One of New Zealand’s leading brewers forecasts the “destruction” of bitter beers in the wake of the influential Malthouse West Coast IPA Challenge.
The annual contest to find New Zealand’s best West Coast IPA is run by The Malthouse bar in Wellington. It’s regarded as the most important competition in New Zealand in terms of setting the direction for the style.
Previous winners of the prized Golden Gumboots are long-standing classics such as Epic Armageddon and Liberty Knife Party.
In its 13th year, the challenge attracted 31 entries last Friday, but many judges expressed disappointment at the interpretation of the style.
Kelly Ryan, head brewer at Fork Brewing and one of New Zealand’s leading beer judges, said the bulk of the entries he tasted were “off the mark”.
“Around 80 per cent didn’t fit the bill – they didn’t have the bitterness,” Ryan said.
His view was echoed by Luke Nicholas Epic Brewing.
“So many entries were distant from style because so many lacked hops. The bittering level was quite low for style.”
Ryan believed the misinterpretation of style is based on a lack of knowledge to a degree, but is also driven by consumer demand.
“In eight or nine years of judging it was the lowest quality I’ve experienced – I think a lot of brewers need to go to California to try a West Coast IPA,” he said.
Ryan believed the competition entries were symptomatic of a trend that would eventually lead to “the destruction of high bitterness beers”.
“We don’t have many beer drinkers with a knowledge of bitterness anymore because there are so many beers out there that are not bitter.
“We’ve entered a whole new realm of brewing – I say it jokingly but in 10 years’ time if we keep going like this there will only be lagers, the odd pilsner and the rest will be hazys, fruit beers and pastry stouts. That’s what people want.”
Colin Mallon, who started the event when he ran The Malthouse, was a judge this year.
He attributed the poor execution of the style to the fact many new Kiwi brewers had little experience of cult West Coast beers such as Bear Republic Racer 5 or Green Flash Palate Wrecker.
“If you look at the lineup this year there were lot of new kids on the block who might not have the brewing knowledge or skillset to present the style as it should be,” Mallon explained.
“If you think of Green Flash or Bear Republic as reference points – I didn’t see anything close to that.”
Mallon said five to 10 years ago he sold a lot of imported West Coast IPAs, but as New Zealand’s brewing scene evolved customers were not prepared to pay “$15 for a 330ml bottle of Bear Republic Racer 5”.
“A few years ago our fridge at the Malthouse was 60 per cent imported beer – now I’d say it’s closer to 20 per cent.”
Another trend was very pale IPA, but Ryan was OK with that, noting that the Brewers Association in America began to modify the definition of West Coast IPA around 10 years ago in response to relatively pale IPAs such Pliny The Elder.
Lots of breweries also used New Zealand hops. Nicholas won the People’s Choice with Epic Grain Dead and is happy to admit the beer used New Zealand hops, as did the overall winner: Behemoth’s Here’s Churly.
“I’ve experienced some really cool West Coast IPA in San Diego where they use New Zealand hops in combination with American hops,” Nicholas said.
“For instance, Alpine Brewing use Nelson Sauvin – I tried to explore that side of West Coast IPA by bringing NZ hops into it.
“Perhaps I didn’t execute well enough for judges’ palates but the punters liked it and it sold out.”