Last weekend, a small army of judges assembled in Christchurch to assess a considerably-larger army of entries in the annual round of the local Brewers’ Guild Awards.1 We won’t know the results until next weekend2 but ― SPOILER ALERT ― Tui will not win the trophy for New Zealand styles. I don’t say this because I have any form as a gambler or guesser of these things, nor because it doesn’t deserve to score highly in the peculiar context of how beers are judged against predefined styles. Instead, it’s ruled out of trophy contention thanks to a new rule ― well, new-ish; it seems it was enacted last year, but I didn’t notice,3 and didn’t see anyone else mention it, but I think it’s worthy of some attention and some applause.
“A beer will not be eligible to win a trophy if the commercial name of the entry stylistically differs from the class it was entered in,” says the new4 rule. So Tui, a brown lager which fits squarely into the New Zealand Draught category despite being feverishly marketed as an “East India Pale Ale”5 can’t add to its small collection of silverware. Likewise there’ll be no more European Lager Styles trophies for the vienna lager which Speight’s dress up as “Distinction Ale”. And maybe there’s a case to be made that Boundary Road’s Haägen ― which wears a German flag and generally looks as if it’s trying to sneak into a bar using Beck’s driver’s licence as ID6 ― should see the end of its winning ways in the “New Zealand-style lager” category.
The general justification, anyhow, is solid: once you admit that the awards aren’t entirely an inwards-looking game that the industry just plays among itself, and instead you acknowledge that some non-zero fraction of the beer-buying public also gives a damn about them, then some kind of gatekeeping obligation kicks right in. It admittedly wouldn’t make the top million in a list of the world’s most-pressing problems, but beer producers have a longrunning habit of fudging the terminology around styles and processes when it suits them, and it really does get in the way of wider and deeper public knowledge which, in turn, presents an obstacle to more people more-easily finding more beers they’ll love. As people at the geekier end of the spectrum ― if not outright bending the needle on the nerd detector ― it’s all too natural for us to assume that “everyone” can see through the nonsense of some marketing departments, but spend a little while bartending or hosting tastings (as I, you know, do) and you’ll see how depressingly common assumptions like “yellow = lager, black = Guinness, anything in-between = ale” are, and how they get in the way of people’s tastes evolving ― in whatever direction and to whatever degree they feel like, of course. Misinformation is no good for nobody.
The tricky bit here is the two inevitable slippery slopes:7 1) how strictly to police this ― whether it really is just names and really is just outright contradictions that disqualify, or if implications as to styles in the wider presentation of a beer also counts (such as the label text, marketing bumf, and sales material ― where quite a few black lagers are gently implied to be, say, porters) ― but more-pressingly, 2) why just trophies, and not also medals and the mere participation in this process at all? The first question is of the kind that’s always hard to solve, but the second seems pretty plain; the same reasoning which now denies Tui its trophy should also hold back a medal.
And in fairness, this nonsense is perhaps starting to fade. Monteith’s “Winter Ale”, a frequently-award-winning doppelbock, is now actually marketed as a doppelbock. This, remember, from the same conglomerate that so consistently misrepresents Tui.8 These terms all mean something, and it’s not hard to imagine a future in which they might be more dependably informative ― which, again, would benefit just literally everyone. That the Brewers’ Guild has decided to more-carefully dole out the prestige of its trophies with this in mind is an excellent start.9 But only a start.