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Hop to it: The best Kiwi beers for summer

There's lots of great New Zealand beer to drink this summer. Photo/Getty.

Michael Donaldson seeks out the best Kiwi beers for summer.

The “bitter end” is nigh for craft beer, if 2018 is anything to go by.

For a decade, “craft” has been synonymous with bitter – and fair enough, as both drinkers and brewers became preoccupied with IBUs (international bittering units).

But intense bitterness is slowly giving way to softer, sweeter hop flavours and aromas as brewers play with hopping techniques, and technology delivers products such as hop oils and resins that forgo the astringent vegetal component in hops to accent the essential fruit and floral character.

The most obvious example of gentler, softer bitterness is found in “hazy IPA” (aka New England IPA or NEIPA). Developed as an antidote to the resinous, citric, bitter West Coast IPAs that dominated the market, these are unfiltered and unpasteurised, which bumps up the flavour and mouthfeel.

We’ve also seen the rise of Brut IPA. If NEIPA is like a rolling back of the clock to a more organic, natural style of beer, Brut IPA is California tech-driven. A malt-derived enzyme called amylase is used to mop up excess sugar to create a super-lean, dry (as opposed to sweet) malt profile with high alcohol. There’s zero residual sweetness (in fact, there’s as much sugar as a glass of water – but don’t confuse that with no calories; there are still calories), so brewers can’t overplay the bitterness. Therefore, like hazy IPA, these are driven by softer hop oils and aromas, not aggressive bitterness.

Read more: Savvy picks: New Zealand's top sauvignon blanc picks from 2018

At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen an increase in acid-driven, fruit-infused beers – often tagged sour. Here, brewers drive down the pH of the beer with lactobacillus (the bug that makes yoghurt) to pre-sour beer before taking it through the normal boil-cool-ferment-condition process.

Sour is beer’s natural state, dating back thousands of years. But as brewers refine the acidity levels and play with fruit additions, these modern “kettle sours” are garnering fans who’d previously have turned up their noses at traditionally bitter beer. While humans have evolved to be wary of bitter – it can indicate toxicity – we’re pretty good with acidic flavours: think old-fashioned lemonade, acid-drop lollies and, er, wine.

Despite the acid craze, IPA and pale ale remain the dominant styles in supermarkets and bottle stores, and the popularity of both shows no signs of abating. However, even these beers have benefited from a move towards softer bitterness, becoming more approachable and gentle.

In compiling the recommendations that follow, I’ve taken into account a combination of awards (New World Beer & Cider Awards, New Zealand Beer Awards, Australian International Beer Awards), ratings on Untappd – the beer-lover’s social media platform – and personal experience. I’ve also avoided one-off, seasonal and limited-run beers – with one exception, Liberty’s Prohibition Porter, because it was the best beer made in New Zealand this year.

From left, Hop Federation Lager, Kainui Rank & File Porter and McLeod’s Paradise Pale Ale.

Lager & Pilsner

Hop Federation Lager

★★★★

Multiple award-winning lager, atypical compared with the sharper 5% green bottle variants. As light as a summer breeze on the palate and just 4% ABV (alcohol by volume); the twist is how the bitterness starts soft and oily, and then builds to a long, lingering grassy finish. $5-$6 for 330ml bottle.

Sawmill Pilsner

★★★★

A classic pilsner style out of Matakana, north of Auckland. Honey and cereal grains underpinned by lime and lemon citrus before a clean, dry finish. A crisp minerality and building bitterness make it an excellent and classy summer quaffer.

$8-$9 for 500ml bottle.

Liberty Halo Pilsner

★★★★★

New Zealand’s style of pilsner grabbed the world’s attention this year, and this is the best example of it. Tropical Kiwi hops (passionfruit, guava, lime zest) overlay a grainy malt to produce a beer that’s fragrant, refreshing and finishes slightly sweet-over-bitter. $6-$7 for 440ml can.

Pale Ale & Bitter

Bach Brewing Billfish APA

★★★★

Champion in its class at this year’s Australian International Brewing Awards – and scooped the champion pale ale trophy at the New Zealand Beer Awards. Delivers complex layers of juicy stonefruit but remains pleasingly light and breezy, despite a hefty 5.8% ABV. $7-$8 for 500ml bottle.

Epic Thunder

★★★★

Brewer Luke Nicholas has thrived under the “one trick pony” moniker (as in hops, hops and more hops) but is adapting to changing tastes with this softer, sweeter pale ale, full of vibrant tropical fruit flavours; lush without overpowering bitterness. $6-$7 for 500ml bottle.

McLeod’s Paradise Pale Ale

★★★★

McLeod’s Pizza Barn in Waipū has become a bucket-list destination with amazing pizza and stunning beer, including this modern benchmark. Impossibly fruity yet with a clean bitterness, it has Northland summer stamped all over it. $8-$9 for 500ml bottle.

Emerson’s 1812

★★★★

This one has been around for 25 years but never tasted better, thanks to the new Lion-built Emerson’s brewery in Dunedin. Superbly balanced, with caramel malt underpinning sweet citrus and a clean bitterness that drives you back for more and more. $7-$8 500ml for bottle.

Galbraith’s Bob Hudson’s Bitter 

★★★★★

Galbraith’s has been an Auckland institution coming up 30 years, but until now you couldn’t get their flagship beers anywhere other than the brewery. They bottled some “fizzy” beers for a while and technology now allows them to package their “real ale” – beer fermented in, and served from, the same container. “Bob” is can-conditioned (the beer continues fermentation in the can); lightly carbonated, it’s best served slightly warmer to get the maximum joy of an English bitter. $6-$7 for 440ml can.

Parrotdog Falcon APA

★★★★★

From the star brewery of 2018 – and everything is bang-on. This American Pale Ale is packed with complex hop characters that deliver a mix of ripe tropical fruit and a pleasing dank, herbal character. A light but rigid malt base is loaded with flavour and mouthfeel – this feels way bigger than its 5.4% ABV. $3-$4 for 330ml bottle.

From left, Garage Project's sour beer, White Mischief; Urbanaut Copacabana Brut IPA; Garage Project DFA.

India Pale Ale

Altitude Mischievous Kea

★★★★

A more traditional English-style IPA from Queenstown outfit Altitude, this is a delightful, progressive drinking experience. Toasty malt and subtle hops sneakily work their way into your taste buds. Balanced, approachable and second-pint moreish. $9-$10 for 500ml bottle.

Good George IPA

★★★★

Hamilton’s flagship brewery has a loyal following, thanks to its unique 1-litre squealer bottles and a range that remains consistent while pushing boundaries. This IPA is super-quaffable and reliable. Citrus and tropical fruit, followed by a tingling just-right bitterness. $14-$15 for 946ml bottle.

Urbanaut Copacabana Brut IPA

★★★★

The summer joy of tinned fruit salad in a glass. The use of an enzyme found in malt, amylase, mops up all the residual sugar, so the body is like the lightest, driest Champagne. Clean, refreshing and elegant, with the bitterness pulled right back. The IPA for those who think they don’t like IPA. $8-$9 for 440ml can.

Moa Southern Alps White IPA

★★★★

Champion beer at the New Zealand Beer Awards. A hybrid style combining the spicy yeast-driven profile of a Belgian witbier (coriander, lemongrass, pepper) with the pine-citrus hoppiness of American IPA. Intense, complex, challenging and gratifying. $6-$7 for 500ml bottle.

Garage Project DFA

★★★★

Last year, Garage Project killed off its popular Death from Above, following some negative reaction to the reference to napalm use in the Vietnam War. This reinvented version, Demus Favorem Amori (We Stand for Love), tweaks the chilli, lime and mango flavours into something even better. Perfect savoury-sweet-heat combination. $11-$12 for 650ml bottle.

Behemoth Lid Ripper

★★★★★

The definition of modern IPA. Its label says it all: rip off the lid and drink from the can. Perfect for camping, parties, barbecues. Poured into a glass, it showcases the trend towards hazy IPA. Lush, creamy and packed with pineapple and passionfruit hop flavours. Soft, smooth bitterness. $9-$10 for 440ml can.

Parrotdog Forget-me-not

★★★★★

Intense apricot and orange zest jammyness on slick, resinous and just-sweet-enough base. The flavours are like a big wave that keeps rolling over your palate to create a bittersweet yin-yang. Everything you could want in a beer – powerful and put together with all the detail of a luxury car. $8-$9 for 500ml bottle.

Outlier Cartel Cloudburst Double IPA

★★★★★

A smooth(ie) sensation – creamy and rich, with mango, apricot and pineapple flavours. This is made with oats and lactose (it pays to check these hazy/milkshake IPAs before buying), as well as lupulin powder, a process that brings out the oily, resinous quality in hops without the astringent, vegetal bitterness. One of the best of 2018. $10-$11 for 440ml can.

Sour & Tart

Garage Project White Mischief

★★★★

The perfect jumping-off point for wine lovers exploring beer. Intense peach on the nose is followed by a fruity tartness, a hint of salt and a gentle spritz. Extremely dry and refreshing. And just 2.9% ABV. $5-$6 for 330ml can.

North End Become the Ocean

★★★★

Gose (go-zah) originated in East Germany more than 1000 years ago but almost went extinct behind the Berlin Wall. Brewed with salt, coriander and lactic acid on a wheat base, this traditional version is refreshing, versatile and delightful. Swimmingly good. $6-$7 for 440ml can.

8 Wired Cucumber Hippy

★★★★

Cucumber? In beer? Weird, but it works. On a base known as Berliner Weisse, which is traditionally sweetened by adding raspberry or woodruff (marzipan flavour) syrup, it’s the addition of cucumber that creates the most refreshing and surprising taste sensation of the year. $6-$7 for 440ml can.

Kererū Feijoa Weisse

★★★★★

Multiple award-winning brew out of Upper Hutt. Tart feijoa fruit on an already tart Berliner Weisse base doubles down on the acidity to create a clean, sharp and refreshing drop. Feels like cider crossed with a crisp, white wine. $8-$9 for 500ml bottle.

Porter & Stout

Kainui Rank & File Porter

★★★★

From a farmhouse brewery in Kerikeri, this American – or hoppy – Porter offers milk chocolate and coffee, giving way to well-integrated pine and cut-grass hop character. Long, silky slide from sweet to gently bitter. $9-$10 for 500ml bottle.

Behemoth Triple Chocolate Milk Stout

★★★★

Intense layers of decadent chocolate mousse and vanilla are offset by a dry cocoa bitterness. It’s so chocolatey, it could serve as a dessert – drop a scoop of vanilla ice cream into a glass of this and you’ll be in heaven. $11-$12 for 440ml can.

Liberty Brewing Prohibition Porter

★★★★★

New Zealand’s top-rated beer on social media app Untappd, as well as a festival favourite and award winner. It’s a limited edition – if you can’t lay your hands on some, look out for the 2019 vintage. Next-level chocolate vanilla intensity. Rich, decadent, other-worldly.  $10 for 330ml bottle.      

This article was first published in the December 2018 issue of North & South.

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