Last updated on April 14, 2020
Liberty Brewing, New Zealand’s Champion Brewery, almost didn’t enter the NZ Beer Awards.
Owner founder Joe Wood confessed it took a rev-up from his wife and business partner Christina for him to get the entries together. He put in 14 beers that eventually delivered 14 medals, six gold, two champion trophies (for Halo Pilsner and Yakima Monster), the Champion Medium Brewery crown and the sought-after Champion Exhibitor trophy.
Wood admits the stress of the competition almost got the better of him and, despite being chair of the Brewers Guild, he was on the cusp of not putting in any entries.
A lolly scramble
A number of factors played a part in Wood’s reluctance to put his beers up for examination: an innate dislike of competition, the stress of waiting for the results, the expectation, the “lolly scramble” nature of judging.
“We weren’t even going to enter this year because I was sick of the nerves,” Wood tells me.
“I actually don’t like competition,” he adds. “I don’t gamble and when I play golf I prefer just to play, not to be in a competition.”
(The big-hitting Wood plays his golf at Muriwai, the famed links course on Auckland’s west coast where a range of Liberty beers are on tap).
“And I don’t like the waiting. I was the kid who didn’t like Christmas, I was always peeking into the gift-wrapping. Then there’s the butterflies in the stomach on awards night … and high expectations is the other one, it just builds and builds and builds with people saying to me all the time ‘you’re going to win it this year Joe’.
“I say to them ‘you should see our pile of silvers – it’s huge’.”
What changed his mind about not entering?
“Christina had already booked the flights and she said `what have you got sorted out for the awards?’ and I was like ‘nothing – I don’t want to enter’. And she said, ‘well I’ve booked the bloody flights …’”
As a result, Liberty’s entry comprised whatever beer was at hand – no seasonals, apart from Prohibition Porter 2017 and 2018 – and no beers brewed specifically for the event.
“Anything I was making for the four weeks leading up to the awards was all I was able to submit.”
A perfect 14 from 14
As it turned out, Wood’s fears were washed away in a wave of medals of trophies. For the record, Liberty’s 14 entries returned six golds, five silvers, three bronze. Every beer (and one cider) won a medal.
“It’s so refreshing and so fucking nice. It’s a relief. A huge relief.”
But even then, only a sliver medal separated between Liberty and Beer Baroness for the Champion Exhibitor trophy. Calculations based on the points scoring system show Liberty just pipped Christchurch’s Beer Baroness, who entered five beers, and Paraparaumu’s Duncan’s Brewing, who entered four. Last year’s winner, Bach, came fourth and Three Boys fifth.
Wood admits that once he won Champion Medium Brewery, he forgot he had a chance to win Champion Exhibitor.
“I got choked up and emotional – and I’m starting to get that way now just talking about it. Someone said our beer is the best – and it’s true, it’s fucking cool.”
Wood is rapt that his massive success is a result of applying equal attention to all his beers, ensuring each in the portfolio is as good as it can be. His vision is that each beer has its own fan base.
“We’re always tweaking. The biggest tweakers are Divine Wind and Uprising – they are the newest ones and I want them to be cult beers. I want people to say ‘this is the one I like’. People say that about Halo, Knife Party and C!tra – but I want these other ones to be up there as part of the vocabulary.”
Uprising, a New Zealand pale ale, will certainly garner a wider audience especially as it’s no longer tagged “west Auckland pale ale” much to the disappointment of loyal westies! He’s also tweaking for consistency, something drinkers always appreciate.
“As the harvest changes, malt can change and hops can change – so you’re always tweaking depending on what the specs are when the ingredients come in. You’re tweaking for consistency – so it comes out tasting like the last batch did.”
Liberty Brewing: Celebrating 10 years
All this comes as Liberty celebrates its 10th year – having started out in a garage in New Plymouth, through a move back to Auckland and brewing at the Beer Fountain (Hallertau) for a while. Wood soon moved to an industrial area in Helensville, where the brewery continues to grow.
Wood is delighted to win the packaging award. Mainly because it stifles suggestions the recent brand change is an attempt to cash in on the fame and glory. The rebrand, started six months’ ago, brings a more coherent feel to the range. A different take on the up-raised arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty represents each beer.
Wood knows, however, that this success will inevitably mean growth, but he wants to ensure Liberty are never too big for their boots.
While Liberty Brewing are seen as a big player in the market by many, they are actually a small team. “People think we’re a big brewery – but we’re not,” Wood says. Or as he succinctly put it when the entire crew of seven took to the stage to pick up their award – “this is us”.
Those magnificent seven produce and package around 700,000 litres a year. To put that in perspective, the medium-sized brewery category goes up to 2 million litres.
“We can do 800,000 without any extra stress to be fair – when we got back to the hotel we had a debrief with the guys and I said ‘this isn’t going to go to our heads’. We’re not going to do anything stupid, we’ve achieved our goal by proving we make the best beer in New Zealand and if the demand increases that’s fine – we can deal with a level of increased demand but it’s not going to change what we do. We have to keep being us.”
This article first appeared in the December issue of Pursuit of Hoppiness