Earlier this month I was in San Diego with Kiwi brewer Graeme Mahy to judge at the 2012 World Beer Cup.
The competition, which runs biennially, is the world's largest beer contest. The statistics are staggering: this year, 809 breweries from 54 nations submitted 3921 beers for judging, an increase of almost 18 per cent on the 2010 competition.
Organised by the Colorado-based Brewers Association, the competition is judged in just two days, a timescale that calls for planning and organisation of military precision. An army of 250 volunteer stewards has the unenviable task of getting almost 4000 beers stored at the optimum temperature, then poured and delivered to the judges at the appropriate time.
This year's judging panel consisted of 218 judges from 29 countries, with seven of us coming from New Zealand. As the rules explain: "Judges are assigned by the competition manager to judge beers in their specific area of expertise and do not judge in every category. Judges will seldom taste more than 30 beers in any one judging session and judges never evaluate their own product or any product in which they have a concern (a consultant cannot judge the beer of a client). Judging is blind, with no brand knowledge of any kind provided to judges. Beer entries are judged solely on their merits."
Judges work in teams of seven per table and the teams are changed every morning and afternoon. During the two days Graeme and I never judged together; hardly surprising given I had elected to judge mostly British styles, while Graeme had opted for Belgian and American styles. After two days of judging – starting each morning at 9am and finishing after 5pm – our work was complete. At a guess, each judge assessed about 170 beers.
As in previous years, I met some fascinating people. With two thirds of the judges coming from outside the US, I found myself rubbing shoulders with brewers from Germany, Japan, Brazil, Italy, Australia and Britain. A notable high spot was judging English-style India pale ales alongside Charlie Papazian, the president of the American Brewers Association and founder of the World Beer Cup. I also spent one morning judging English-style summer ales with my old friend Colin Paige, the former head brewer of Mac's, who runs the Archipelago brewery in Singapore.
As always the WBC culminated in a gala awards dinner. This year, award-winning chef Adam Dulye from The Monk's Kettle restaurant in San Francisco had prepared a five-course menu matching each dish with an award-winning beer from a previous World Beer Cup. With more than 2000 diners gathered in the Town & Country's Grand Hall, it was a remarkable exercise in mass catering.
After the meal, the announcement of the awards, began. World Beer Cup entries compete for just one bronze, silver and gold medal in each of the 95 or so style categories. It's a system that has seen the event often referred to as "the Olympics of beer competitions".
For the next couple of hours giant television screens flashed up the results as 284 awards were handed out to breweries from 21 countries. Sadly New Zealand's sole entrants, Lion Breweries and 8 Wired Brewing, weren't among the winners. Mind you, that's hardly surprising given brewing powerhouses such as Britain and Belgium only won a handful of medals each, and California alone ended up winning more medals than the whole of Germany. It's also worth remembering that the US is now home to more than 2000 breweries, more than any other country worldwide.
I don't have space to list the winning beers here (the results are easily found online), but I was particularly pleased when Firestone Walker, one of the Californian breweries I visited in 2010, took the trophy for Champion Mid Size Brewery and Brewmaster. It's the fourth time the Paso Robles brewery and brewmaster Matt Brynildson have won the award since 2004 – an astonishing record.
I was also rapt when Darron Welch of the Pelican Pub & Brewery in Pacific City, Oregon, won the trophy for Champion Large Brewpub and Brewmaster.
Darron hosted us earlier in our trip, and having now become familiar with his wonderful beers I know it is a very well-deserved win.
Next week I'll be reviewing the results of the world's second largest beer competition, the Australian International Beer Awards. A dozen New Zealand brewers entered this year's competition, which saw 1344 entries from 258 breweries representing 41 countries. Overall, the Kiwi beers fared well, picking up two best-in-class trophies and about 60 medals.
- The Marlborough Express