New Zealand beer industry darlings Liberty Brewing celebrated their tenth birthday in style, winning the title of country’s best brewery at the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards on Saturday night.
The 13th edition of the event could have been renamed The Joe Wood Show, with Liberty’s founder (above second from left receiving the Champion Exhibitor trophy from Gabi Michael of Gladfield Malt) taking the stage several times throughout the night to collect awards and speak in his role as chairman of the guild.
But it was also a night which proved form is temporary but class is permanent, with three companies going back-to-back following wins in 2018. Wellington’s Fork Brewcorp and Kirin-owned Lion both held onto the titles of Champion Small and Large Brewery respectively, while Auckland’s Steam Brewing won Champion Manufacturer for an unprecedented fifth year running.
Steam operations manager Shane Morley spent his speech thanking the companies for whom he brews – Epic, Dr Rudi’s, and Batch Brewing among them – while also making special mention of Sawmill Brewing. Sawmill had no presence at the awards, partly because a large fire ripped through the Matakana brewery on Monday, leaving the brewery and restaurant closed until further notice.
The dramatic week for Sawmill ended with them becoming the inaugural winner of the Brewing Sustainability Award. Sawmill were given the gong after becoming the first B.Corp certified brewery in the country, which involves an independent assessment of a company’s impact on employees, customers, community and the environment.
Another category, the Tourism Award, was also launched by the guild on Saturday. The inaugural winner was Hamilton company Brewbus, which runs guided bus tours to craft breweries in various regions. Co-founder Lavina Good opened her speech in te reo Māori, before quipping about the fact she, a former journalist, created the business with former Crown lawyer Katy Martley.
“When you combine a journalist and a lawyer and beer, you get a whole lot of bullshit and nothing true – ever,” she joked. “But one thing that is true is the passion we actually have for craft beer, and our dream has always been to take the people to the beer – and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
The guild used the award to launch a new initiative, the NZ Ale Trail. Created and owned by the guild, the trail is a web-based map of breweries, bars and associate companies like Brewbus designed to help domestic and international tourists find good places to experience good beer.
The other non-drinking awards were the Morton Coutts Award for Innovation and the Beer Media Award. The first was taken home by Froth Technologies, New Zealand’s first dedicated fresh liquid brewing yeast lab founded by Simon Cooke and Ryan Carville this year – read our feature on them here. The pair, who raised $32,000 in a crowdfunding campaign in September, gave a pun-filled speech while accepting their award.
The media award went to Denise Garland, who has shone a light on the issue of overseas companies appropriating Māori culture to market beers and events. One of those events was a New Zealand beer showcase run by St Kilda bar Freddie Wimpoles, who promoted the event using an image of a 19th Century mayor of the same name clad in a Māori cloak and tā moko, the facial tattoos some Māori get to signify their genealogy and achievements.
Three-time winner Michael Donaldson, who presented the award via video, said Denise was not afraid to tackle difficult subjects with passion and professionalism. Denise in turn thanked Michael, who publishes much of her work in the Pursuit of Hoppiness magazine, for allowing her to write about issues which were “maybe not quite so sexy”. She also thanked the Wellington beer community for fostering her love of beer.
As for Liberty founder Joe, he launched the evening by telling the story of how the Champion Exhibitor trophy, given to the brewery with the best results over the range of beers it enters, nearly never made it to the ceremony. It was accidentally placed in a recycling bin, where it lay for a week before being rescued moments before the bin was due to be collected. He made everyone in the crowd cheer while he held it aloft, saying he always wanted to know what it felt like to be the winner. Little did he know what was awaiting him at the end of the night.
Winning Champion Medium-Sized Brewery – brewing between 100,000 and two million litres per year – as well as Champion Exhibitor came on the back of taking home Champion International Pale Ale for Yakima Monster and Champion New Zealand Style for Halo Pilsner. Liberty also won gold medals for Oh Brother pale ale, Hoptical Illusion IIPA, Malthouse West Coast IPA Challenge winner Knife Party, and the 2018 vintage of bourbon barrel-aged Prohibition Porter. The eight other beers Liberty entered were awarded either silver or bronze medals, while they also won the best packaging trophy for a rebrand that's just started appearing on shelves in New Zealand.
Joe pointed out that people see Liberty as a big company, but they still only employ seven people – two of them himself and his wife Christina.
“This is us,” he said, waving a hand across the stage to the rest of the brewing team, which also includes Christina’s dad. “It has been ten years – you chip away and shit happens and it all comes on one night.
"We’re usually one trophy every two years. I can’t believe it. This is the dream come true.”
Christina repeated the same message, noting Liberty had started in a garage in Taranaki before moving back to her and Joe’s hometown of Hellensville, just outside Auckland. [Read Jono's October 2018 feature on the Liberty story here.]
Wellington companies Garage Project and Heyday Beer Co won a trophy each. Garage Project’s yuzu and honeydew sour ale Wabi Sabi was the best fruit and flavoured beer, while Heyday took out the best Amber/Dark Ale category with black IPA Game Day. But Fork Brewcorp, run out of Wellington brewpub Fork and Brewer, managed to win Champion Small Manufacturer without taking home a trophy in any other category.
Celebrating the back-to-back wins, head brewer Kelly Ryan said: “No pressure next year, I guess." The win comes at a great time for Fork Brewcorp as they make a big push into the packaged market through contract partners.
Behemoth Brewing was another contract brewer to do well, winning champion IPA for their single-hopped hazy Me Time - Mosaic.
“Who doesn’t love Mosaic, to be fair,” founder Andrew Childs said, who is busy turning a warehouse in Auckland into Churly’s – a brewpub, production brewery and on-site butchery run by his wife and award-winning butcher Hannah Miller Childs. Andrew also took time to thank his "chur-holders", the 600-plus people who coughed up more than $2m during an equity crowdfunding campaign to make Churly’s a reality. [You can look out for an interview with Andrew as part of a forthcoming feature on the Auckland beer scene.]
Behemoth’s winning beer was brewed at Deep Creek in Auckland, winner of Champion Small International Brewery at the AIBAs this year. Deep Creek had their own reason to celebrate on Saturday, winning the Speciality, Experimental and Aged category with Diep Kriek, a barrel-aged cherry sour which went on to be judged the best beer of the entire competition. As one of the brewery team said onstage, the man in charge of their barrel programme is Johan Lagercrantz, and “someone whose last name has lager in it cannot make bad beer”.
The big change from the 2018 awards was the dearth of trophies for multinational companies. Lion, which won champion large brewery, did not win any category trophies. Heineken-owned DB Breweries won the International Lager Trophy for Tiger Crystal, while Asahi-owned Independent Liquor failed to win any trophies. The two trophies between the three multinationals is well down on last year’s five. Lion can claim some success, however, with two of their subsidiary companies winning categories. Panhead Custom Ales picked up the Best Stout and Porter with Blacktop Stout, while Emerson’s Long Night topped the Wheat and Other Grain Styles category.
The number of regional breweries doing well was also impressive. Shining Peak in New Plymouth won Best Amber/Dark Lager for their Octopus Clamp. Wigram Brewing, based on the outskirts of Christchurch, had the best British Ale with Wee Reeky Scotch ale. And some of the biggest cheers went to Sunshine Brewing from Gisbourne, which took home top European Ale with their East Coast Saison.
Sunshine was one of the first independent craft breweries in New Zealand when they opened in 1989, with Gisborne Gold – fondly nicknamed Gizzy Gold – one of the first craft beers sold in Wellington. Sunshine head brewer Dave Huff paid tribute to the brewery’s founders Gerry Maude and Geoff Logan, the later of them dying in 2018, who sold the business in 2015.
There were only two low points in the evening: ciders and behaviour. Paynter’s The Huntress won Best Cider or Perry, but there were no gold medals in the category. The trophy for Best Flavoured Cider or Perry was not awarded, as no products could muster better than a bronze medal.
Meanwhile, Joe was forced to get on the stage partway through the evening to ask rowdier parts of the 500-strong gathering to be respectful when people were given awards. His message failed to stop people clinking glasses with their cutlery when the likes of DB or Lion got up to receive awards.
The biggest cheers of the night were reserved for the guild honours, given to people who have helped the guild in various ways. Former chairman Jonathan Alve and Good George co-founder Brian Watson, who has been part of the awards since they started, were made honorary members. Sprig and Fern owner Tracy Banner, who celebrated 35 years in the brewing industry in 2018, was made a fellow of the guild alongside former chair and Three Boys founder Ralph Bungard. People can only be made a fellow after more than a decade of distinguished service to the guild and industry.
Ralph used his speech to reflect on how far New Zealand brewing had come.
“When I came in tonight I was looking around the crowd and thinking, ‘Man, ten years ago there were 30 of us sitting in a room’,” he reminisced. “When I look around tonight I see amazing brewers ... and amazing people backing the industry. It’s just so cool, you can’t believe how cool it is.”
RESULTS IN FULL
- Champion Exhibitor: Liberty Brewing
- Champion New Zealand Beer: Deep Creek Diep Kriek
- Champion Small New Zealand Brewery: Fork Brewcorp
- Champion Medium New Zealand Brewery: Liberty Brewing
- Champion Large New Zealand Brewery: Lion
- Champion Manufacturer: Steam Brewing
- Best Wheat and Other Grain Styles: Emerson’s Long Night
- Best Specialty, Experimental and Aged Styles: Deep Creek Diep Kriek
- Best Fruit and Flavoured Styles: Garage Project Wabi Sabi
- Best European Ale: Sunshine Brewing East Coast Saison
- Best British Ale: Wigram Brewing Wee Reeky
- Best International Pale Ale: Liberty Brewing Yakima Monster
- Best India Pale Ale: Behemoth Brewing Me Time - Mosaic
- Best New Zealand Styles: Liberty Brewing Halo Pilsner
- Best International Lager: DB Breweries Tiger Crystal
- Best Amber/Dark Lager: Shining Peak Octopus Clamp
- Best Amber/Dark Ale: Heyday Beer Co Game Day
- Best Stout and Porter: Panhead Custom Ales Blacktop Stout
- Best Cider and Perry: Paynter’s The Huntress
- Best Barrel and Wood-Aged Styles: Lakeman Brewing Hairy Craic
- Brewing Sustainability Award: Sawmill Brewing
- Beer Tourism Award: Brewbus NZ
- Morton Coutts Award: Froth Technologies
- Packaging Award: Liberty Brewing
- Beer Media Award: Denise Garland