top-30 since 2019, something no other beer can claim, so to see it gone this year was a huge surprise.  What finally knocked it off its perch? If I had to guess, I’d wonder whether it was a sign of judges’ tastes beginning to swing back towards drier, more traditional pilsners, rather than the conspicuously fruity and hop-driven NZ style that Port Road so distinctly embodies. Not to be left out of the awards, however, Panhead Supercharger APA stepped out of the shadows of craft beer history to take its place.

New Faces on the Podium

One of the surprises this year was the amount of relatively new breweries picking up awards, with Martinborough Brewery, Ruapehu Brewing, and most surprisingly Otago Brew School (get that student a beer!) appearing in the Top-30 for the first time. This is in part a natural effect of the ever-increasing number of new breweries entering the New World range, but more than that I think it’s a sign that smaller brewers are catching up in quality, as the old guard of well-known medium size breweries are inevitably finding their ability to innovate slowing down as their output increases.   

Urbanaut’s star turn

It was a fairly even spread of breweries across the list, with Bootleg and Zeffer doubling up but Urbanaut was the star of this year’s show, with one win in IPA for their BronxDouble IPA, and two in Hazy for Silver Palace Hazy IPA and Newtown Hazy Pale.  Considering how massively contested the hazy category is, the fact that Urbanaut managed to get two in here really speaks to how much of a handle the brewery has on the style.