Now held every year for the past 15 years, the West Coast IPA challenge involves brewers from all over New Zealand creating a new beer to be assessed by both a team of 20 leading NZ beer judges, and the hundreds of drinkers who head to the bars on the night.
There is only one rule: it must be in the spirit of a West Coast IPA.
It was in modern IPA’s birthplace, the West Coast of the United States, where the challenge first started to take shape. Epic Brewing founder Luke Nicholas and beer writer Neil Miller were among a group that included Hallertau founder Steve Plowman and malt baron David Cryer who had travelled to San Diego to judge the World Beer Cup and attend the Craft Brewers Conference.
The highlight was a tour of Californian breweries in a van Luke says was big enough to hold 13 people (Neil claims it could hold six Americans). They ticked off the big breweries – Lagunitas, Russian River, Stone, with Neil saying his experience at Lagunitas summed up their itinerary.
“I am there at 10am, and the seats at the bar are horses’ saddles,” he says. “We were told people usually get an IPA and work from there. I ordered an IIPA to start from the bartender. It was one of the few times I have seen a nod of satisfaction from a bartender.”
As is customary for any beer nerd heading to the United States, everyone in the group mulled back a massive stash of beer in their suitcases with the intention, according to Luke, to meet up at Hallertau for “an epic hop share”. There was one issue: Steve drank all his beers beforehand.
It came up in conversation when Steve and Luke were in Wellington, drinking with Neil at his usual table at Malthouse while former owner and now leading WCIPA judge Colin Mallon floated around.
“We thought, ‘What is missing from our lives?’,” Luke says. “There were no IPAs in New Zealand at that moment. Epic Pale Ale was probably the hoppiest beer in the country. We wanted that hop buzz you get from big, hoppy beers like we had in the States.”
Colin, who was the most sober witness to the conversation, recalls it rather differently.
“Steve and Luke were having a pissing contest about who could make the hoppiest beer,” he says. “Luke said, ‘Make it a challenge’. And here we are.”
These days, the challenge has spilled over to The Malthouse’s sister bar The Fork and Brewer. The number of people in the bars drinking the beers has also grown quite considerably. It used to be a crowd of 50. But now there are still lines outside Malthouse before 8pm on the night.
So, what is it about IPA that gets New Zealand beer drinkers willing to wait in the Wellington winter weather to go to a bar pouring little else? It’s an obsession that’s backed up by the GABS Hottest 100 Beers results. The most popular style in Australia has consistently been pale ale, while IPA reigns in New Zealand. It is almost always the most hotly contested category at the Brewers Guild awards too.
The style has gone from lean and bitter, dominated by pine and grapefruit, to hazy, soft and juicy. And the challenge has not been immune from trends, despite its name.
Renaissance won in 2014 with Bloody RIPA, a red rye IPA, in a year when red rye IPAs were on trend in New Zealand. Garage Project used the 2016 challenge to introduce New Zealand to East Coast IPA with Party and Bullshit, while the winner from that year, Moa’s Perris Sky Juice, sits somewhere between East Coast and West Coast IPA.
Luke says it is more a case of the challenge changing New Zealand beer culture.
“This is the thing that literally changed craft beer here,” he says. “You get a list of all the beers that have been entered and there are probably some of the best beers from the country, which have gone on to be flagship beers. All because of this.”
He has a point. ParrotDog’s first winner, High Time, is now available year round as Forget-Me-Not. Liberty Knife Party, Epic Armageddon, Perris Sky Juice, Party and Bullshit, Maximus – all initially one-offs – are now regarded as classics by both brewers and drinkers. Liberty and Moa proudly tout their wins on packaging.
But the push goes beyond IPA. The first modern New Zealand barrel aged craft beer, Barrel Aged Armageddon, was made for the challenge, all because Luke read Hops and Glory by British beer writer Pete Brown. In this case, instead of going across the Atlantic and Indian oceans, Luke’s barrels did 128 voyages on a passenger ferry between the North and South islands of New Zealand. The two barrels then went on to join 8Wired’s massive collection.
The competition has done the exact same thing as the New Zealand beer scene – continuously move forward. Matt Dainty created the recipe for Renaissance’s winner and is now entering his own beers into the competition as Boneface Brewing. Former Malthouse regular Jules Grace now runs the Brew Union brewpub in Palmerston North, and also enters beers annually into the WCIPA Challenge.
“You can analyze all the bejesus out of beer, but that takes a lot of the fun out of it. It’s ultimately a fun time.” – Colin Mallon
Beer writer Neil Miller agrees the West Coast IPA Challenge changed beer culture in New Zealand.
“It laid the groundwork for Armageddon to become the country’s most awarded craft beer, nudged Kiwi palates towards hoppier beer and encouraged brewers to push the envelope around what an IPA can be. For an unashamed fan of ludicrously hopped beers, it’s a key event on the calendar. At the start of the year I put my mum’s birthday and the West Coast IPA Challenge in my diary,” Neil says. “Everything else can fill itself out.”
Writing credit – Jono Galuska – The Crafty Pint
In memory to our friend, fellow HopHead and colleague
Neil Miller – 1973 – 2022.
“The WCIPA Challenge has become a major event on the national brewing calendar with the country’s top breweries bringing out their best hop skills and competing to brew the ultimate West Coast IPA.” – drinksbiz
“The West Coast IPA Challenge, held every year by Wellington’s iconic beer venue The Malthouse is arguably New Zealand’s most prestigious beer event. Running for 14 years it’s responsible for birthing legendary beers and putting craft beer in NZ on the map.” – BeerJerk
“Hosted by Wellington’s pioneering craft beer bar The Malthouse, the annual West Coast IPA Challenge is unquestionably one of New Zealand’s most fun beer competitions.” – Stuff.co.nz
““The breweries that have won it – not only have they created great beer – they are the best craft breweries in New Zealand,” – Luke Nicholas Epic Brewing