The ultimate affirmation for many brewers is picking up an award for their beer. In this part of the world, the Australian International Beer Awards and The Indies in Australia;or the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards enjoy the highest profile. Yet, as Our Man In NZ Jono Galuszka writes, there's another competition that has done more to truly shape its country's brewing scene.
The West Coast IPA Challenge, held at Wellington’s Malthouse pub every year, is New Zealand's most influential beer competition. So, after spending the morning judging the 2018 edition, Jono sat down with some of the people who played a key role in establishing it to find out more.
Malthouse proprietor Colin Mallon describes his pub as “the grown-up bar” on Wellington’s party strip, Courtenay Place. It is hard to believe his claim at 9pm on the night of the eleventh West Coast IPA Challenge.
ParrotDog has just been announced as the winner for its L.B. Beer (pictured above) and given the trophy: a pair of gumboots, spray painted gold by Colin the day before. The gag-inducing whiff of cheap plastic emanating from the inside of the boots fails to put the ParrotDog staff off, however, as they instead use them for celebratory shoeys in the middle of the bar. The situation is, inevitably, messy.
The scene is a far cry from any other awards ceremony. The dress code is more casual, the awards speech is non-existent, and celebrations are rather more debaucherous. But the prize is coveted above almost any other in the New Zealand brewing scene.
Held every year for the past 11 years, the challenge involves brewers creating a new beer to be assessed by both a team of judges and the hundreds of drinkers who head to the bar. There is only one rule: it must be in the spirit of a West Coast IPA.
It was in modern IPA’s birthplace, the West Coast of the United States, where the challenge first started to take shape. Epic Brewing founder Luke Nicholas and beer writer Neil Miller were among a group that included Hallertau founder Steve Ploughman and malt baron David Cryer who had travelled to San Diego to judge the World Beer Cup and attend the Craft Brewers Conference.
The highlight was a tour of Californian breweries in a van Luke says was big enough to hold 13 people (Neil claims it could hold six Americans). They ticked off the big breweries – Lagunitas, Russian River, Stone, with Neil saying his experience at Lagunitas summed up their itinerary.
“I am there at 10am, and the seats at the bar are horses' saddles," he says. "We were told people usually get an IPA and work from there. I ordered an IIPA to start from the bartender. It was one of the few times I have seen a nod of satisfaction from a bartender."
As is customary for any beer nerd heading to the United States, everyone in the group muled back a massive stash of beer in their suitcases with the intention, according to Luke, to meet up at Hallertau for “an epic hop share”. There was one issue: Steve drank all his beers beforehand.
It came up in conversation when Steve and Luke were in Wellington, drinking with Neil at his usual table at Malthouse while Colin floated around.
“We thought, ‘What is missing from our lives?’,” Luke says. “There were no IPAs in New Zealand at that moment. Epic Pale Ale was probably the hoppiest beer in the country. We wanted that hop buzz you get from big, hoppy beers like we had in the States.”
Colin, who was the most sober witness to the conversation, recalls it rather differently.
“Steve and Luke were having a pissing contest about who could make the hoppiest beer," he says. "Luke said, ‘Make it a challenge’. And here we are.”
The First Challenge
Epic and Hallertau both worked together on the basic recipe, but diverged when it came to ingredients: Luke stuck with American, while Steve went with New Zealand. The result was the creation of what is arguably the cult beer from each brewery: Epic Armageddon and Hallertau Maximus.
Beers created, it was time to put them to the test. The challenge took place at Malthouse, Luke says, because there was nowhere in Auckland to host it.
“There was no craft beer culture in Auckland. Where were we going to hold it, [real ale brewpub] Galbraith's?”
As for the host, Colin was keen, especially with Luke involved. His first hoppy beer experience had taken place in 2005 at Malthouse’s former location on Willis Street. Luke was working for Steam Brewing at the time, producing a range of beers for the Cock and Bull bars. But Steam had just started work on a bottled range they planned to call Epic.
“Someone told me about this guy, Luke Nicholas, who was making an American-influenced pale ale,” Colin explains. “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll give that a go’. But I was told I can’t have any, as it was only for Cock and Bull.
"So I called a week later and was told, ‘You can’t have it and you won’t like it’. I called a week later and was told, ‘Fuck’s sake, if I give you a keg will you leave me alone?’.”
He put the beer on tap as soon as it arrived.
“I poured a pint – beautiful. I drank it and thought, ‘Holy fuck, no one is going to drink this, it’s too bitter’. I then had another four pints.”
Colin describes it as his hop-piphany. Prior to that tapping, any hoppy beer he had drunk had come from the United States, suffering from oxidation and a lack of temperature control.
“To get something in your face and hoppy, with that big, refreshing juicy fruit flavour...it was a serious historic moment in my life.”
While he was eager to host the face-off, he had no idea how big the challenge would get. The first three years featured the Hallertau vs Epic boxing match. Then it expanded to eight breweries. Then 13. Then 18.
The 2018 edition featured 29 IPAs, all from different breweries, all created for the challenge. Pirate Life even attempted to enter in 2017, but were waylaid by courier issues. Such has been the interest, Colin has installed more taps especially for the event.
The number of people in the bar drinking the beers has also grown. It used to be a crowd of 50. These days, the challenge has spilled over to Malthouse’s sister bar Fork and Brewer. But there was still a line outside Malthouse before 8pm for the 2018 edition.
So, what is it about IPA that gets New Zealand beer drinkers willing to wait in the Wellington winter weather to go to a bar pouring little else? It's an obsession that's backed up by the GABS Hottest 100 Beers results. The most popular style in Australia has consistently been pale ale, while IPA reigns in New Zealand. It is almost always the most hotly contested category at the Brewers Guild awards too.
It is also evident in sales at Malthouse outside of challenge day.
“You know when you are going to pay bills at the end of the month, you get a feel for the trends," Colin says. "If you don’t get it from that, you definitely do from what customers ask you.”
Luke believes the popularity is down to the weather. A warmer climate begs for pale ales over IPA. But Colin thinks New Zealand’s wine culture plays a role too.
“Kiwi sauvignon blanc is in your face, especially early Kiwi sauvignon," he says. "IPA, I think, is the beer equivalent of that.”
As Colin hints, IPA has changed just like sauvignon blanc. The style has gone from lean and bitter, dominated by pine and grapefruit, to hazy, soft and juicy. And the challenge has not been immune from trends, despite its name.
Renaissance won in 2014 with Bloody RIPA, a red rye IPA, in a year when red rye IPAs were on trend in New Zealand. Garage Project used the 2016 challenge to introduce New Zealand to East Coast IPA with Party and Bullshit, while the winner from that year, Moa’s Perris Sky Juice, sits somewhere between East Coast and West Coast IPA.
Luke says it is more a case of the challenge changing New Zealand beer culture.
“This is the thing that literally changed craft beer here," he says. "You get a list of all the beers that have been entered and there are probably some of the best beers from the country, which have gone on to be flagship beers. All because of this.”
He has a point. ParrotDog’s first winner, High Time, is now available year round as Forget-Me-Not. Liberty Knife Party, Perris Sky Juice, Party and Bullshit, Maximus – all initially one-offs – are now regarded as classics by both brewers and drinkers. Liberty and Moa proudly tout their wins on packaging.
But the push goes beyond IPA. The first modern New Zealand barrel aged craft beer, Barrel Aged Armageddon, was made for the challenge, all because Luke read Hops and Glory by British beer writer Pete Brown. In this case, instead of going across the Atlantic and Indian oceans, Luke’s barrels did 128 voyages on a passenger ferry between the North and South islands of New Zealand. The two barrels then went on to join 8 Wired’s massive collection.
Luke also got the idea of turning Armageddon into gin while developing ideas for the challenge, which led him to starting his Hidden World gin label.
Colin says the competition has done the exact same thing as the New Zealand beer scene - continuously move forward. Matt Dainty created the recipe for Renaissance’s winner and is now entering his own beers into the competition as Boneface Brewing. Former Malthouse regular Jules Grace now runs the Brew Union brewpub in Palmerston North.
It is much the same for Malthouse, now in its 25th year of business. The move to Courtney Place was especially tough at first, with regulars from Willis Street especially critical. But the first West Coast IPA Challenge, according to Colin, gave the pub the big lift it needed, even with just 50 people turning up.
“It is now the biggest night of the year for us," he says. "We will do on challenge night three times a usual Friday night. It is also the most fun night of the year.
"You can analyse all the bejesus out of beer, but that takes a lot of the fun out of it. It’s ultimately a fun time.”
Neil agrees the West Coast IPA Challenge changed beer culture in New Zealand. It laid the groundwork for Armageddon to become the country’s most awarded craft beer, nudged Kiwi palates towards hoppier beer and encouraged brewers to push the envelope around what an IPA can be. For an unashamed fan of ludicrously hopped beers, it’s a key event on the calendar.
“At the start of the year I put my mum’s birthday and the West Coast IPA Challenge in my diary," Neil says. "Everything else can fill itself out.”
Good news for Aussie fans of this year's WCIPA Challenge winners, ParrotDog, as they're set to re-enter the local market now they're settled into their Lyall Bay home. At time of publication, cans of their APA Falcon, the Rifleman XPA and a new session IPA called Hawkeye created for the Australian market were making their way across the Tasman and will be available via Coles outlets. You can read our piece on their rise from last year here.
You can read more of Jono's articles on the New Zealand beer scene here and other NZ stories on Crafty here.