A lucky team of judges are working their way through hundreds of beers and ciders this week as the New World Beer and Cider Awards kick off in Wellington.

More than 100 breweries and cider-makers from around the country and internationally have put a record number of more than 640 brews in the ring, all vying for a spot in the awards' top 30.

Event manager Rachel Touhey said there were 11 pallets of beer and cider brought into Westpac Stadium for the competition, and about 5100 bottles and cans.

Staff organise the drinks in a back room into which the judges cannot go, and bring them out in plain glasses.

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Some beers had different temperatures they should be served at, while others might need to be turned upside down before serving to "rouse the sediment".

The beers and ciders are poured in a back room where the judges cannot see any labeling or branding. Photo / Simeon Patience
The beers and ciders are poured in a back room where the judges cannot see any labeling or branding. Photo / Simeon Patience

Judges will taste up to 60 beers and ciders in a day, and unlike with wine tasting, cannot spit it out after tasting it. This was because "the bitterness is at the back of your palate so you need to taste the whole thing", Touhey said.

To keep their palates fresh, judges eat crackers, bread or mild cheese in between tastings.

Chair of judges Michael Donaldson said the biggest aspect of beer judging was recognising whether the drink had "balance".

"That can mean so many different things because you're working with a sweet ingredient, which is malt ... then you're dealing with traditional hops as a bittering agent."

A good beer could strike a balance between sweet and bitter, but could also lean to one side without skewing the flavour too much, he said.

Many factors could change the taste and drinking experience of beer, including the yeast, the water used, the carbonation, and the level of alcohol – which can affect the perception of sweetness.

"A term I'm fond of using is that, in reality, a beer shouldn't have any sharp or jagged edges," Donaldson said.

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"There shouldn't be anything that when you put it in your mouth you go 'what's that?'"

However, there is a movement recently to make beers that were "a little bit more extreme", including XPA style beers, which Donaldson described as a "pared back" pale ale which removes some of the sweetness. Similarly, Brut IPA fermented out the residual sugar to change the balance of the drink.

Brewers could "move the needle" one way or the other, but the end result still needed to be "approachable and drinkable".

On the flipside, "no one wants anything that's so straight down the lines as to not have any character".

Judges would taste a beer and first determine whether it was balanced. From there they would identify if it had any "technical faults" that made it less enjoyable to drink.

Many of the "mainstream" brands available in stores were "technically excellent" - for example a bottle of Scrumpy cider won the trophy for best cider a couple of years ago.

"I think a lot of people think that the only beers that should get prizes are what they call craft beers, but that's just not true."

Judge Justin Oliver sniffs one of the drinks he is sampling at the Westpac Stadium. Photo / Simeon Patience
Judge Justin Oliver sniffs one of the drinks he is sampling at the Westpac Stadium. Photo / Simeon Patience

Despite this, the more straightforward beers could get "lost" in the judging in comparison to the more adventurous flavours.

Donaldson said he loved discovering new beers when judging, but that it was hard work.

"It's freaking tiring, your palate just gets zonked.

"Your taste buds get tired, you get a bit sleepy because it's like a constant drip feeding of alcohol over four or five hours."

Judges didn't get drunk tasting so many beers, as they were only drinking about a tablespoon's worth of each beer. It added up to about two pints over the course of the day, he said.

Often beer and cider competitions were about "back-slapping" among breweries, but the New World competition was to help consumers find beers they liked, he said.

The top 30 beers and ciders, supported by a handy booklet of tasting notes, will hit shelves mid-year, providing time for the winning brewers and cider-makers to prepare enough fresh product to meet demand in New World stores nationwide.