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The best New Zealand beers for summer drinking

Michael Donaldson’s round-up of the best Kiwi beers for summer.

Beer – though still thoroughly analogue – is going the way of many other industries in the digital age with increasing fragmentation, niche markets and a “long tail” of small volumes supplied to a growing base of diverse customers.

The fragmentation is happening on many levels – from an increasing number of geographical pockets to an ever-widening range of stylistically deviant beers some purists might scoff at but punters lap up. Here, I’m talking about the super-fruity “hazy” pale ales, lactose-laced “milkshake” or “dessert” beers and approachable, fruited sours.

On top of that, producers are focusing on quick-turnover, small-volume batches – a new beer being produced every other week from some breweries is not uncommon. These are designed to capture the attention of promiscuous fans on the lookout for something new, as well as playing to the “fresh is best” mantra for beer. It’s the ultimate expression of a beer revolution that railed against the global giants for chundering out huge volumes of just one beer to a conservative consumer base whose only concern was that the beer was both cheap and cold.

Curiously, despite this uneconomical model for small breweries, the price of good beer has actually come down, thanks to cut-throat competition among 200-plus brew brands seeking limited shelf-space in supermarkets and bottle stores. When it comes to six-pack pricing (and yes, the days of single 500ml bottles are over), you either go hard or go home.

That’s exactly what’s happening, with the intensity of competition forcing many regional breweries to retrench to the local market and seek a small but loyal base in their immediate geographic area. South Island breweries, in particular, have found it nearly impossible to crack Auckland markets, due to the cost of freight and the sheer volume of competitors.

But it’s not all bad news for the likes of Hop Federation in Rīwaka, Altitude in Queenstown or Sunshine in Gisborne – with regional New Zealand (so far removed from the cliched, hipster-central of Wellington) happy to embrace the craft ethos. To illustrate the highly regional nature of beer, just look at Auckland’s Hallertau, which has produced a beer called 09 – specifically for an Auckland audience.

The positive aspect of this provincial-mindedness is that it’s how New Zealand will continue to sustain a diverse beer ecosystem that encompasses a handful of giants, a few dozen “supermarket” players, and a whole raft of small, sassy, niche and regional breweries operating at a grassroots level.

The adage “beer is best drunk in the shadow of the brewery” applies in more ways than one: fresh, flavoursome beer from skilled local brewers is our future, especially from a tourist perspective.

With that in mind, my pick of the best beers of 2019 comes with a cautionary note: I’ve gone for drops that I know are produced on a regular basis and are widely available, while also trying to acknowledge some of the better regional brewers. Trust me, there are huge volumes of very good beer being produced in small batches every day all over the country.

Lager

Epic Lager

I picked up an Epic mixed six-pack last year because it represented great value. I was mostly after the hoppy beers (the APA, IPA, double IPA), but the eye-opener was the lager – citrus bright with just enough bready sweetness to hold it together. You’ll convert your green-bottle, anti-craft mates with this one.

Fork Brewing Golden Handshake

From New Zealand’s champion small brewery (production less than 100,000 litres per year) two years running, this utilises modern German hops for a bright orange, tangerine and minty fresh beer with a looooong finish.

Pilsner

Liberty Halo

This has become the very definition of what we called “New Zealand-style” pilsner. Tropical fruit drizzled in lime juice with a long, sweet-over-bitter finish that entertains your palate and engages your brain. Quaffable beer for the discerning drinker.

Panhead Port Road Pils

A jungle of tropical fruit and hints of sauvignon blanc on the nose with a robust carbonation and bright bitterness that doesn’t dominate. Panhead is best known for their cult Supercharger APA. For me, the Pils is way more racy.

Wheat Beers

Bach Brewing Witsunday IPA

Wheat-based beers don’t grab the imagination of Kiwi drinkers, except when they go to a Belgian beer cafe and slug down some Hoegaarden… It might be something to do with the yeast-derived esters and phenolics that deliver fruit and spice notes. But the best wheat beers are incredibly refreshing, light and flavoursome. Bach Brewing’s Witsunday IPA is an almost perfect marriage of delicate yeast esters and hop aromas.

Sunshine Brewing East Coast Saison

Gisborne’s Sunshine Brewing celebrated 30 years in the business this year and while most famous for fuelling Wellington’s early adopters with Gisborne Gold, they now make an exceptional range of beer and this lemony, refreshing saison really is sunshine in a glass.

Pale Ale

Boneface Hoptron APA

A focal point of Upper Hutt’s expanding beer-tropolis known as Brewtown, Boneface deliver fantastic, well-made, flavour-packed beers. The Hoptron APA is sweaty pine needles up-front, backed by a restrained toffee note before you’re hit with a zap of bitterness. In a quantum physics way, it’s sumptuous and smashable at the same time.

Brave Brewing Bottle Rocket

Brave is the epitome of what I’m talking about when it comes to regional excellence. You don’t see too many of their beers outside of their catchment, but when visiting Hawke’s Bay, it’s on the must-do list alongside the best wineries. Bottle Rocket is punchy, citrusy pale ale with just the right amount of malt sweetness.

IPA

Liberty Knife Party 

With IPA, I’m always looking for clean, tightly structured, flavoursome and refreshing drops, with nothing flabby or jaggedly out of place. Liberty’s Knife Party is an exceptionally coherent beer, with the bold bitterness tightly integrated. Not for the faint-hearted at 7.1% because it’s so extremely drinkable. Now in six-packs.

Parrotdog Janice

Parrotdog have a great core range, but they also bring out occasional releases in cans which all have “names”: Lloyd, Susan, Colin, Vivian, Keith and so on. Janice is double IPA with a global mix of hops from New Zealand, Australia and the US. A zingy citrus is undercut by sweeter tropical fruit on a super-lean base that makes it a dangerously drinkable 8.5% delight.

Hazy

Other Half x Garage Project No Sleep Til Brooklyn

Earlier this year, Garage Project organised an ambitious festival and conference called Hāpi, for the Maori word for hops. They brought out some of the best brewers from the US for the festival and created collaboration beers with some of them. This double IPA with New York’s Other Half captures the essence of this “hazy” style revolution. Big punchbowl of fruit, creamy mouthfeel (thanks to lactose and oats) and solid line of defining bitterness that breaks through the sweet layers.

Behemoth Lid Ripper

There are so many great hazy beers out there, and a range of breweries that you can trust intimately to deliver flavour: Sawmill, Parrotdog, Emerson’s, Garage Project, McLeod’s and Deep Creek among them. But to me, the multi-award winning Lid Ripper is the OG of this style in New Zealand.

Sour 

Duncan’s Raspberry Ripple

With raspberry, vanilla and lactose the lingering just-sour note you get what it says on the label – a raspberry ripple ice cream effect. Quite rightly one of the top-rated beers at the 2019 Beervana festival where I first tried it; I’ve been going back for more scoops ever since.

New New New Synaptic Voyage

A relative newcomer out of Dunedin, New New New Corporation do some out-there beers (smoked eel stout?). This Thai lime and lemongrass sour is bracingly tart, dry and super-refreshing. A wine lover’s delight.

Porter & Stout

Cassels Milk Stout

Christchurch’s Cassels & Sons got a lot of air-play from the fact their Milk Stout beat Guinness for the title of best stout at the 2019 World Beer Awards. It’s a big to-do – not many New Zealand beers win awards at this level. Expect milk chocolate, dried fruit, coffee-with-cream and a generous, soft mouthfeel.

Choice Bros Shake It

Running in parallel to the hazy IPA train is the lesser-known variation: the milkshake beer, or pastry stout. These haven’t quite captured the imagination in New Zealand the way they have in Britain or the US, but the idea is to create a super-sweet, dessert-influenced beer based on breakfast cereals, pastries and puddings. This, from a small but hyper-inventive Wellington brewery, is based on a chocolate milkshake – and it’s just that.

Barrel-Aged

North End Baby Grand

Barrel-aged beers tend to be for the aficionados, thanks to their complex character and favour (depending on whether the barrel is clean or has bugs, the flavour can range from sweet vanilla to tart fruitiness). Based on the famous Flanders Red, as best articulated by Rodenbach Grand Cru, North End’s Baby Grand is tart, fruity and wine-like. I like to have one on Christmas Day. Perfect.

Kererū Gilding the Lily

I waited for a special occasion to open this 10% Scotch Ale aged in whisky barrels and infused with New Zealand-grown truffles. It sounds like sensory overload, but it’s crazily less than the sum of its parts, in that everything comes together in a cohesive, glorious feast for the senses. The whisky is dominant (there’s no real truffle note, but I figure it adds to the complexity) and the taste is more port-like than beer or whisky. To be shared.

Low Alcohol (2.5%)

Rocky Knob Undies

Terrible name but a smashing beer. I tried this in a line-up of beers twice the weight by alcohol, and it held its own with distinction. It’s light and lovely, but not fly-away in your mouth. The hop character is defined and in balance, delivering a clean and satisfying experience.

Croucher Low Rider

This “small IPA” is consistently our best 2.5% beer. Aromas are a mix of pine, citrus, caramel and berries; light and lean but with heaps of flavour. Like a featherweight boxer, it’s small-framed but packs a punch.

Low Carb

I started down the low-carb route with my food after deciding I was eating too much “hidden” sugar. While I wasn’t quite full keto, there were a few months when I was quite obsessive. And of course beer isn’t compatible with a low-carb lifestyle… or is it? Turns out the big brewers can spot a trend coming from a mile away – in the US, these low-carb (or “lifestyle”) beers are all the rage. It’s taken a while for them to filter downunder, but they’re here and they’re not going away. I tried a range year for experimental reasons and found the best were:

Speight’s Summit Ultra

 The iconic Dunedin brewery was one of the first to embrace this “lifestyle” branding with its Summit range, and the Ultra is an incredibly satisfying beer for a low carber.

DB Export Gold Low Carb

Here’s a tip: I reckon the low-carb version of Export Gold is nicer than the original. Not as flabby and sweet, and therefore more enjoyable.

This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.