The beauty of judging beer and cider ‘blind’ is that all preconceptions go out the window and the judges aren’t distracted by brands, labels, or descriptions. It puts everyone on equal footing and as a result gives small, unheralded, breweries a chance to showcase their work against established craft heroes and global brands alike.
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What did the Judges think?
As a result, there’s always a surprise or two in the Top 30; breweries that pop up out of nowhere to be given a chance to show what they can do on the big stage. But in the nine years of this competition, there’s never been a year of the underdog quite like 2023.
There’s so much to talk about it’s hard to know where to start, so let’s start at the top, with the Supreme Champion: Primate Pilsner from Lakeman in Taupo.
Lakeman is a wonderful story of Kiwi can-do attitude, with farmer James Cooper and his wife Elissa making the decision 10 years ago that their small beef and lamb farm in the hills above Lake Taupo needed another revenue stream. That’s because of the complex but world-leading regulations around nitrogen discharge into Lake Taupo. The nitrogen “cap” means farmers can only run a certain level of stock.
With their small cap limiting their stock levels, the Coopers needed to try something different, and James — inspired by drinking a namesake Cooper’s beer in Australia — decided to start a brewery, teaching himself along the way.
In the past decade, he and brewer Rory Donovan have gone from complete beginners to multi-award winners. Their Primate Pilsner is a pitch-perfect example of a New Zealand-style pilsner, with loads of bright citrus and the hint of a dank herbal note on a clean, slightly sweet palate. It came out on top of a taste-off against some of the bigger beers in this competition because of the outstanding execution.
Despite their remote location and rural setting, with the brewery in the middle of the farm, Lakeman are proof that old-fashioned rural ingenuity and meticulous dedication will reap rewards.
Speaking of learning to brew, it was a delight to see a beer from Otago Brew School in the Top 30. The brew school, based in Cromwell, was set up in 2018 by Otago Polytech to offer a pathway into the industry for aspiring brewers. The beers they produce are made available for sale on campus and in select locations in the region. And now they’re going national, with their Dunkelweizen, a classic German style that marries a lovely flavour combo of banana and chocolate.
Other breweries that popped onto the Top 30 radar for the first time this year include the relatively unknown Ruapehu and Martinborough breweries, the Taranaki duo Shining Peak and Three Sisters as well as Miramar’s Double Vision.
Ruapehu Brewing, in Ohakune, have just installed a new brew kit and their Unlimited Vis Hazy IPA is one of the first beers to come off the updated production line and will no doubt be popular with skiers this coming season. Deep in wine country, Martinborough Brewery delivered an elegant, bright IPA that would sit nicely alongside any fine wine.
It’s brilliant to see Three Sisters in the line-up for the first time as they are a brewery on the move, having won the champion microbrewery and champion small brewery crowns in successive years at the annual New Zealand Beer Awards.
Many regulars in the Top 30 are back for more, including McLeod’s and Panhead, who contribute the two iconic pale ales that have defined that style in New Zealand over the past decade — Paradise and Supercharger respectively.
And I’m delighted to see the original independent craft beer of the modern generation included in the Top 30, with Mac’s Gold, which is now in its 42nd year dating back to Terry McCashin launching Mac’s with this beer in 1981.
One of the beauties of this year’s competition is the mix of small and global, with two of Asia’s biggest brands — Tiger and Asahi — represented. The Asahi Super Dry 0% has to be tried to be believed. In the taste-off for the Supreme Winner, it more than held its own against full-alcohol beers.
Finally, a huge hat-tip to Auckland’s Urbanaut for making up 10 percent of our Top 30 with three brilliant hoppy beers: Newtown Hazy Pale Ale, Silver Palace Hazy IPA and Bronx Double IPA. All are excellent but I think the Bronx Double IPA is destined for greatness.
What did the Judges do?
Michael Donaldson, Chair of Judges, carefully selected experienced independent beer and cider judges for the 2023 New World Beer & Cider Awards. He specifically sought experienced and well-respected judges who could provide a range of expertise on different styles.
The judges blind-tasted and evaluated more than 700 different beers, ciders, seltzers, alcoholic kombuchas and alcoholic ginger beers at the 2023 judging event. Blind-tasting means judges only see the beer or cider in the glass, never any bottles or brands and judges don’t taste any of their own products entered into the competition.
Entries are grouped by class and each entry was judged by a table comprising of a Table Captain, two senior judges and a junior judge (judges in training whose scores aren’t counted). The judges sniffed, sipped, tasted and debated each entry’s qualities using a collaborative judging approach that evaluates technical excellence, balance and, most importantly, drinkability.
The top entries in each class were then randomised, re-tasted and ranked by a senior judging panel to determine the Top 30. This panel also determined the Supreme Winner of the awards in an exciting final round taste-off, with the top entry from each class pitched against each other. The next 70 best beers and ciders were Highly Commended, creating a Top 100 list for you to explore.
Michael Donaldson wrote the tasting notes for the Top 100 – using the judges’ original tasting notes, he then re-tasted the winners and compiled the reviews.
Who were the Judges?
Alex Biedermann, Biedis Brewing
Alyssa Hodgson, Lion
Annika Naschitzki, Tiamana
Barbara Ingendae, Otago Polytechnic, Junior Judge
Becs Cope, Brew Moon, Junior Judge
Brian Watson, Good George
Charlotte Feehan, Abandoned, Junior Judge
Colin Mallon, Sprig + Fern
Damian Treacher, Beer Baroness
David Sax, Redwood Cider
Doug Donelan, Former CEO of NZ Hops
Dylan Jauslin, Golding’s Free Dive
Emma Bell, Double Vision
Hamish Ward, Deep Creek Brewing
Jennifer McIntyre, Lion, Junior Judge
Jesse Sigurdsson, Shining Peak Brewing
Joe Wood, Liberty Brewing
John Austin, Konvoy Kegs, Junior Judge
Keith Riley, Lion
Kelly Ryan, Boneface Brewing
Lauren Yap, Brood Fermenting
Mason Pratt, Emerson’s Brewery
Matt Warner, Parrotdog
Michael Donaldson, Beer Writer, Pursuit of Hoppiness
Mike Cheer, Cheers Brewing
Natalia Dunningham, Garage Project, Junior Judge
Rachael Norcross, Punky Brewster, Junior Judge
Sam Williamson, Pacific Coast Beverages
Sam Wilson, Sweet Not Sugar
Soren Eriksen, 8 Wired
Steph Coutts, Craft Beer College
Tim Low, Garage Project
Tim Newman, Pursuit of Hoppiness, Junior Judge
Tracy Banner, Sprig + Fern
Zane Marshall, DB Breweries
Ziggy Mountier-Petzold, Panhead Custom Ales