A nice wee drop

by Mic Dover / 08 April, 2006
In the grog-eat-grog world of New Zealand brewing, small craft brewers are taking on the Big Two in a battle for the hearts and livers of Kiwi beer drinkers.

What a difference a decade has made. When British migrant Geoff Griggs arrived here in 1995, the lifelong member of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) - now a fulltime beer writer in his adopted New Zealand - was surprised that a country renowned for its love of travel had such a limited range of beer. "What was available then was generally cheap, sweet, fizzy and almost flavourless," says Griggs.

Now, premium beers are cutting into wine's stranglehold on alcohol sales, especially in supermarkets, ale aficionados, beer columnists and grog blogs abound and the gentrification of beer is well under way. New Zealand's "Big Two" brewers, Lion and DB, are madly discounting their mainstream beers to maintain market share under pressure from "craft beers".

What is a craft beer? Cynics might define it as anything not brewed by the Big Two. Others would say the term is just a trendy name for obscure beers drunk by the "grognoscenti". But to beer writer Martin Townshend, "it's more of an attitude than a laid-down brewing method-ology. I see craft brewers as competitive yet co-operative, with an emotional investment in the taste and quality of their beer. They brew beer in small batches, with no additives to make it last longer."

Today, there are over 45 craft breweries in New Zealand, many attached to their own pubs, producing distinctive brews such as the Shakespeare's Puck's Pixillation, the Cock & Bull's Fuggles Best Bitter, Harrington's Big John Special Reserve, Brew Moon's Hophead IPA and Dux de Lux's Nor'Wester.

Small breweries have a high attrition rate, but there does seem to be an upswing in their number, especially in the South Island, with breweries like Renaissance, Three Boys, Twisted Hop, Wigram and Moa all starting up recently. But it was another small brewery in the South Island, established 25 years ago in Nelson, that paved the way for the craft beer revolution.

Farmer and publican Terry McCashin, fed up with beige beer, hired English brewer Jim Pollett to produce beers that conformed to the "Reineitsgebot" - the Bavarian beer purity law of 1516 that decrees "beer must be made only with malt, hops, yeast and water". Pollett threw out the adjuncts (artificial additives) and extra sugars that inhabited mainstream lager, and McCashin's (soon known as Mac's) beers were born.

"Terry McCashin was definitely the craft-beer pioneer," says Griggs. "Today, his original beers seem pretty lightweight, but in a country addicted to sweet, golden lagers and draughts, they were very radical for the time, especially Black Mac."

Lion bought out the Mac's brand port-folio in 1999 and much of its production has moved to Christchurch. Two of the latest Mac's branded beers, Wicked Blonde and Sassy Red, are actually brewed by Lion's Shed 22 Brewery in Wellington.

But the success of Mac's inspired a new generation of brewers such as Roger Pink (Pink Elephant), Mike Johnson (White Cliffs) and Barry Newman (the Shakespeare), and those guys in turn inspired more recent entrants such as Richard Emerson in Dunedin and John Duncan at Founders in Nelson, Australasia's first totally organic brewery.

A number of these craft brewers are British migrants who have brought their love of traditional ales to our shores. There are also Kiwis who were first turned on to tasty brews while overseas. Ian Ramsay, assistant brewer at Galbraith's Alehouse in Auckland, recalls, "I was on my OE in the 1970s when some Kiwi mates said, 'Come and drink some warm English beer', and I was amazed. It wasn't full of gas, and it had real flavour."

New Zealand has a great climate for barley, world-class hops in Motueka, vast supplies of mineral-rich water and Kiwi entrepreneurial flair, so our craft beers could take on the world. Domestically, though, are we brave enough to wet our whistle with them?

Townshend's answer is an evangelical "yes" - hence his involvement in setting up a cluster-marketing body called CraftBrewers, which officially launched last month. The organisation has already signed up four breweries (Founders, Harrington's, Lighthouse and the Mussel Inn).

"We are going to stage beer-tasting events with big prizes," says Townshend. "We want to create situations where drinkers can discover there's more to alcohol than just getting inebriated in the quickest possible time at the cheapest possible price.

"Ultimately, I would like to see CraftBrewers representing most of the small Kiwi brewers so we can get agreements on issues like bottle re-use, guest beers in tied outlets and tax breaks like the ones in Ireland and the UK that boost craft brewing."

It could be a big ask. Barry Newman, award-winning brewer at Auckland's Shakespeare Tavern for 20 years, is sceptical. "Small brewers should stop whining and concentrate on improving their craft - 100 percent of the worst New Zealand beer comes from small breweries, because it's infected or oxidised or too old. The Big Two's beers might bore you to death, but they won't make you ill."

Asked about the way that big breweries tie outlets into stocking their beers exclusively, he shrugs. "That's business, isn't it? If it bothers you that much, mortgage your house and set up your own pub."

What's next for Kiwi brewing? Most Kiwi craft beers are pasteurised and filtered, so effectively "dead" when they leave the brewery. Real ale is "alive" - still fermenting until it is served. Could real ale be the next wave? Galbraith's started brewing it in Auckland in 1995, but only the Twisted Hop in Christ-church has followed suit. Griggs sees the US rather than the English model working here. "I don't see English-style real ales being big here. My money's on the American golden pale ales - beers like Limburg's Hopsmacker."

Could organic beers take off? Ex-Mac's and fifth-generation Nelson brewer John Duncan at Founders is doing well, as are Green Fern on the West Coast and White Cliffs in Taranaki. Steve Ekdhale is an organic avocado grower who jumped at the chance to buy the White Cliffs organic brewery in 2003. He says the Asian organic market is growing by 25-30 percent a year.

By the time we host the Rugby World Cup in 2011, maybe those British Lions supporters who declared New Zealand beer "total crap" in 2005 will have to eat their words. In the meantime, from Cape Reinga to Bluff, a decent pint can still be hard to find ... Yeah, right.

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