Living less than an hour's drive from San Francisco International Airport, my old tennis-playing friends, Richard and Julia, have been good enough to put me up and shuttle me back and forth on several of my recent trips to the United States.
Last week, although I left Rotorua 22 hours earlier, the time-zone change meant I arrived at their delightful Los Gatos house before I left New Zealand. It still wasn't bedtime, so after a shower and change of clothes, I opted for a beer. Starting in the manner in which I intended to continue, my first beer on American soil was a hoppy, American-style India Pale Ale: Mission Street IPA.
I discovered the beer on my last trip to the US in May at Trader Joe's, a West Coast supermarket chain. Brewed by California's multi-award-winning Firestone Walker brewery and sold exclusively at Trader Joe's stores, the Mission Street range includes two delightful pale ales: a golden-coloured pale ale and the stronger, slightly darker and more bitter, India Pale Ale.
Unsurprisingly, these two have become my "go to" beers when I'm staying with Richard and Julia. Aromatic, soft and bursting with the familiar citrus, stonefruit and pine signature of American hops over a lightly caramelised malt base, both are fine examples of their respective styles. Better still, at the equivalent of NZ$8 for a six pack, they're a bargain.
If you're visiting California, do yourself a favour and check them out. If not, I'll wager it won't be long before we see similar specialty craft-brewed supermarket brands here in New Zealand.
Two days later - and after three sets of tennis with Richard and two of his super-fit Californian friends, during which I was well and truly thrashed - I was back at San Francisco airport for a flight to Denver and the real purpose of my trip, to judge at the Great American Beer Festival.
Previously, I'd only ever changed planes at Denver International Airport, the world's 10th busiest airport, but this time I was hoping to explore Colorado's famous capital city.
Set high in the Rockies, the "Mile-High City" has a population of about 620,000 and is the US's 23rd largest city.
More importantly from my point of view, it also has the highest per-capita beer production in the US and ranks second (only behind Portland, Oregon) in terms of the number of breweries. Denver is also is home to the country's largest and most respected beer festival and competition, the annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF).
First held in 1981, the festival runs for three days each autumn in the huge Colorado Convention Center in the city centre. This year's event showcased more than 2700 beers from 666 breweries, an all-time record. The competition dates from 1987, when there were 99 beers and seven judges.
My invitation to judge at this year's GABF came just a couple of months ago when the competition's organiser, the Colorado-based (American) Brewers Association, realised it was heading for a record number of entries.
In the end, 185 judges from 11 countries judged 4345 beers, making this year's GABF the world's largest beer competition.
With 84 styles to be judged in five sessions over 2 days, the competition requires organisation of military precision.
Fortunately, the brewers association can rely on an ever-growing army of enthusiastic volunteers, many of whom have been offering their time and making the trip to Denver for many years, and, as a result, the competition runs like a well-oiled machine.
Judges are allocated to tables of six or seven and are rotated so they work with different panels each morning and afternoon session.
My first day's judging comprised a morning of American-style amber lagers, followed by a flight of English-style summer ales. In the afternoon, I concentrated on Belgian-style abbey ales. Day two began with a flight of German-style Maerzen (March) lagers, followed by a series of American Imperial IPAs.
After such a challenging and hop-dominated style, it was a relief to break for lunch and then spend the entire afternoon judging more subtle Belgian-style witbiers (spiced wheat beers). In the final morning session, my table judged a selection of smoke-flavoured beers, followed by a flight of classic English-style pale ales.
The next morning, at 10.30, the brewers gathered in the Wells Fargo Theatre in the Colorado Convention Center for the awards ceremony. With seating for 5000 people, the theatre is huge and I was amazed to see it was at least three-quarters full by the time the presentations began.
In addition to announcing the individual class winners, the GABF awards trophies to the champion large, mid-sized and small brewery, champion large and small brewpub and champion brewpub group.
Since the competition is designed exclusively for American brewers I won't dwell on the results, but if you're interested, these can be found at greatamericanbeerfestival.com.
Having judged at several New Zealand competitions and now at the GABF, I'm delighted to conclude that, although Kiwi brewers don't yet produce anywhere near the same range of styles as their American counterparts, in my view, the overall standard of entries in both countries is remarkably close.
With the Americans recognised leaders in craft brewing, that's great news for the future of brewing in New Zealand.
- The Marlborough Express