When you call a beer Klassenbester — or best in class — it helps if it really is. And that’s the case with Otago Brew School’s Klassenbester Dunkelweizen, which claimed a Top 30 spot in the New World Beer & Cider Awards.

How can a brew school even get in the awards, you ask? Well, it turns out the school does sell its beer — mostly on-site at the Otago Polytech’s Cromwell campus and in a few pubs around Cromwell, Queenstown and Dunedin.

The Otago Brew School was set up five years ago and the man charged with enlightening would-be brewers is industry veteran Geoff Collie.

Collie spent decades at Lion — starting in the 1980s. Like many, his life got turned upside down by the Christchurch earthquakes, with Lion’s brewery in the Garden City left in ruins and eventually closed.

He stayed with the company in other roles, helping with the refurbishment of Speight’s and the set-up at the new Emerson’s brewery. He took redundancy and then did contract work on the installation of the brewery at the Lion-owned The Fermentist (now owned by Two Thumb).

Then he saw a job advertised to run the training course at Otago Polytech’s newly-created Otago Brew School in Cromwell.

“I thought that might be a nice way to finish my career. I don’t have any teaching background and the first year or two was quite hard, but it’s worked out well. It’s very satisfying.”

Collie has seen a string of brewers, old and young, come through the course in the five years he’s been there.

“About 30 percent go on to get jobs in the industry, but a lot of people who do the course aren’t looking for jobs, they’re just doing it out of interest. And a few have gone on to set up their own businesses.”

Otago Brew School

Collie says he’s kept a list of where his students have ended up and it reads like a who’s who of the New Zealand brewing industry: “Two at Emerson’s, one at Speight’s, two at Cassels, Canyon, Deep Creek, Three Boys, Waitoa, DB Otahuhu, Eddyline, Wanaka Beerworks … and one has just started at a brewery in Melbourne.”

When the school was set up, Otago Polytech always had ambitions of selling beer as well as teaching students how to brew but it wasn’t easy in the early days. The commercial arm was initially called Rough Rock and they were planning to call one beer Schist Lager. “We know what would have happened with that,” Collie says with a laugh.

There was no marketing, no sales team and the start was hesitant.

Eventually, Rough Rock got the chop as a brand and the labels were changed to Otago Brew School. “It was decided to just call it what it is. It may not be the best name in the world, but it describes who we are.”

The bulk of the packaged beer is sold on campus and kegs can be found at the Bannockburn Hotel, The Stoaker Room in Cromwell, the Waipiata Hotel, and — thanks to Collie’s contacts — there are a few Lion-affiliated pubs that pour his beer as well as places like Atlas, in Queenstown.

All the students learn to brew on individual Grainfather kits and the “big” brewery comprises two 250-litre kettles but with 1000 litres of tank space.

Collie said he started entering beers into competitions for feedback and at last year’s NZ Beer Awards he came up with some bronze and silver medals so he decided to enter five in the New World Beer & Cider Awards, getting a Top 30 for their Klassenbester and a Highly Commended for their Hidden Number Pale Ale. A number of other beers scored highly, including a very good Scotch Ale, proving the school can walk the walk.

It’s part of Collie’s teaching practice to stick to classic styles, for a couple of reasons. For one, he says, there are enough people doing “weird and wonderful” beers and the other is that classical styles tend to have set parameters students can aim for in terms of colour, ABV, final gravity, and established flavour profiles.

And Klassenbester hits all the marks for a dark hefeweizen, the judges summing it up: “Tastes like banana cake with a toffee sauce.”