Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions: Craft beer expert Michael Donaldson's surprise as Epic Armageddon clinches coveted IPA trophy again

By Jennifer Dann

Craft beer expert Michael Donaldson chaired the judging of this year's New World Beer & Cider Awards. The author of two books on New Zealand beer was surprised when Epic Armageddon won the coveted IPA trophy for the second year in a row.
Craft beer expert Michael Donaldson was surprised when Epic Armageddon won the coveted IPA trophy for the second year in a row. We ask him 12 questions. Photo / Michael Craig
Craft beer expert Michael Donaldson was surprised when Epic Armageddon won the coveted IPA trophy for the second year in a row. We ask him 12 questions. Photo / Michael Craig

1 Over 500 beers and ciders were entered in this year's competition. Did you taste them all?

No, they're split up between 19 judges so you'd do about 70 beers each a day. You do have to swallow each sip because you need to get it down the back of your palate to fully experience the flavour but you'd have no more than three or four sips of each. If it's bad, one will do. It's really hard at the start, you're not ready for beer at 9am and by the end of the day you're tired and your palate's fatigued. It's a surprisingly tough job.

2 Were you surprised when Epic Armageddon won Best IPA for the second year in a row?

I couldn't believe it because the IPA class is so competitive. It's a blind tasting so we don't know who has won until afterwards. It's also won the Brewers Guild awards twice in a row. It's won in Sweden and Australia. It just keeps coming out on top.

3 Epic owner Luke Nicolas gets his hops from America. Is that unusual for a New Zealand brewer?

Yes. The majority of our brewers use local hops. There's enough for everybody despite high demand. Luke uses US hops because he started out brewing American-style beers. They just have the flavour profile he's after. Parrot Dog Pandemonium won Best Pilsner with Australian hops even though New Zealand pilsners are the thing at the moment for their tropical passionfruit aromas.

4 What's the difference between the New World awards and the Brewer's Guild awards?

New Zealand only has two major beer competitions. The Brewers Guild awards are industry focused. Some of the beer is brewed as a one-off special and is not readily available. The New World awards are for beer people can actually buy. They're good for the industry because they provide a leg up to small craft brewers like Adam Sparks. He's won a New World trophy two years in a row last year for his saison, this year for his stout, showcasing it to an audience he'd have struggled to reach otherwise. Deep Creek are another example. They've only been around a few years and have won two New World awards. They started as a brew pub in Brown's Bay. Now they've got a brewery in Silverdale, service a number of outlets and sell in supermarkets.

5 Your book Beer Nation - the Art and Heart of Kiwi Beer tells the story of New Zealand beer through its brewers. Do you have a favourite personality?

Richard Emerson, without a doubt. He's a godfather of New Zealand brewing and has such an amazing story from being born deaf to starting his own craft brewery in Dunedin with his biochemist parents rounding up finance from family and friends, to selling to Lion in New Zealand's first craft brewery takeover since Mac's 20 years earlier. Despite being deaf he has a passion for music and is a huge supporter of "the Dunedin Sound". But he's not the only brewer with a quirky personality. Brewers are funny as a rule.

6 Your book documents the decline of craft breweries in New Zealand to the point where we had a duopoly in the 1970s. Was that unique internationally?

No, beer was dumbed down almost everywhere with the post-war industrialisation, high volume commoditisation of beer. New Zealand had a kind of arms race between Lion and DB in the 1950s and 60s to control all the production and the pubs where it could be sold. By the 70s there were virtually no free houses left. In America it was a similar story with a handful of breweries dominating the market. Eventually people had had enough. Not everyone fits into two tribes.

7 Historically corporate takeovers of independent breweries resulted in their destruction. Has that been the case in recent time?

Founders' beer has gone downhill since it was bought by Independent Liquor. Emerson's beers are better because they've got a new brewery. There hasn't been enough time to judge Panhead and Tuatara. Mac's are better by a country mile. Takeovers are not necessarily bad when it comes to flavour. The downside is that when the big breweries can offer their own craft beers on tap, there's less incentive for pubs to become free houses. Eighty per cent of our bars are tied up. It's worth signing up with the big guys who provide mezzanine finance for set up costs.

8 How much of the market share is taken by craft beers?

Beer consumption per capita has dropped every year since its peak in 1978 until the last quarter of 2016 when we had a slight uptick for beer above 5 per cent alcohol, which suggests craft beer is driving the resurgence. If you include big brewery's brands like Macs, Monteiths and Boundary Road then craft beer is approaching a 20 per cent market share, growing at around 20 per cent a year. If you don't, then it's more like a 10 per cent share, growing at 35 per cent a year. New Zealand doesn't have a definition of craft beer like America which has strict rules relating to the size of the brewery and the independence of its ownership.

9 Can you remember the first beer you tasted growing up?

My father was in the air force so we moved constantly. The summer I turned 16 my father got me to try a different drink every Saturday night for a month. I don't remember what brand my first beer was, probably a Lion Brown, but I wasn't that fond of it. I drank mainly red wine in Australia where I worked as a sports reporter with NZPA and didn't try craft beer until I came home 15 years ago.

10 Which beer changed your life?

People in the trade talk about their "beer epiphanies" - the one you can't go back from. For me it was an Emerson's Pilsner on tap at the Martinborough Hotel. It was just divine - the freshness, the depth of flavour. The hop aroma was revelatory and it had a real richness to the malt texture. My wife stopped drinking her wine and we sat in the middle of wine country drinking pints for the rest of the evening. The industry's moved on a bit since then. Now my choice of pilsner is Parrot Dog Pandemonium - I find it really intense and refreshing. My beer of choice would probably be an IPA which has even more hoppiness and more alcohol and more everything. The industry growth is mainly in pale ales and IPAs. There's an insatiable demand.

11 Have you ever drunk a beer that was too hoppy?

Yes. A Danish brewer called Mikkeller deliberately made a beer that was 1,000 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). It was so acidic you could've used it to clean a drain. Recently I struggled with Moa's Perris Sky Juice which was hoppy in a different way. It was full of oils and resins and was really unctuous. It was delicious but finishing it was heavy going. It's like you can only eat so much marmite.

12 You've also written The Big Book of Home Brew. Why bother making home brew when you get to sample so many experts' beers?

Home brewing is what really started me on the path of understanding what it takes to make good beer. Historically beer was made in homes by women, much like bread. My stuff's simply made but it's not plain in flavour. Your own beers are like your children. I have a fridge full of beer and some nights I want to taste one of mine to see how it's matured.

newworld.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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