Last weekend a team of 25 judges, nine stewards and ten back-of-house volunteers blind-tasted nearly 1000 beers and ciders. Some will be awarded medals, and the brewer who scores best becomes the Champion. Beertown.NZ attended as a guest of the organisers, the Brewers Guild.
The judges hold their glasses to the light, take a sniff and have another look. Then sniff again, a taste and make some notes. Another taste, more notes. The table captain breaks the silence: “Is this a gold?” Some quiet discussion, an agreed rating, the steward clears the empties and serves the next entry while the trainee judge gathers the tasters’ notes. Repeat 922 times.
Christchurch’s Wigram Base was an Air Force officers’ mess in a past life. Now, for three days each year, it is Beer GHQ. This year 25 beer judges rated 922 beers and ciders in the Brewers Guild New Zealand Beer Awards, the country’s biggest and most-respected beer competition.
This year is the tenth time the competition has run, and competition manager Craig Bowen has worked on nine of the ten events. 2016 is the biggest competition yet – each year seems to attract about 100 more than the previous year. “When we started it was around 120 and we still used to spread judging out over three days!” Craig says.
The entries have been stored cold, catalogued, and labelled in the week before judging. They arrive at Wigram sorted into two containers, in all formats from 50L kegs to 330mL bottles.
The keg room is the first stop. Here it’s heavy lifting, clanging and wet floors. Keg room manager Ned Bartlett says his team’s primary goal is to present the beer at its best. “We make sure every beer is treated as best as we possibly can, but more importantly, every beer is treated the same as every other beer. So when a brewery asks for a certain serving temperature we have to plan for that. Say it’s a 12⁰C barley wine, we’ll pour that an hour early so it can acclimatise.”
Wigram Base is a good location, Ned says, because the keg room is away from the judging room. “At a previous site it was all in one room, separated by a curtain, whereas here we can talk to each other and can refer to the beer by its name or label. Having that bit of privacy is nice, because we can talk about the beer as we serve it. Having said that, there’s a huge focus on secrecy and keeping shtum and respecting the role we have to do. Nothing can go on social media.”
Next stop is Wigram’s ballroom with its high Art Deco ceiling and polished parquet floor. Today there’s a buzzy hum in the room. Long tables are covered with hundreds of clean XL5 wine tasting glasses. Stewards are carefully pouring five identical serves of each beer.
Each steward is responsible for one table of five judges. While the judges are tasting, the steward is preparing the next few entries. Some will be decanted from jugs, but three quarters of the entries are bottled.
The nine stewards are all fourth-year students from Massey University’s food technology course. All have volunteered half a week at the busy end of their degree. Massey University volunteers have taken on stewarding duties for seven years in the Awards’ ten-year history. “We’re not brewers so we offer impartial stewarding,” says team spokeswoman Heather McClean. “They have to be confidential and professional in what they talk about so there’s no chatter overheard by the tasters.”
The judging itself takes place in Wigram’s sunny Anteroom. Inside it’s quiet and serious – judging is done blind and silent. Glasses clink and, maybe once an hour or so, pens ring against glasses to declare a gold medal has been won.
Blind judging means tasters do not know which beer they are judging. They know the style, and compare the entry to the descriptions in the competition’s Style Guide, based on the Beer Judge Certification Program US Brewers' Association guidelines. Silent judging means each taster makes their own personal assessment and records notes before any discussion starts.
Tina Panoutsos (pictured above) is one of five table captains, guiding her team of five judges through the tasting process quickly, efficiently and fairly. There are five judges at each table, and each judge will taste nearly 200 beers and ciders over three days.
It’s a busman’s holiday for Tina. Her day job is at Carlton United Breweries in Australia, where she’s responsible for training the breweries’ sensory evaluation teams. The last line in quality control, the sensory teams are formally trained to identify many different flavour and aroma compounds, as well as being able to identify different concentrations of each compound.
“At each site our tasters will go through 45 minutes once a week being presented with about ten different flavours and identifying their characteristics. Then we isolate one or two different flavours that we present at different concentrations. There are 38 different flavours that we focus on, primarily for fault-finding, but also flavours we use to build brand profile. All up, our tasters might do an hour of training a week, plus profiling and assessing about two or three times a week.
“When I’m chairing a table, I always say to the tasters, ‘Assume this is a great beer. Brewers have entered it based on what they think is a great example of their product, so you don’t want to diminish their passion without reason.’ I make the assumption that everything is a gold because the brewers entered it as a quality product, and judge it from that perspective, which is very different to the way we assess our day-to-day product.”
And Tina says tasting is a team sport. “There’s never ever one judge who will know everything. There are certain odours that a number of people will always be anosmic to, which means they are ‘blind’ to them. So they won’t be able to detect those characteristics no matter how hard they try. But through training they can develop strategies to know it is in there – they might not be able to detect diacetyl, but they can learn how it changes the palette texture. Different people will learn different techniques. It’s always important to identify what you’re not strong in, so you can be led by others on the panel.”
Competition manager Craig Bowen agrees. “We’re all different in what we register on our palettes and senses, and you’re not right or wrong. You’ll know something’s not right – out of balance, out of style – but you have to be able to articulate that onto the scoresheet, and that’s the hardest thing sometimes.”
Each individual entry can win a medal – gold, silver, or bronze – and the best beer or cider in each style category wins the category trophy. The total of medals won by each brewery determines the highly coveted Champion Brewery prize, so it is, effectively, awarded solely through blind judging.
Last year Lion took home Champion Brewer in a result that became controversial. Some brewers are a bit cynical about competitions, with their emphasis on judging a beer against established guidelines, but when they win recognition they all seem pretty happy.
By now the results have been calculated and the winners’ trophies are being engraved. The results will be announced in Auckland this Saturday night.