Craft Beer Corner

Michael Donaldson reviews some of the best new brews and the breweries behind them.


​The brew: American amber ales are slowly gaining prominence in New Zealand. The style, while built around a caramel malt base, is usually clean and crisp and has a restrained hop character. With a lower alcohol profile (this one is 4.7 per cent), a true American amber is a really approachable beer and a great way to start exploring craft beer. Sutton Hoo – the name refers to an ancient burial site in Suffolk, England – is a wonderful beer that will satisfy the palate, from the inexperienced to craft beer aficionados. It has a rich biscuit base which is overlaid with aromas of orange zest to produce a flavoursome beer that feels as though it offers much more body and taste than you could imagine from a relatively low alcohol beer.

The brewery: Townshend’s is a small brewery in Upper Moutere, in the rolling hills of the countryside outside Nelson. Englishman Martin Townshend started the brewery nearly 10 years ago and makes small batches of “real ale”. One of the keys to his brewery’s success is the water, drawn from a natural aquifer. Water is one of the most disregarded ingredients in beer, but it can make a real difference. The natural chemical composition and taste of Townshend’s water, married to a centuries-old natural fermentation process makes this an old-fashioned, but very real brewery where the brewer is an artisan, using all natural ingredients to create an amazing range of great beers.


The brew: First up, this is brilliantly named beer. For modern people who own only battery-powered tools, two-stroke describes the fuel used for lawnmowers, chainsaws and the like. So I like the witty reference to real men’s tools on a light beer. 2 Stoke (a 2 per cent beer) has a good hop aroma – it smells like a real beer. But it’s the taste that makes it. The malt element is strong with a baked biscuit-ness and there’s a shade of honey sweetness that compensates for the loss of the alcohol. The hop bitterness then comes through to create a really long finish that just hangs around. This beer is made by removing the alcohol molecules through an evaporation method – because alcohol goes into a gaseous state at a lower temperature than water, gently heating the brew will burn off alcohol while retaining other key flavours.

The brewery: Stoke, the McCashin family brewery on the outskirts of Nelson, was, for many years, the home base of New Zealand’s first real craft brewery, Mac’s – owned by Terry McCashin and his wife Bev. After battling the big breweries for a decade to break the duopoly that Lion and DB had held for so many years, Mac’s was eventually sold to Lion, which kept brewing beer at the Stoke brewery, leased from the McCashin family. A few years ago, Lion decided to let the lease slide back to the family – probably never envisaging they’d start up another brewery; but that’s exactly what the McCashin family has done, continuing a fine tradition of making great, drinkable beer. 


The brew: The best beers in New Zealand at the moment are arguably the range of double IPAs that are coming out of Epic (Hop Zombie), 8-Wired (Superconductor), Liberty (C!tra), Tuatara (Double Trouble) and Panhead (The Vandal). A double IPA is essentially a classic IPA with double the alcohol and double the hops. But the quality of these New Zealand versions is their amazing balance and drinkability, and Panhead’s Vandal is a perfect example. The hops just rev out of the glass, spitting aromas of passionfruit, pine resin and grapefruit – with the delicious hop character becoming more forward as the beer warms (hint – do not drink these super-hopped beers too cold or you will miss the goodnes).

The brewery: Panhead owner-brewer Mike Neilson cut his teeth with Tuatara, turning out volumes of clean, well designed and classic beers for the fast-growing Kapiti Coast brewery. But last year he decided to branch out on his own and in many ways his life has come full circle. Panhead Custom Ales is set up in an old Dunlop tyre factory in Upper Hutt, where his father Danny once worked. And Danny, as well as being a backer, also helps his son produce his stunning beers with their freakishly appealing labels showing various vehicles from hot rods, to tractors. 


The brew: Some beers are so good, the system for rating them is impossible. On one rating site, I thought five stars wasn’t enough – it needed six or seven, like those amazing hotels in Dubai that are off the scale. This beer is bitter but it’s a sweet bitter – which is nothing at all like bittersweet. Overflowing tropical fruit salad aromas from the hops, backed by a rich caramel malt base and a slick, oily mouthfeel from the high alcohol (9 per cent), everything comes together to create an aromatic, soft and luxuriant and immensely fulfilling beer. Joe Wood describes the hop character of C!tra as smelling like ‘‘sweaty mangos’’ or a ‘‘surfer’s armpit’’. But don’t let that put you off. These are good characteristics – the way blue cheese is good.

The brewery: Brewer Joseph Wood started Liberty when he was living in New Plymouth and working in the port there as well as running a home-brew supplies operation on the side. But last year he made the decision to return home to Auckland. He’s employed as a fulltime production manager at the Hallertau brewery in west Auckland, where he oversees production at the wonderfully named Beer Fountain. That’s where his time is split 80-20 making Hallertau and Liberty beers, and as a result he has a lot of trouble keeping up with the demand for his flavoursome beers.


The brew: This beer was made in the German Hefeweizen style, which means it’s unfiltered – giving it a cloudy, slightly murky appearance, which is perfectly OK. Hefeweizen (which literally means yeast-wheat) gets lots of its flavour profile from the yeast, as opposed to the malt or hops. In this case, there’s a hint of bubblegum and banana – which is typical and desirable in this style – with just a hint of boiled lolly sweetness. The raspberry flavour comes through on drinking and is nicely in balance, creating a refreshing, enlivening and very pleasant taste sensation, with the sweetness held nicely in check by the tart flavour of raspberry and the dry finish.

The brewery: The Raspberry Wheat beer is part of the Monteith’s Brewer’s Series – beers produced at the Greymouth craft arm of the business, as opposed to the core range of Monteith’s products which are made at DBBreweries in Auckland. In Greymouth, at the recently refurbished and spectacular brewery, head brewer Tony Mercer has been given licence to try some interesting recipes made in small batches. These beers push the boundaries of the traditional Monteith’s range and make a vibrant addition to a well-loved brand.


The brew: No-one really knows why this beer is called 1812 – it’s a classic but it doesn’t really relate to classical music (1812 Overture). One suggestion I’ve heard is that 1-8-1-2 are the last four digits of Emerson’s phone number, and knowing brewer Richard Emerson, that would be his sense of humour. Whatever the reason for the name, this is a classic because a) it’s been around so long (though not that widely available) and b) well, it’s a classic style. Unlike some of the modern hop-driven styles of IPA available today, 1812 takes us back to a gentler, English-style IPA with lovely caramel malt and sensational marmalade hops giving a jammy but bitter sweetness that justifies its benchmark status. 

The brewery: The best thing about Emerson’s sale to Lion, which caused some discontent among craft beer fans, is that Emerson’s is now far more widely available than it used to be. Once, you could only really get 1812 on tap in and around Dunedin and now it’s in pubs the length the breadth of the country. Despite the sale, the brewery remains very much the child of Richard Emerson, who started this brewery almost 25 years ago with the ambition to make Kiwi versions of some of the world’s classic beers. Born deaf, Richard argues the loss of one sense has increased his sense of smell and there’s no questioning this man’s palate – he produces some of the most subtle, brilliantly balanced and drinkable beers in New Zealand. You can never go wrong with an Emerson’s. 


The brew: Drinkers used to the generous tropical fruit aromas of New Zealand-style IPAs might be initially surprised by the pungency of this brew from San Diego. Up front there’s a savoury character a bit like spring onions and underneath that, there’s an orange zest oiliness that comes through more as the beer warms up. This definitely packs a great hop hit; a spicy abrasiveness that combines well with the 7% alcohol and generous malt base … the dry finish just keeps asking you back for another mouthful.

The brewery: Coronado Brewing is based in the town of the same name – an “island” in San Diego Bay, just across from the city. It’s not an island in the strict sense of the word as it’s tied to the mainland by a thin strip of land. Two brothers, Ron and Rick Chapman, set up the brewery in 1996 and it remained a small operation until a couple of years ago when an expansion allowed greater production – allowing the beer to reach further afield than the local area. The brewery’s distinctive logo – a mermaid carrying a frothing beer – is a reference to local folklore which had mermaids inhabiting the waters around Coronado Island.


The brew: This is typical of the now widely recognised New Zealand pale ale style. Pop the cap and pour it into a good glass and you’ll get an immediate punch of summer freshness. Orange, peach and freshly cut grass compete for a place in your nose. The rush of freshness comes from using a dry-hopping technique, where a huge  whack of New Zealand hops are added into the fermenter to impart all the wonderful aromas our hops are known for. There's a nice snap of grassy bitterness on the first taste, followed by a creamy, well-rounded, nicely balanced beer that has just the right amount of sweetness to offset the gentle hops, producing an extremely drinkable, refreshing beer that weighs in at 5.5% alcohol.

The brewery: Andrew Childs came to fame a few years ago when his home-brewed American-style brown ale infused with coffee beans was named one of the four winners of the Wellington In A Pint competition, where home brewers were asked to produce a beer that captured the essence of the capital. His wonderfully named Celia Wade Brown Ale was commercially produced by Yeastie Boys and launched the young brewer towards a commercial career. After a stint at Mangrove Jacks, the home brew supplies company, he set up his own brand, Behemoth, in 2013. Behemoth is a great name, because Andrew is a giant of a man and probably the tallest brewer in the business in New Zealand. 

A sour taste - Editors note

This season, personally, I am all about sour beer. This, it turns out, does not mean beer that’s been left out in the sun too long. I learnt this from head brewer at Hamilton brewing legends Good George, Nate Ross, as we set about preparing our joint entry in the Beervana 2014 media brew. “Why don’t we do a a sour wheat beer called Gose?” he suggested. “Sounds brilliant,” I replied while hastily checking Google on my phone under the table. Gose it turns out is a traditional German sour beer, usually made with coriander and salt, and it’s become something of a specialty at Good George. But to meet the “Kiwi-ness” of the media brew regulations out went the coriander and in went a dash of peppery horopito and, what seemed at the time of hand squeezing, the juice of about 12 tonnes of limes.The result was an effervescent, refreshing brew – sharpness from the limes, a gentle hum from the horopito, all balanced out with subtle saltiness. Sublime. And frankly I’m outraged we didn’t win. (I’m looking at you judge and toast! beer-man Michael Donaldson). Still at least I’ve discovered a delicious new beer style to see me through spring.

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