Sadly, home-brewed beer tends to have a dubious reputation in New Zealand. While it would be fair to say I've tasted more than my fair share of dodgy homebrews over the years, some of the best beers I've ever tasted have been brewed in someone's garage and certainly don't deserve to be tarred with the same brush.
Having judged many homebrew competitions, both locally and nationally, I've become convinced there are two types of people who brew at home; those who wish to make beer as cheaply as possible and those who revel in the art and science of the brewing process and whose main aim is to create something better or in a different style than what's commercially available. Thankfully, it's that second group who tend to enter their beers into the National Homebrew Competition.
Run annually by the Society of Beer Advocates (Soba), this year's NHC attracted 381 entries and was judged in Hamilton last weekend. On Saturday morning I joined a 12-strong panel of judges supported by a similar number of volunteer stewards in the bar of the Ruakura Campus Club, one of Hamilton's longest established craft beer outlets.
In order to assess such a large number of beers in just two days the judges were divided into four teams of three, working at separate tables. Respected brewers Graeme Mahy, Kelly Ryan and Kieran Haslett-Moore headed three of the tables while I shared a table with Dave Kurth, senior brewer at the West Coast Brewery in Westport, and Kate Jordan, an Auckland beer writer. Kate is also the editor of Soba's quarterly magazine The Pursuit of Hoppiness.
With the tagline "beer for all the right reasons" Soba was formed to promote the appreciation of high-quality beer in New Zealand and the annual National Homebrew Competition is one tool it uses to advance that aim. Fortunately, most of the beers we judged last weekend were of a high standard. While there were poor beers - the usual sanitation, fermentation and age-related faults did pop up from time to time - most entries were well brewed and presented in good condition.
It's a pity then, that when I was interviewed prior to this year's competition on Radio New Zealand National, the first question was negative: "Part of you, I guess, must dread the thought [of judging], because there will be some [beers], presumably, that won't be very good?" Having accepted there would be a few poor beers, I'd assured presenter Geoff Robinson "generally the standard is extremely high". Happily that certainly was the case this year.
If there was one general criticism it would be a lack of balance. With many brewers looking to accentuate interesting and unusual flavours in their beers, some overlooked the necessary malt backbone and mouthfeel required to balance them and give them drinkability. Mind you, it's not just home brewers who're guilty of producing unbalanced beers - it's a common fault in commercially brewed craft beers too!
This year's competition attracted an enormously diverse range. Out of 72 categories, "specialty beers" - ie beers made with unusual ingredients or brewing techniques - was the largest category (26 entries). The standard must have been especially good in that category because my table judged half of them and awarded two gold medals, three silvers and four bronzes.
I recall being particularly impressed by a Manuka-smoked snapper porter - a delightful brew with smoked fish flavours delightfully balanced by the caramelised and roasted malts - and a black, tarry, uncarbonated and hugely alcoholic barrel-aged concoction, which skilfully blended notes of vintage port and brandy.
Looking at the big winners, congratulations go to Brendan Bransgrove, of Dunedin, whose nine medal-winning beers won him the title of Champion Brewer, while Wellington's Richard Deeble took the Champion Beer award for his New Zealand pale ale. Along with bragging rights, Brendan will receive a 30-litre stainless steel fermenter from Farra Engineering, while Richard will have a batch of his pale ale brewed commercially at Auckland's Hallertau Brewbar.
Congratulations to all the winners.
Full results of this year's competition can be found at nhc.soba.org.nz/results.
- The Marlborough Express