Tim Newman seeks out the Champion Beer from the 2021 Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards 

The Brewers Guild Awards Champion Beer Trophy is awarded to just one single entry from more than 800 competing beers.  First that beer must win the trophy for its category, and then be judged against all other such winners to finally claim the ultimate prize.  To win it is not an easy task, to say the very least.

The curiously named (after a Metallica track) Unforgiven Porter was the solitary gold medal winner in the Stout & Porter bracket at the 2021 awards, earning the trophy by default. Entries that win this way can be seen as weaker contenders for the champion prize, having only been tested by one round of judging as opposed to two.  But that was just the first convention this beer smashed on its way to the top.

The brewer, Burkes Brewing Co, is a tiny craft producer tucked away in the middle of the South Island’s remote MacKenzie district, and this is only their fourth year at the BGONZAs.  But even more incredible to me was the beer itself, a straight porter. No barrel ageing, no exotic ingredients, no staggering ABV or eye-watering price tag.  Just an ordinary porter, not brewed to take on the world by any means.  But here it is, the best beer in New Zealand.

This I had to see (taste) for myself, and so with great satisfaction I found an excuse to put my day job to the sword in favour of beer, and a road trip to Tekapo was hastily arranged.  Cue the first Christchurch Covid-19 cases since the Delta outbreak … so it was an anxious wait to see whether a snap lockdown was going to scotch my trip before it even started. And when I finally got going, the afternoon was dwindling behind me.

The drive down from Christchurch is not going to appear on the Lonely Planet Guide any time soon. It’s paddocks, pines and endless provincial monotony until you make it past Geraldine and finally begin to climb into the rugged and mountainous countryside of the MacKenzie district.  The sweeping tussock and distant peaks here certainly speak of beer country, or maybe that’s just some of the classic Speights advertising that’s forever imprinted on my brain. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Tekapo itself is a unique spot, perched at the foot of the glacial lake which gives the town its name.  The surrounding bluffs are dotted with domed telescopes, positioned to take advantage of the International Dark Sky Reserve that blankets the area.  Here, late and disorganised, I was finally able to meet up with Sebastian (Seb) Burke, the founder and head brewer of Burkes Brewing.

Brewers are typically busy people, but Seb seemed like an especially hard case.  He was working through a stock inventory at the taproom when I caught up with him, and in a few hours he would be serving the food and beers himself late into the night.  Long days like these along with frequent round trips to Christchurch in order to tinker with upcoming contract-brewed batches make up Seb’s typical week.

After many years of home brewing and an inspiring trip through California IPA country, Seb, then working primarily as a helicopter engineer, invested in a 50-litre kit and started brewing commercially in 2015 at nearby Twizel.  These days Twizel acts as the pilot brewery, with Christchurch’s Three Boys and Beer Baroness providing the primary capacity. Even then it was a size zero distribution footprint, barely stretching across the district from Kimbell to Omarama.

So what about this beer?  If you are unfamiliar with Unforgiven Porter then you could be… well… forgiven.  This award went to the very first batch brewed. It was also keg only, with no packaged release.  Which means that unless you were one of the lucky few to find themselves near a row of Burkes taps, it’s unlikely the beer ever pinged on your radar.

To put that further into perspective, at the time of the awards Unforgiven had amassed an entire six check-ins on Untappd, which had risen to eight at the time of my visit.  Have no fear though, a post award’s re-brew was underway and a canned release will soon be circulating on the wider market thanks to a new distribution deal in the works with Hop and Vine.

Seb recalls conceiving the recipe for Unforgiven while staying in Queenstown, overlooking the lake during a dismally rainy afternoon in May. It was porter weather, and he knew what he wanted.  A straight porter, focusing on the core of the style rather than using it as a platform for anything outlandish.  It should have been a straightforward brew too, but this beer had other ideas, throwing an early stuck fermentation that still remains a mystery.  A re-pitch of yeast later and things were back underway, only for a problem to be discovered in the bright tank further down the line, leading to the entire batch being over-carbonated.  Each keg had to be carefully de-gassed before it was tapped in order to offset that extra carbonation.

At last, the beer was ready, and the original name ‘Unforgiv3n’ was decided.  Maybe it was deserved for this batch.  Although, Seb has a theory that between the two different yeast strains applied and the unusual carbonation dynamic, something may have coalesced to produce an X-factor that played a part in the beer’s success.  Having been able to taste a sample of the beer now myself, I tend to agree.  So I’ll keep you in suspense no longer, here is Unforgiven Porter, the best beer in New Zealand.

Burkes Brewing Unforgiven Porter

Pours black and heavily opaque for its lighter 5.9% ABV, with exceptionally tight and creamy coffee-tan head, which may well be a result of its time stored under higher carbonation.  The nose deftly touches all the porter notes of roasted malt, toffee, chocolate and coffee, with a distinct fresh cream aroma despite the absence of lactose.  The hops integrate perfectly, adding a spice and dried fruit character that holds the whole aroma beautifully aloft. The palate starts off rich with sweet roasted malt and stone fruit, before pivoting around almost completely into an arresting black coffee bitterness, with drying smoke and flinty minerality which wind together into the earthy finish.  Full bodied but effortlessly nimble, classic and yet mysterious.  Despite being ‘just’ a porter, Unforgiven takes that one brush and paints a masterpiece in black.