NZ's best beer is... a real surprise

McLeod's head brewer Jason Bathgate, right, and assistant Milton Mewett celebrate their Paradise Pale Ale being named New Zealand's best beer by members of Soba.
McLeod's head brewer Jason Bathgate, right, and assistant Milton Mewett celebrate their Paradise Pale Ale being named New Zealand's best beer by members of Soba.

There's a sea change sweeping the New Zealand beer industry – well that's my take on what can only be described as a shock result in voting for New Zealand's best beer. 

Each year members of Soba – the Society of Beer Advocates – vote on a raft of things from best brewery and beer through to best restaurants, bars and off-licences in different regions. Full results can be found here.

These are the aficionados of Kiwi beer, so there's no surprise Garage Project was named the country's best brewery for the fourth year running. But what slapped me sideways was the Beer of the Year Award for 2017 going to McLeod's Paradise Pale Ale, which tipped out two-time reigning champion, Panhead Supercharger. 

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Don't get me wrong – Paradise Pale Ale is a super-delish tropical fruit bomb that typifies modern New Zealand pale ales – I just didn't think enough people had heard of it, let alone drunk it, to push it in front of Supercharger. Soba members, when they vote, don't get a menu of possible contenders as in some other public awards – or general elections for that matter – they have a blank space to fill with their vote. And it can be damn hard to think of what to put in that empty space. 

Even McLeod's brewer Jason Bathgate admitted surprise at the award.  

"I didn't even know that many people knew about us," he said in a blog after the award. "I am dumbfounded. All the sleepless nights I have had and the stress around wondering if people really like our beers… well this one feels good, really good." 

So, for a beer made by a small brewery in Northland to trump the well-known and well-loved Supercharger and other great beers… well there must be something going on, right? 

What's going on is that beer's sleeping giant – Auckland – is waking up and smelling the hops. McLeod's is based two hours' north of Auckland but the place simply heaves on the weekends and over the summer months. Auckland is also the major market for McLeod's as Bathgate is stickler for quality control and demands his beer is shipped and stored in a refrigerated state which means it's harder to get it the further afield you are from Auckland. 

It seems then, that not only is Auckland threatening Wellington's place as the dominant beer market – the consumers in the big city are also turning into connoisseurs. If it was just a numbers game then I'd expect a beer from Liberty Brewing, 8 Wired, Sawmill or Epic to be the top dog. 

Turns out Auckland beer fans actually know their stuff and can no longer be broadly classified as green-bottle lager drinkers who clog the Viaduct on Friday nights – and if they are at the Viaduct they're probably in the new Panhead bar these days. 

In the case of Paradise Pale Ale the fans are spot on. It's a ripper of a beer which tickles your senses with juicy hints of papaya, passionfruit and melon plus an underlying dank, herbal aroma. The malt is light and just biscuit-sweet enough to carry the hoppiness. The alcohol is a well-measured 5.5 per cent and the lingering bitterness kicks hard enough to beat the perceived sweetness in the taste bud tug of war.

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