When most people today think about New Zealand, beer is probably not the number one image conjured up. Instead, the Lord of the Rings film trilogy probably springs first to mind, and they did wonderfully showcase the island nation’s wide and varied landscapes and unique native flora and fauna. In the years following the release of the Tolkien films (2001-3), New Zealand tourism more than doubled, and it shows no signs of slowing down. More people visiting also means more demand for local beer, which in turn can only help New Zealand’s craft beer renaissance.
In 1981, McCashin’s Brewery became the first craft brewery in New Zealand, only five years after New Albion, America’s first modern microbrewery.
New Zealand consists of two main islands, helpfully named the North Island and the South Island, which together are roughly the size of Colorado, but with the population of Los Angeles. Kiwis—a slang term for New Zealanders—like to say that there are more sheep in their country than people, and there’s no reason to doubt them. Almost everywhere you go, you feel remote, with even the busiest roads rarely exceeding two lanes. The native people of New Zealand, the Maori (who began arriving from Polynesia only around 800 years ago), refer to the islands as Aotearoa, which translates as “Land of the Long White Cloud.”
Beer is intertwined with New Zealand’s modern history. When western settlers first arrived in the 1800s—chiefly from Britain and Scotland—they brought brewing equipment with them, and the first commercial brewery opened in 1835. The history of New Zealand’s brewing industry mirrors our own, insofar as it’s a tale of mergers, buyouts and consolidations, which began in the 1920s.
There were also tied house laws, similar to Great Britain’s, which stymied competition and made easier the shrinking of the market players. By 1970, only four breweries remained, and since that decade two giant beer companies emerged, accounting for the vast majority of the New Zealand market. As of today, neither of these two is majority-owned locally. The first, DB Breweries, is 90% owned by Asia Pacific Breweries in Singapore. The second, Lion Breweries, is a subsidiary of Lion Nathan, headquartered in Australia.
The best-known beer outside of New Zealand is undoubtedly Steinlager, which is a Lion brand. Inside the country, it’s not a national brand per se. There are a number of regional brands that have maintained their local popularity, thanks largely to a marketing onslaught, after being gobbled up by the big brewing companies. These include such brand names as DB and Tui (BD brands) and Lion Red, Speight’s and Waikato Draught (Lion Nathan brands).