New Zealand’s Champion Brewery almost didn’t enter the NZ Beer Awards.
Liberty Brewing’s Joe Wood confessed to it was only after a rev-up from his wife and business partner Christina that the brewery got its entries together – putting in 14 beers that eventually delivered 14 medals, six of them 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 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 – there were 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.”
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, there was only a sliver 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, was fourth and Three Boys were fifth.
Wood admitted on the night that once he won Champion Medium Brewery, he completely 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.”
What pleases Wood is this 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 – he has a vision that each beer will have its own fan base.
“We’re always tweaking. The biggest tweakers have been 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.”
All this comes as Liberty celebrates its 10th year – having started out in a garage in New Plymouth, through a move back to Auckland where the beer was brewed at the Beer Fountain (Hallertau) for a while, before Wood moved to an industrial area in Helensville, where the brewery continues to grow.
The multitude of awards also included the packaging award and Wood was rapt to pick up that – mainly because it will stifle suggestions that the recent branding change was an attempt to cash in on the fame and glory. But the rebrand has been six months’ in the making and brings a more coherent feel to the range – with each beer represented by a different take on the up-raised arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty.
Wood knows, however, that this success will inevitably mean growth, but he doesn’t want Liberty to get too big for their boots.
While Liberty is 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