It was the year of the Saisons at the New Zealand Beer Awards announced in June, with three widely varying interpretations of the Belgian farmhouse style taking trophies. Our analyst Tim Newman casts his eye over the awards to document the trends and stars.
While international lager might feature some of the more “ordinary” beers, it’s always a fascinating category to watch. Due to the relative uniformity of the entries, trends in both brewing and judging can often be laid bare in the results. Historically the domain of the big brewers like DB and Lion, with by-the-crate budget lagers often performing well alongside bespoke craft offerings. That dominance has been weakening over recent years, however, and this time the big guys continued to slip in the medals, falling out of gold entirely and only marginally represented in silver. Three Boys took the trophy here for their lager, adding it to the vast pile of awards that would subsequently net the Champion exhibitor.
Ever a troublesome category, NZ Styles was originally incepted as something of a catch-all for beers that found themselves outside the boundaries of stricter styles. As a result, we see scenarios like Lion’s Rheineck (one of the most budget lagers on the market) competing alongside Panhead’s Vandal Double NZ IPA (both of which achieved gold this year, incidentally). The cause of what’s driving so many entries away from their style categories to compete in this intensifying jumble of a bracket is something I’ll be looking into as the year proceeds. Baylands Brewery took the trophy with Slope Shredder, an IPA that balances classic NZ hops Nelson Sauvin and Wai-iti with newcomer Nectaron.
A small field here as always, but a shockingly well-awarded one. A medal of one sort or another was awarded to all but four of the 19 entries, showing that the few brewers who continue to produce these niche beers do so with a particular passion and mastery. Sawmill took the solitary gold, and the trophy along with it, with The Doctor dark lager. One of Sawmill’s very first releases, and a craft classic amongst the dark styles. A big and rich lager with a flavour precisely balanced between the expressive dark malts, subtle berry, and black forest hop notes with freshly baked yeastiness.
British Ale finally grew as a category this year, by a whole two entries… so it might be more accurate to say that it finally hit the bottom and stopped shrinking. As the New Zealand taste for craft has shifted towards paler and more hop-driven beer year on year, the once bustling British styles have dwindled almost out of existence. However, just like the Amber/Dark Lager category before it, British styles have a sound hit rate in the medals, with one of the best entry-to-medal ratios in the competition. Emerson’s won again this year, with a beer even more historic than last year’s Bookbinder. The precursor to Old 95 was first brewed (albeit in a prototype form) almost 30 years ago (1993) before finally taking on its final form in the year that became the permanent moniker 1995.
European Ale is proving to be a fascinating category to watch develop. Though shrinking precipitously for the past few years, the number of gold medals awarded hasn’t just held on, it’s grown. My theory is that after the sour craze launched so many of these beers into the mainstream, the number of brewers who have stuck with these often finicky and labour-intensive beers has steadily declined. But those who genuinely embraced the style have continued to advance the quality of their output. Garage Project didn’t just embrace sour beers, they built a whole new brewery (Wild Workshop) just to develop them. For a second year running, they won not just the same trophy, but they did it with the same beer. Two blends of Chance Luck & Magic were entered, with the 2021 and 2020 blends achieving gold and the 2020 claiming the trophy. Though blended and bottled in 2020, it features beers going back to 2017. A short description of this incredible beer isn’t nearly enough to do it justice, so find my full review here…
Another minnow of a category, and another that seems destined to become ever smaller as the dominion of all things pale/hazy continues to grow. Not too much moving and/or shaking here this year, though the bracket did yield singular gold over the previous competition’s nothing. With that medal came the trophy for Altitude Brewing, one of an incredible double this year for the small Queenstown producer. Snow Dance is an India Brown Ale, a style that saw a brief resurgence many years back when 8 Wired resurrected the style with the classic Rewired brown ale. Since then, brown ales of any kind have had a woeful time maintaining any kind of a foothold, so I’m glad to see this one grab the spotlight.
International Pale Ale
Still bearing the brunt of the upheaval caused by hazies being split into their own category, International Pale continued to dwindle this year to its lowest number of entries in modern record. Whether or not it’s hit bottom yet will depend on if the seemingly insatiable thrust for hazy beers continues to increase or at last begins to ease over the course of next year. The winner, out of two golds, was McLeod’s Paradise Pale Ale. Though a consistent medal winner at the awards, this is the first year that the cards have fallen just right for the flagship beer of the Far North brewery. Brewed to the same spec since 2017, and now with a trophy in hand, Paradise can surely take its place as a classic craft beer of New Zealand.
India Pale Ale
Alongside Pale Ale, IPA is still standing firmly in the colossal shadow of Juicy/Hazy. Entries did pick up significantly from last year, however, so there may be signs of the dragon beginning to stir once again. There was a conspicuous presence of classic IPAs amongst the gold medals, with Emerson’s Bird Dog and Garage Project Pernicious Weed also featuring alongside the winning Citra from Liberty Brewing. Citra, in my mind, is a beer with the most stunning debuts in history. The very first time I tasted it, it tingled taste buds that had never been rocked in quite the same way. Years later and the indomitable double IPA clearly hasn’t broken its stride. It remains a stunning example of what its namesake hop can do in a strong IPA.
This was the year I theorised we might see hazies peak, and duly begin to subside. This did not come to pass, not by the time of the awards at least. There was however a significant slowing in the explosive expansion of the style, gaining only six more entries this year than last. Another big shift was the medal coefficient, which more than doubled. Speaking to some of the panels at the judging, the general feeling was that now, a few years into the hazy boom, more brewers were gaining confidence with the style and producing increasingly better examples. The aptly named Haze of Glory from Good George is quite simply one of the most complete hazies I’ve tasted. It’s fresh and juicy as one would expect, but that isn’t the beginning and end of its character like so many other examples of the style. There’s a structure and focus present that belies a supreme understanding of the hazy style brought to bear.
Stout & Porter
Despite dropping a handful of entries, the medal count was up significantly this year over last for Stout & Porter. Dry or Irish stouts seemed to be the big movers, with three of the five gold medals going to an interpretation of that style. The trophy however went to something a bit stronger, with Altitude securing their incredible double with Starlight Highway export stout. Originally brewed as a one-off exploration of the stout style, and entered on a whim, the trophy came as a surprise. The Altitude team wasted no time getting the rebrew underway once the trophy landed, however, so Starlight should already be in package and on the shelves by the time this issue runs.
Wheat & Other Grain
Second equal for the least-loved category this year (tied with Amber/Dark Ale). It’s not that beers aren’t being brewed with these alternative grains, it’s that they are typically flavoured or otherwise brewed in a way that draws them into other categories. Leaving the vanishingly few straight examples. Far from empty was the trophy-winning Hefe Metal from Badass Beverages, a new producer with only a handful of beers ever released. Badass recipe developer (and former metal band singer) Alex originally hails from Germany, and clearly carries a passion and expertise for the traditional Deutsche styles.
Fruit & Flavoured
After a relatively dismal previous performance, Fruit & Flavoured climbed from two golds to nine and took a slew of extra silver along with them this year. Scrutinising the winners, this change in fortune can likely be attributed to a shift away from flavoured IPA and sours towards saisons and stouts, with those styles clearly being a better vehicle for distinctive flavour adjuncts. Kainui Brew Co claimed the trophy this year with Rose Saison, which has a portion of Syrah grapes added post-fermentation. Interestingly, the same beer only achieved a bronze just nine months ago at the previous awards. A cautionary tale of just how much the judging can swing table to table.
Specialty & Experimental
A smaller but much more cogent category this year now that No & Reduced Alcohol has finally been split into its own arena, sparing us last year’s scenario where Speights Mid Ale was competing with (and beating, somehow) beers like 8 Wired iStout and Yuzu Pernicious Weed. Perhaps consequent to that sorely needed change, Specialty & Experimental underwent a profound reversal of fate this year, going from a single gold to an astonishing 11, the highest of any category. Tiny Nelson brewer Brood Fermentation battled their way through that golden gamut with their Feijoa & Rye Saison. A true hybrid beer that blends rye with feijoa cider, and one of the best saisons I’ve tasted. Ever.
No & Reduced Alcohol
In a move as stunningly obvious as it was overdue, light and alcohol-free beers were this year finally given their own category. As much as it’s been the view around the Hoppiness team that this was the year that brewers finally cracked the zero alcohol beer conundrum, the judges clearly did not share that opinion. Not a single entry was considered worthy of gold, leaving the trophy to be dredged out of the silvers. Consolation prize or not, the winner was Behemoth with the 2.5% Low Hanging Fruit: Blood orange and passionfruit edition. An immensely confident display of what makes a light beer work, leveraging the best aspects of fruit and sour to bolster its minimal malt backbone.
Barrel & Wood Aged
Usually well-awarded due to the volume of work and passion that typically goes into these beers, Barrel & Wood Aged had an unusually rough go of it this year. The one ray of gold shining through the clouds fell on Lumberjack Brewing’s From The Woods Saison, one of — remarkably — three different saisons to win a trophy this year.