Judging for the 2015 Brewers Guild Awards 2015 starts tomorrow and runs until Sunday.
Guild chairman Bob King says nearly 800 beers from a record 100 breweries will be judged this year. The panel has 25 judges from New Zealand and overseas.
One of the more experienced judges is Tracy Banner, owner and head brewer at Sprig & Fern. Tracy has judged all nine Guild Awards and has judged overseas. She has been brewing commercially for 32 years, and brewing in New Zealand for 21 years – “I tell people I started when I was five!” Sprig & Fern won 22 medals in the New Zealand awards in the past two years alone.
This year Tracy is a table captain, leading a group of six judges.
“If you’ve got very good sense of smell you can tell if its going to be a good beer even before drinking it. That’s why you always swirl it and have a smell before you taste it. Obviously with the taste its more about the rounded flavour, the bitterness, and with beer you have to swallow the beer to get the bitterness.
“It’s actually all done in silence, so all the judges make their notes independently and then we talk about it. You can clearly and quickly establish if the beer’s going to be a medal beer or if it’s a bit problematic. Judging in silence is important because I wouldn’t want someone who has a big personality influencing somebody else and the table captains do ensure they run a smooth table.
“You do get comments that it’s a cruisy job and I don’t think people really appreciate how hard it is. You’ve got to give every single beer or cider 110% concentration over an eight or nine hour period. Brewers are paying good money to enter the awards so we do take it seriously and give our full attention to everything that put in front of us. I don’t judge my own beers, so I can enter, and I go over the judges’ notes (on my own entries) very closely.”
Tracy’s advice for aspiring judges and home brewers is to get formal sensory training.
“I come from a corporate brewery background, and many of the senior judges in New Zealand are the same, where we’ve actually been trained appropriately. The bigger breweries do sensory training where they spike a beer with things that are faults, things like diacetyl and sulphurs, they oxidise beers and accelerate the aging. These are all things they you can actually pick up.
“The Brewers Guild is giving sensory training and I would highly recommend that people go along to any training sessions they can just to upskill themselves. There’s some really good home brewers out there and they may know somethings not quite right, but not know what caused that.
“Many of the Awards judges are also skilled brewers and able to tell, say, if the problem is with the fermentation temperature was maybe too high, too low. I can tell you, from those very very early days of judging, maybe one third of the entries were just, um, not great beers. They could have significant faults but we just don’t see that anymore. It is an absolute pleasure to judge these days because the calibre of the beer in New Zealand is just fantastic.”