New Zealand isn’t just setting the pace with coffee and Sauvignon Blanc – there’s some astonishing stuff going on in its craft beer scene too. Norman Miller reports
When Captain Cook made his second foray to New Zealand in 1773, he became its first brewer, whipping up a beer flavoured with local manuka leaves after local Maori told him of its medicinal clout. Sitting in top Wellington beer bar Hashigo Zake, I enjoy a modern-day recreation – Mussel Inn’s Captain Cooker – whose ginger, orange peel and rose notes made it a star of Keith Stewart’s book The Complete Guide To New Zealand Beer.
That 2002 book already listed 240 beers, and New Zealand remains arguably the most vibrant – but least known – per capita craft beer scene in the world. In a country of 4.5 million, over 100 artisan breweries and brewpubs are making beer majoring on Pacific Rim flavours, distinctive NZ hops like Nelson Sauvin (think fresh crushed gooseberry and white wine fruitiness), and a legendary Kiwi drive to push boundaries.
Wellington’s Garage Project exemplifies the Kiwi scene, debuting four years ago with 24 distinctive very small batch beers brewed in 24 weeks. ‘We wanted to do something different, inspired by chefs like Ferran Adrià. Starting 50 litres at a time meant we could really take risks and do things we wouldn’t do making thousands of litres,’ says the Project’s Jos Ruffell. ‘We’ve carried that pace on – in the last year we’ve released 26 new beers.’
While Garage Project has upped quantities, it’s kept the NZ bold streak. Their recent Umami Monster was made with seaweed and fermented bonito flakes, while Château Aro blurred beer and wine boundaries using crushed Pinot Noir grapes. Add to that novel serves such as their 2015 take on a flat white: Russian Imperial coffee stout as the shot, topped with nitrogenous cream ale as the milk. ‘You get the foam, the colour, the interplay between the sharp coffee notes and the milk,’ says Ruffell. ‘But it’s beer.’
NZ’s pint-sized population, however, has led its brewers to focus on quality and invention over quantity, putting its brilliant beers firmly into The League of Gentlemen territory – local beer for local people.
On our shores
But finally the beers are coming to the UK. The New Zealand Craft Beer Collective is a 2015 initiative spreading the love via indie bar chains such as BrewDog, online sellers like Honest Brew and specialist shops such as Brighton’s Bison Beer Crafthouse and south London’s Hop Burns & Black.
Spearheaded by Stu McKinlay of NZ brewmeisters Yeastie Boys and partnered with UK distributor Instil Drinks Co, the Collective is pushing 10 beers from five brewers as a Kiwi taster: Yeastie Boys’ award-winning Pot Kettle Black porter and Earl Grey-flavoured Gunnamatta IPA; the sublime Stonecutter Scotch Ale and session-able Voyager IPA from Renaissance; the Aotearoa Pale Ale and Bohemian Pilsner by Tuatara; 8 Wired’s punchy Saison Sauvin and luscious iStout; and Three Boys’ roasty Oyster Stout and hip hoppy IPA.
At the moment our biggest problem is the beer sells out the moment it hits the shelves
Cue frenzy. ‘At the moment our biggest problem is the beer sells out the moment it hits the shelves,’ says McKinlay, who has relocated to the UK not only to drive the campaign but also to brew some Yeastie Boys favourites here to boost quantity and range. ‘But we always intended to drip-feed the market.’
He’s echoed by Renaissance development manager Roger Kerrison. ‘People always want to try new stuff, so we’ll send other beers in the future to keep them interested.’ He points out, however, that the Collective is the icing on the NZ beer cake. ‘None of us need to sell to the UK. It’s 2% of our sales, just 0.4% for Tuatara. But it’s something we’re happy to grow.’
Boosting awareness is vital. ‘People know US brewers like Stone are great, so they’ll pay £6 for that. But with the Kiwi stuff, are they going to take a punt?’ asks Nick Vardy of Brighton’s Bison Beer Crafthouse. ‘Once they’re aware of how great the NZ beer is that will change.’
So far, signs are looking good, confirms Jen Ferguson of London retailer Hop Burns & Black. ‘The beers have been hugely popular,’ she says. ‘Tuatara’s APA and Yeastie Boys’ Gunnamatta IPA have been particularly well received – succulent beers that really showcase NZ hops.’ Captain Cook would surely approve.
The Beer Collective, beercollective.nz
FOUR TO TRY
Renaissance Clipper Session IPA (3.7%) - A lower-strength IPA with big Kiwi presence courtesy of tropical fruit and citrus notes from NZ hops including Motueka and Waimea.
Tuatara Aotearoa Pale Ale (5.8%) – Swapping US hops for NZ varieties such as Sauvin and Motueka, this hazy beauty offers apricot and herbal flavours with nice bitterness.
Three Boys Oyster Stout (6.2%) – Made with NZ’s legendary Bluff oysters for a hint of pure Kiwi brine, this is rich, roasty and more-ishly complex.
Yeastie Boys’ Gunnamatta IPA (6.5%) – Skip your usual cuppa for this bergamot-infused floral summery quaffer. Persevere if unsure – its appeal grows.
Instil, 020 7449 1685, instildrinks.co.uk; Honest Brew, 020 3750 2366