A beer has been named "Best Drink In Australia" at the inaugural Drink Easy awards, a competition that pitted drinks from across all categories against each other. Wildflower's St Phoebe 2019, a raspberry wild ale named after brewery co-founder Chris Allen's daughter, took out the Beer + Cider category and then was then judged best of the best from all category winners when judging took place at MONA in Hobart in August.
The awards were announced at a party at Paradise Alley, in Collingwood, tonight (Nov 19). The judges' notes for the winning beer talk about its "fresh acidity and structure that makes you keep going back for more" and "an almost vinous expression of extreme complexity but deliciousness", concluding: "Straight up visceral pleasure but married to drinkability and general appeal. What. A. Beer."
Read our thoughts on the beer from April here.
St Phoebe 2019 was deemed the finest drop from around 1,250 entries that also included wine, cider, spirits and soft drinks as the awards organisers looked to forge a new direction more in keeping with the contemporary landscape, as co-founder Mike Bennie and chief beer judge Liam Pereira explained in our feature on the awards from July.
At its heart was a desire to approach judging in the manner people might drink at home rather than assessing to strict guidelines, and instead considering a drink's personality, complexity and drinkability. When it came to beer, rather than judge, for example, American pale ales or British IPAs, the categories were broader: "Dark and/or malt driven", "Ester driven" or "Fruit/hybrid".
Other winners on the night included Oakridge Wines Garden Gris 2019, described as "truly superb stuff"; Sullivans Cove XO Tasmanian Brandy – Double Cask Batch DCB01 – "a great standalone product that completely transcends the category"; and Bowled Over Beverages Sin-Ko-Nah Tonic Syrup, which the judges deemed "a landmark product in its genre". The "EASY ON THE EYE" label winner was Never Never Distilling Co's Triple Juniper Gin.
Funnily enough, it was Topher who first approached The Crafty Pint about the awards. As someone doing as much as anyone to redefine what beer can be in Australia, he was keen to see the beer world – one in which much-loved operators such as Sailors Grave, Dollar Bill, Van Dieman or Two Metre Tall might struggle to find traditional awards categories suitable for their creations – get behind Drink Easy.
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever met Topher or heard him speak but on accepting the award, he was particularly passionate and eloquent. He said moving to reject traditional awards processes and style categories sent a much-needed message for positivity and inclusion for the drinks community in a world where it can feel easier to cast blame and disconnect from those around you.
“Tonight, you’ve rejected labels,” Topher said. “You’ve rejected who’s conventional, who’s natural, who’s craft, who’s independent, who's mainstream or not and you’ve said, ‘Come one, come all and we’ll look at things for how they show up.’
“Which is I think how we need to look at people. Your message is clear: acceptance, inclusion, open arms and love.”
Presumably, Wildflower's success will encourage more of his peers to enter next year and, more importantly, shine an even brighter spotlight on the incredible things taking place in the Australian beer world right now.
For full list of winners, scroll down...
Inside the awards
The Crafty Pint's senior writer Will Ziebell (tucked in the middle of the back row above) was invited to judge beer and cider at the inaugural Drink Easy awards. Given the approach being taken was rather different to traditional booze awards, here he offers some insight into his time in Hobart...
Three days at MONA judging beer, cider and other “fermented beverages” sure sounds like something you don’t want to miss. But agreeing to be a part of Drink Easy was as much down to a fascination in seeing how it was going to go down.
Judging wine, beer, cider, meads, spirits and non-alcoholic drinks under one roof is inherently appealing, even for someone who makes a living writing about beer. For one, a lot of the breweries that I find exciting – whether it’s Wildflower’s connection to wine or how Loch Brewery & Distillery are showcasing beer and whisky made off the same bases as one another – don't fit easily into a box. It’s also how I drink; I might constantly hand new beers to my friends when they’re over for dinner but if there’s even a dash of sun in the sky, we’re starting with a G&T.
For the stewards, it meant a chaotic three days reaching for bottles of whisky, cans or brown-bagged wine and making sure each ended up in the right place. But, for judges, the constant conversations between people from different drinks backgrounds caused you to constantly check yourself for metalanguage and rethink a beer you might initially want to dismiss.
Along with music – curated by Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes and one of the spirits judges – and cheese, the conversation around what’s on our table is incredibly free-flowing. There’s no desire here for judges to come to their own decision on a beer and scribble it down for a head judge. Explain yourself: why do you like this beer more than the next. With 150 or so beers to judge (of the 1,250 submitted drinks across the board in total) Sparkke head brewer Agi Gajic and I spent a lot of time on each of them.
At first, I’m hesitant of how broad the beer categories are – you can see them all here. Style guidelines can be an useful crutch when writing about beer; I try to read as little as possible about a beer before I make my own assessment (reading up on it later once my notes have been made) but one thing I always want to know is: what is it trying to do. The question being asked when judging here is more: when would I enjoy this beer and, even if I don’t like it, what are its good qualities?
Keeping the styles as broad as they were worked well, and not just because the way we judged them was in line with how many specialist bottleshops set out their shelves anyway; importantly, it was a move designed to avoid the confusion around how some beers do so well in awards into which they don’t even seem to fit.
For example, at this year's World Beer Awards, which is aimed at drinks professionals but adheres to more strict style guidelines, Rodenbach’s Caractère Rouge was declared “World’s Best Fruited Lambic”. Caractère Rouge is a fantastic beer but saying it’s a fruited lambic is only a disservice to drinks professionals if your aim is education (full credit to one half of Australia’s Belgian beer police, Luke Robertson of Ale of a Time, for immediately picking up on this).
That’s not to say there weren’t flawed beers. There were, but we made sure we spent longer on the feedback we gave for any beer that didn’t present well.
As for the winner, whatever the results show it to be, it certainly ticked the easy-drinking box but was also full of complexity, delivering layers of acidity, fruit, dryness and spice. The final top ten drinks were judged by the category head judges and, on the final morning, you could feel it might easily topple all-comers from across the Aussie drinks industry.
As soon as the other judges started drinking it – whether they were sommeliers, distillers or chefs – I could tell it would win. And, as much as barriers between drinks might be breaking down, there’s little better than seeing the best beer coming out on top.
Here's the full list of awards handed out at Paradise Alley, Collingwood, in the first Drink Easy awards:
- BEST DRINK IN AUSTRALIA 2019: Wildflower St Phoebe 2019
- WINE WINNER: Oakridge Wines Garden Gris 2019
- SPIRITS WINNER: Sullivans Cove XO Tasmanian Brandy – Double Cask Batch DCB01
- NON-ALCOHOLIC WINNER: Bowled Over Beverages Sin-Ko-Nah Original Tonic Syrup
- BEER + CIDER WINNER: Wildflower St Phoebe 2019
- EASY ON THE EYE LABEL AWARD: Never Never Distilling Co Triple Juniper Gin