Sampling 45 different beers on a single day might seem a rather jolly escapade but Sam Williamson takes it seriously.
Sam is production manager for Matakana’s Sawmill Brewery and this month captained a table of judges at the 2020 New World Beer & Cider Awards held at Sky Stadium in Wellington.
Sam says judging beer is a sophisticated art since the making of it can involve many variables, including many different types of ingredients and recipes that work together to create a wide spectrum of flavours.
“You are analysing each sample really intensely and all the while your palette is being calibrated against the palettes of other experienced judges at your table,” he says.
“You tend to be judging balance, bitterness, have the right hops been used for this brew and how does it mesh with the malts.”
He adds that judging wine tends to be much simpler revolving more narrowly around the quality of the grapes, the season and the performance of the yeast.
For this reason, judging of beer tends to involve more discussion. The role of the table captain is to settle technical queries and any arguments over the agreed attributes of any style of beer.
Another point of difference with wine is that to adequately assess beer it is necessary to consume it, rather than spitting it out.
Sam says the quantities of each beer sample consumed are quite small so judges are still in command of their discerning drinking faculties by the end of the day. Though he admits that the afternoon is often devoted to heavier, more flavoursome brews that might have more than 8 per cent alcohol.
“The afternoons get a bit hard and fast,” he says.
While judging beer might seem subjective, Sam says judges are consistent in their assessments about 80 per cent of the time, though ranking the top 30 beers can still be challenging.
“Half of the time you become really nit-picky. The balance is not quite right in that one, the bitterness is a bit too high in this other one. You just become super critical,” he says.
Having said that, Sam, who has been judging beer for seven years, remains extremely positive about the local brewing industry.
“Every year the quality gets better and better. A few years ago, you would be picking out lots of faults. Now it’s more about whether the beer is meeting style expectations. Brewers are doing an amazing job these days.”
Organisers say more than 20 beers from the Mahurangi Area were entered in the 2020 New World Beer & Cider Awards and the area usually “punches above its weight” when it comes to ranking the nation’s top beers. The winning beers will be announced in June.
Beers are blind-tasted so judges have no idea where each sample originates. Exacting processes ensure no judge tastes his own product, meaning Sam did not get to judge any Sawmill beers.