The New World Beer and Cider Awards are serious business in the industry – so why not send along a beer rookie to see what it’s all about?
“Burnt butter.” “A sort of minerality.” “Quite a firm, long, furry kind of bitterness.” “Grapefruity.” These are some of the ways head judge Michael Donaldson describes the beers we get handed – an XPA, a hazy pale ale, and an orange peel and rosehip number.
Meanwhile, I’m reduced to this ungainly comparison: “Like drinking a forest full of lemons.” He kindly says that it’s a good description. It’s Donaldson’s warmth and geniality that sticks with me when I finish up my time at the judging of the New World Beer and Cider Awards.
To be honest, I approached the judging with more than a little bit of apprehension.
My alcohol of choice is generally “anything but beer, although I can usually stomach a Garage Project or two if the mood or lack of wine calls for it. I’ve always found beer to have a bitterness and a savoury quality that makes me feel like I’m drinking a meal rather than a beverage. There are also the stereotypes around beer that make me blanch a little – the image of a group of lads waving around a plastic jug full of lightly fizzed golden liquid, or worse, the image of a bunch of corduroy-clad suburban Dads drinking beer for what’s on the can rather than what’s in it.
The media code of conduct that I’m sent a few days beforehand does not dissolve my apprehension at all:
“Please remember that this is a tasting event and the judges’ sense of taste and smell are important. Consequently all media are asked to avoid:
- wearing perfume or aftershave
- eating garlic, chilli etc the night before as they can give off a scent through skin pores
- bringing coffee or food into the judging room.”
The implications are clear: This is serious business.
When I get to the judging, held in a conference room at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium, I find myself in the wrong room. Instead of the holding area, I’ve walked straight into the judging itself. Eight tables are laid out in front of me, four people at each, hunched over paper, while beer is held aloft by contraptions in front of them. There is murmuring, but aside from the occasional bell, it’s a quiet affair.
Before long, I’m ushered into the proper holding area and have a sit down with Donaldson, the head judge of the awards and a long-standing journalist and beer writer. When you think of people who judge food and wine, you’re more likely to come up with an image of the food critic from Ratatouille, or maybe Simon Wilson. Michael Donaldson is neither of these – he’s about as warm a human as you could meet, and when he talks about beer, it’s his enthusiasm that strikes you first, rather than his immense knowledge.
“The judging is about striking a balance between drinkability and flavour,” he says. “It’s basically how much of this you want to drink. Would you have one pint of it and be done or does it wear you out? The other important things are the aroma, the flavour and the mouthfeel.”
“We had one table, they had an IPA that was insanely… bitter, was the best description of it. One of the judges said it was brutal, but it was exceptionally well made. But while it’s really well made and there are no faults with it, it’s too much of a front-on assault and your palate couldn’t handle more than a pint of it.”
Donaldson talks about the technicalities of brewing beer in the most approachable way I’ve heard an expert speak. Despite this being a very serious business, with more than 600 beers judged over two days (and that’s not even including the cider), it’s not one with lofty ideals.
Even when he’s discussing a beer that hasn’t quite made the cut, he’s gentle. If I was a brewer being judged by Donaldson, I would feel like I was being held gently, like a one-winged sparrow, and guided safely back home to make my next beer.
Halfway through our chat, a bell rings. “That’s a gold medal,” Donaldson brightly chirps. It’s a wholesome, lovely sound. It’s the opposite of any other kind of judging I’ve been involved in, which can often be about tearing something down rather than lifting something up. Everybody’s in that room because they know beer and they love beer.
When I’m given a beer, I’m told to swirl it to re-establish the head. I manage to be enough of an adult to not snicker at the phrase ‘head retention’, and I swirl my beer around, and the foam magically reforms on the top. After swallowing back a childish giggle, I swirl my beer around like a wine, and the foam magically reforms.
By the time I’m done with the three beers – you actually have to swallow the beer, part of the judging revolves around how long it stays – I feel like an expert myself. “It tastes nice, it has a real smooth feel, and has almost no harsh length on it.”
“It’s almost like rosé!”, I exclaim homosexually. Probably not quite there, but Donaldson remains enthusiastic and kind regardless.
After this, I’m moved backstage – or at the very least on the other side of a partition – to where all the organisation for the judging happens. It’s a mammoth task, and Rachel Touhey is the woman who makes it all happen.
Even the act of getting the beverages to the venue is a task in itself. “There’s 11 pallets all up – beer and glasses – and they all get trucked in. We’re standing in a cold fridge for two days opening every single box and checking every single product to make sure that it’s what you’re expecting.”
Past that, the process feels closer to spycraft than anything. Two stewards are assigned to each table, and it’s the job of the stewards to keep track of who is drinking what at their table, in what order, and at what time. Hell, it’s even their job to carry out the serving instructions – to rouse the sediment, serve the beer at the right temperature, and so on.
It’s an organisation game, one that Touhey has all covered. Judges might actually have a beer in competition, and they’re not allowed to taste their own product. Even though the tasting is blind, there’s no way a brewer isn’t going to recognise their own beer. To help with this, beers are identified with three digit codes – they don’t even have letters, just in case someone assumes the letter A is inherently better than the letter F.
Judges tend to be brewers and other liquor experts, but then there are the associate judges, who are often liquor sellers. It’s also an opportunity for trainee brewers to get in and hustle. Next year, there’s going to be a scholarship for people studying a level four brewing course at Otago Polytechnic to be an associate judge.
In the judging, associates do everything that the judges do but their scores don’t actually count. While they have input – the murmuring I heard earlier at the tables was actually vigorous conversation about the beer currently being tasted – their main job is to write up notes at the end. As anybody who has ever had to transcribe a conversation knows, stream of consciousness feedback is rarely ever helpful, so the associate cleans up these notes for delivery to the brewers.
When I walk away from the awards at the end, clutching a paper bag of the beer I liked most during my tasting (sadly embargoed, apologies), it’s this peer-review aspect that sticks with me. In other industries, a judging can be a way to tear down and to stratify the form. In the beer industry, there’s a sense of camaraderie to it – it’s people doing what they love, wanting to elevate the best of the best, and coming together into one room to do it. There’s nothing pretentious or lofty about it.
(Other than the fact that you drink it out of wine glasses, of course.)
Judging aside, competition aside, what happens at the end of any beer’s journey is with the drinker.
The Beer and Cider Awards are all about demystifying that, and with all the talk of oxidisation, of hops, of mouthfeels, what matters is that at some point someone like me can go along, panicked and having no idea what beer to buy for the lads, see a gold medal on a product and buy it, knowing that I’ll have impressed them with my knowledge of beer – or at least my ability to recognise a gold medal.