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.


  1. Thanks for not naming names! ;) That said, my somewhat lengthy rant was quite a good catharsis allowing me to think about the issue. I had a bit of a post-match analysis myself here.

  2. It has been pointed out elsewhere that the champion brewer award was allocated according to average scores across a brewery's top entrants, negating the theory that the trophy count was to blame. So we're left with just the first hypothesis that this is simply the way beer competitions work. I'm still at a loss to understand why the industrial breweries do so well in NZ competitions compared to overseas ones.

  3. I agree that the categories need to be revamped significantly (NZ Draught, and styles within the other NZ lager category, should be within the International Lagers category). There also needs to be some stability in these categories and, possibly, some rules around not awarding trophies when less the X number of beers are entered into any category. If we won a bronze and were the only beer entered in a category, I'd think it ridiculous that we won a trophy. I'm going to make a proposal to the Brewer's Guild that a sub-committee is formed to revamp these things.

    However... you are right in your comment and wrong in your original text Dominic, the champion brewery is on medals alone and has nothing to do with trophies. You could quite easily win champion brewery without picking up a single category trophy. And you could actually argue that the two big breweries make things harder for themselves by entering their beers into such strict styles, styles so bland that the slightest defect is easy to pick up. It also goes to show how good Tuatara and Emerson's were in the last two years... "faults" aren't the only things that beers are marked down for.

    We entered 4 beers, won two medals. None of them have a single "fault" that I or anyone else has picked up (unless people aren't saying). I'd be surprised if any judges come back with much in the way of technical defects. I can only presume, until the judging papers come in, that they were marked down for being a little out of style, a little (or a lot) unbalanced, or because the judges may not have as much of an understanding of NZ hops as we do. Considering we won a gold and a bronze last year, and were heralded as pretty big winners, I am quite chuffed with how we did again this year. Fault free is one thing, getting medals is quite something else. Before the awards we ran an instore tasting from 4-6pm at Regionals - we probably sold about 6 bottles of Motueka Monster for every 1 bottle of Yakima Monster. I prefer the Mot, and I think 60-70% of opinions I've heard would agree, yet the latter was the award winner (and I always predicted it would go that way because it has the characteristis most people, especially judges, expect in an IPA). What is great for your bar, and my glass, doesn't always equate to what is great for the judging table. The best beers are a little ahead of their time, or just a little unique.

    For me, these awards are:
    - a great chance to promote beer in general in NZ (from the sublime to the ridiculous - and the scientifically perfect execution of bland!)
    - the best way to get blind, unbiased feedback on your beer (which is, essentially, feedback on your understanding of sensory analysis and beer styles)
    - a chance to get yourself a little free promotion (if you're extremely lucky!)

    I really do think we need to focus on the positive here. I know the history of these awards pretty well and at the awards I saw 4 long-awaited trophies for some of my favourite people in NZ beer (Three Boys x 2, Twited Hop and Croucher) and 1 fantastic new one (8 Wired)... If someone had asked me at the start of the night if I'd be happy for DB to win champion brewery, if those other results would come through, I would have said "Hell yes!". I also heard the loudest cheers in the room for a few minor medals for Sprig and Fern. Tracy Banner is a woman who knows more than most how hard it is to win any medal, let alone a trophy, when you are just into making interesting, drinkable beer.

    DB winning doesn't bother me at all... but as for the overly lengthy speeches: YAWN.... less of that next year please.

    Slainte mhath

  4. If I had longer to write I would have added a complaint as long as Carter's speech. His off the cuff comments reflected exactly the kind of mentality that the festival is there to correct. Then he proceeded to recite a long, dull speech that well.. oh dear... I'll finish this rant over a beer some time. But he contributed a big part to the frustration that people expressed later.

  5. Just throwing in a few extra points of view

    - Trophies need to be awarded as they have been sold for sponsorship dollars, we need these dollars to fund the event. No trophy no dollars no event

    - rules need to be clarified for Champion Brewery (not 4 breweries as is the case for DB)

    - categories with less than a certain number of entries (8?) such as Low Alc. Gluten free should be consolidated into another category. And large classes such as Pale Ale should be broken out to another category

    - local brewers probably do better as the beer is fresher and doesn't have so far to travel, plus some will be in keg, so even less oxidation

    - the reverse of the DB 4 brewery argument is what if Steam got credit for Epic & Croucher or Invercargill for Yeastie Boys for Champion Brewery?

    - styles are a guideline for the judges, and that should be stressed to the judges and I know when I have judged we will put forward fantastic beers based on that, which are slightly not in style. As a judge being presented with a beer blind and you need some guidance. If a beer is unintentionally soured from spoilage then should that be medaled?

    - at the end of the day we are humans, we are the variables, this is a subjective process and not a perfect science. Beers perform differently from year to year, partly because of the line up judged. Ever notice how one beer you have can be different the next time because of the beer you had before it. Also each year the beers change, the judges change, the order judged change and the results change.


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  7. Some good points there Luke - I agree with them all.

    We actually entered our beers in 2009 under Invercargill Brewery so that Steve could have a good run at champion brewery AND to get the discount on 5+ entries (or however many it was). I heard through the grapevine, which is about the only way you ever hear anything, that our beers would not be counted for Invercargill's total. I found this riduculous for several reasons - (a) there were no written rules about this; (b) they were actually all brewed on the same plant and we clearly acknowledge that, and (c) nobody ever asked to see if Invercargill had a shareholding in Yeastie Boys or vice versa.

    Clarification of all rules and processes, up front, is the key to making things more credible.

    Good debate.

    Slainte mhath