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A sign of the times: Talking craft beer at Womad

Michael Donaldson (left) gives writer Sam Button a few tips at Brothers Beer in Auckland. Photo/Rebekah Robinson.

Craft beer enthusiast Michael Donaldson is among the writers and thinkers taking the stage at this year’s Womad festival.

It’s Christmas Eve, 2008. Journalist Michael Donaldson is sitting with his wife Deirdre at the Martinborough Hotel in the Wairarapa. She is drinking wine; he is about to taste an Emerson’s Pilsner for the first time. It was his “epiphany beer”, helping to turn him from a man who knew a good drink to becoming one of New Zealand’s top beer reviewers.

At the time, he was sports editor at the Sunday Star-Times. “We had a new editor and being a bit full of myself, I said, ‘I think we need a beer column and I’m the person to write it for you.’” Since then, he’s become an occasional craft beer reviewer for North & South, and has written three books: Beer Nation (2012), The Big Book of Home Brew (2015), and a biography of legendary Dunedin brewer Richard Emerson, due out this July.

In a sign of just how big the craft-beer scene has become, Donaldson is also joining the festival circuit for Womad’s “World of Words” programme, showcasing writers and thinkers from around the world – alongside music headliners ranging from Teeks and The Black Seeds to Benin’s Angelique Kidjo (with her take on Talking Heads) and South London duo The Correspondents (Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth, 15-17 March).

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Donaldson’s topic will be the business of beer, looking at whether the country can sustain its 200-plus breweries; he’ll also tackle what he calls that hairy old chestnut: What is “craft” beer, anyway?

It was the 1990s, when he was living in Sydney, that Donaldson discovered what New Zealand was missing: a nascent craft-beer industry. (Personal highlights from across the ditch include Cooper’s Sparkling Ale from Adelaide and Freemantle’s Little Creatures, which he once described as the best beer in the world.) “The breweries that were popping up here then were basically exaggerated home breweries,” he says. “New Zealand wasn’t aware craft beer existed.”

Since then, the local scene has exploded. In 2012, Luke Nicholas of Auckland’s Epic Brewing put the market at about 10,000 people. Now, Donaldson reckons, that number would be closer to half a million – and craft beer has truly become an art form. Visitors to the brewery website for 8Wired are invited to submit haiku about their drinks.

So, people are writing poetry about beer now, says Donaldson, and he thinks that’s great. “For a long time, it didn’t deserve anything sweet said about it at all.”     

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of North & South.

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