Monday, 30 August 2010

Beer and Loathing, 2010 edition

There was near universal dismay on Thursday when the 2010 BrewNZ awards turned into a benefit for the country's most despised misunderstood brewery - DB. But the results were, in a way, as unsurprising as the fallout. History was simply repeating itself after all -

There are two main reasons for DB's seemingly inexplicable triumph. One is the modus operandi of beer judging. Beers are judged according to the style that they are entered against and in a mainly negative fashion - i.e. they are marked down for faults, not up for positive attributes. So for a beer to do well it must fit rigidly to the guide for its style and have none of the technical faults that elude almost everyone except those trained to discern them. So many a fine beer, full of flavour and merit, falls foul of the judges for technical reasons.

But these constraints are well known, if frustrating, and to ignore them is to be out of step with the world of beer judging.

More dubious is the grouping of the 70 or so recognised styles into 17 categories for the purposes of distributing trophies and, presumably, finding the champion brewery.

Some people would be surprised to find New Zealand Draught (dark, minimally flavoured, sweet, caramel coloured lager) is not only a recognised style, but is worthy of a trophy in its own right. Meanwhile European style ales (including innumerable interesting and difficult to make styles) have to share a single trophy.

So DB's Tui is one of two New Zealand Draughts to get a silver medal - a disappointing result considering the style and the beer are almost one and the same - but gets a trophy to boot. While the European-style Ales category yielded four golds and umpteen silvers but just the one trophy.

A similar story emerges if you compare the category of low-cal, low-alc and gluten free beers with that of the diverse and competitive New Zealand, US and International Ale Styles. The net result was a trophy for Export 33.

It's like some weird kind of gerrymandering.

When Three Boys Brewery was announced to have come second in the race for Champion Brewery the cheering and applause were deafening. When DB was announced as overall winner there was muted applause, compensated for by "We Are The Champions" being piped through the PA. Really classy. But outside the Duxton's Ballroom people weren't so polite. I almost felt sorry for DB's dinner-suited boss who must have heard the railings of a prominent SOBA member two feet away at Hashigo Zake later that evening. (But any sympathy went out the door when I heard of DB's latest attempt at intimidation of SOBA over the Radler farce.)

The outstanding question remains why the Brewers Guild allocate trophies the way they do. Could it be a relic of these awards' history? They were instituted by the large breweries themselves under the guise of the Beer Wine and Spirits Council. Or is it some kind of appeasement? One insider commented that DB's success was down to Lion's failure to provide a foil by sharing the honours in these relatively craftless styles. If the intention was for the industrial brewers to cancel each other out and leave room for a plucky small player like Three Boys to come through then it was a tragic miscalculation.