For the love of beer

Beer Essentials

Michael Donaldson delves into the latest from the craft beer world and finds strong growth and a whole lot of new releases to get excited about this winter

The ‘two-speed economy’ is a great descriptor wheeled out by the likes of finance minister Bill English to depict the way growth in New Zealand is robust in places such as Auckland and Christchurch, but travelling less quickly in rural and small town New Zealand.

In many ways the inverse of that analogy applies to beer.

As Statistics New Zealand revealed recently, the overall volume of beer produced in New Zealand has fallen, again, this year by 2.3 per cent – yet production of beer with over 5 per cent alcohol increased by 6.6 per cent!

If you look at the beer produced by mainstream breweries it’s not hard to calculate that the growth in higher alcohol beer sales is due to craft products – the bigger breweries simply don’t make that many six, seven and eight per cent beers.

Put crudely, the two-speed beer economy means people are increasingly drinking craft beer at the expense of mainstream brands, though they’re drinking less of it by volume. To me, this means folk are opting for a couple of 500ml bottles of a tasty six per cent beer rather than a six-pack of 330ml beers at four per cent.

And the evidence is there to support this craft beer growth, just look at the breweries opening or expanding. As Stu McKinlay, founder of Yeastie Boys, commented recently on Twitter, the breweries he hasn’t heard of now outnumber the ones he knows by name.

All the growth in terms of new hardware is happening at the craft level too. Garage Project, ParrotDog, Emerson’s, Harrington’s, 8-Wired, Moa, Panhead Custom Ales, Invercargill Brewing, North End, Hallertau, Tuatara... all these breweries have either expanded or are about to expand, adding new equipment and increasing capacity. And that’s just off the top of my head. 

But the biggest news in brewing recently is all about a brewery with no hardware. Yeastie Boys* have their beer made at Invercargill Brewery but are about to start making it in Europe – in more ways than one.

On the back of a successful crowd-funding exercise by Renaissance in Blenheim, Yeastie Boys hoped to raise up to $500,000 through Pledgeme in order to expand into Britain and Europe. They gave themselves around a month to raise the money, but in just over half an hour they’d raised half a million bucks from 200 people.

It was a remarkable show of faith by investors in a small but lovable brewery that’s dreaming big. Since that financing the Boys have done some rebranding on their portfolio with new labels, new names and some new products. For instance, Pot Kettle Black – a hoppy dark beer – has been rebranded as South Pacific Porter.

A new release, Divine Hammer, is a rich, warming amber ale that’s perfect for this time of year. And a suite of new labels, designed by McKinlay’s partner Fritha, bring a coherence to the brand.

Autumn means Bluff oysters are back on our plates and soon they’ll be back in our glasses. Three Boys Oyster Stout, an iconic brew made with Bluff Oysters, is gaining fans by the year with its smooth combination of chocolate malts and gentle briney background note. It’s a beer to savour on a winter night and is worth stocking up on as it will last for a long time in your cellar.

Also in stores now is Emerson’s Taieri George, which is released annually on March 6 to commemorate the birthday of brewer Richard Emerson’s late dad George, a huge train enthusiast, whose work on the Taieri Gorge railway is captured in this cutely named spiced ale with its lacing of cinnamon and nutmeg. Despite an ABV of 6.8 per cent, the body is light and offers surprisingly easy drinking, as you’d expect of a hot cross bun in a bottle. Emerson’s brewery expansion is also underway on its new Dunedin site.

Also in a new brewery is 8-Wired. Formerly operating on a contract basis out of Renaissance in Blenheim, brewer Søren Eriksen transplanted his operation to Warkworth, north of Auckland, and the first beer out of his new establishment was the aptly named First Blood, an imperial red IPA that clocks in at eight per cent and has a robust bitterness offset by a light toffee pop malt base and a rusty, iron-like quality that hints at its name.

Another brewery with new digs is Harrington’s. In the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes the family-owned brewery had a chance to consolidate its scattered operation into a central premises in Wigram and with the change has come an upgrade to some of the labels and names. 

The Brewer’s Selection brings together some great drops under a one-design label and, thankfully, sees the dropping of one of the worst names in New Zealand beerdom, with the lustrous Baltic Porter now known as just that – I won’t miss the ‘Baltic-ler’ moniker. Worth checking out as well is the India Pale Ale – this 7.4 per cent beer bucks the trend of American-style IPAs  and leans back towards an English style, albeit with a more punchy hop regimen, and the strong pilsner is super-smooth and flavoursome.

Another long-standing brewery taking a change in direction is Mac’s. Their new six-packs of Green Beret IPA represent a stronger push towards the craft beer end of operations from the Lion-owned outfit. It hopes to have trains running on both tracks in the two-speed beer economy – using Emerson’s as its flagship craft brand, Speight’s as its traditional lower-price bulk buy, and Mac’s bridging the gap. Green Beret’s gentle 5.4 per cent malt character and juicy but restrained hop oils combined with a dry finish, make it very drinkable. It’s a perfect bridging beer for those who find some craft brews too hoppy.

Speaking of hoppy, Epic’s latest release in the “one trick pony” range is called Equinox. Brewer Luke Nicholas is the only Kiwi I’m aware of who managed to get his hands on Equinox, a new American hop. My first word, spoken aloud to no one in particular on sipping this beauty was: “Fruity”.
Now, fruity isn’t everyone’s cup of tea in a beer, but it works for me and this beer bursts to life with a fruit salad medley of flavours and is a sign of the times in the hop world, where brewers are increasingly finding ways to maximise the fragrant essential oils in hops. For less fruit and more marriage of bitter and sweet, a new batch of Epic’s Lupulingus, which translates loosely to ‘hops on steroids’, is also on the shelves. 

* Disclaimer: This writer is a shareholder in Yeastie Boys.

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