The Land of the Long White Cloud is starting to cast a shadow on the craft beer scene.

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 32, Issue 3
July 1, 2011 By

New Zealand is small. It is small and it is a long way from just about everywhere. Its largest city, Auckland, is more than 1,300 miles from the nearest similar-sized city, making it the most remote major city in the world. Its capital, Wellington, is also the world’s southernmost capital city.

With only one city boasting a population over a million, you get a clue to the size of the country. Only 4.3 million people call New Zealand home, giving it roughly the same number of citizens as Kentucky—all living in an area well over twice that state’s size.

This geography lesson isn’t gratuitous. Size and isolation are both factors in the development of the country’s rapidly evolving and very unique craft beer scene.

The same adventurous and artistic spirit that has infected brewers globally drives the expanding New Zealand craft beer industry. But in a country with a population one-seventieth the size of the United States, the need to find sustainable sales amongst a much smaller population—a population that is still in the formative stages of craft brewing discovery—means that the crafty New Zealand brewer needs to be creative with less expansive beers. A beer designed for a niche market has a very small niche to work with.

The country’s smaller market isn’t assisted by a graduated excise scheme that sees higher alcohol beers taxed at a punitive rate, greatly increasing their cost and further pushing these beers into the margins. The two factors are combining to drive one of the more interesting and original trends internationally, the quest to create bigger flavors while keeping the gravity comparatively low.

Top of the Hops

While the Southern Hemisphere brewer looks longingly at U.S. peers going large with imperial hop monsters and higher alcohol beers, the typical New Zealand brewer is forced by circumstance to be inventive with more approachable styles. An increasing number of breweries do have a U.S.-inspired hop-driven pale ale or IPA in their range, but the core range for most brewers consists of more sessionable beers in the 5 percent ABV and below category.

The typical brewery or brewpub will usually include in its range pilseners, golden ales, hefeweizens, porters and traditional British styles. The twist with many of these beers, though is the effective use of distinctive domestic hop varieties to give them a uniquely Kiwi flavor.

And New Zealand hops are unique—if citrus and grapefruit are common aroma descriptors for many of the hops used globally today, New Zealand hops run the full gamut of tropical fruit salad aromas, with fruits such as gooseberries dominating.

These hops lend a definite New Zealand character to its brewers’ take on many traditional styles, including what is currently coming to be identified as the defining New Zealand craft beer style, the New Zealand pilsner.

Just as the hop-driven American-style pale ale came to be recognized internationally as the flag bearer of the U.S. craft beer movement, the New Zealand pilsner is coming to be a totem for the Antipodean craft beer movement.

The New Zealand version of this classic lager takes the traditional pilsner’s firm malt backbone and robust hop bitterness and adds a huge splash of these wildly aromatic local hops. The result is, as one visiting beer writer described, a beer that “has both pilsner and Sauvignon Blanc lovers reaching for the same glass.” It is immediately recognizable as a good quality and very sessional lager, but is also complex and interesting enough to please the dedicated craft beer drinker.

Enter the Cuckoo

All this isn’t to say that there aren’t brewers edging the brewing dial up to 11, though another of the distinctive elements of the New Zealand scene is that some of the most interesting brewers don’t actually have their own breweries. A number of New Zealand’s new wave have opted for what some may call contract brewing, though this isn’t necessarily the best description. The term ‘cuckoo brewers’ might be more apt, named after the bird that lays its eggs in another’s nest. Unlike some forms of contract brewing, most of these brewers do the brewing themselves, just in another brewer’s plant.

One of the newest of their number has come to typify the breed. Soren Eriksen is an intriguing character; a native Dane, he married a New Zealand girl and came to New Zealand via Australia. While in Australia to finish his masters degree in biochemistry, he became enamored with Little Creatures Pale Ale—a hoppy and aromatic beer in the mold of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Soren Eriksen

Seeing his growing love for flavorsome beer, his wife presented him with an extract homebrew kit as a Christmas present in 2005. He quickly progressed to using specialty grains and then all-grain, soon deciding that brewing was where his future lay. His career-change was sealed during a road trip through the U.S. where he stopped at every brewpub that he came to. “My wife and I decided we wanted to start a brewpub in New Zealand somewhere and so I got a job at Renaissance Brewery on New Zealand’s south island to gain some commercial experience,” he says. “I planned to stay three months, but we quickly realized that a brewpub has its challenges, especially financial ones, and it was a very risky venture in such a small market.”

Instead he chose to test the waters and build his brand first by using his employer’s spare capacity to brew under his own label. He reasoned that this route meant he wouldn’t have to compromise the beers he wanted to make in order to achieve volume. “You need to make a lot of beer to sustain the overhead of owning a brewery,” he explains. “The hardest thing with making beers in a small market is that I’m not trying to please everybody, so we’re definitely aiming for a smaller niche in the market, and probably even a small niche in the craft beer market.”

I look at a brewery like Dogfish Head, which has grown huge compared to a New Zealand brewery. You just couldn’t do their beers yet in New Zealand and sell more than a few hundred liters a month because the market is so small.” So, utilizing his employer’s excess capacity, he’s set out to build a business and has immediately made a name for himself. The first beer through his 8 Wired Brewing Co. was his version of a West Coast IPA, brewed with New Zealand hops. Called Hopwired, Eriksen believes it is the hoppiest beer on the New Zealand market.

Immediately identifiable as a big IPA, its signature New Zealand hops explode on the nose. New Zealand hops are even more complex than American hops or European hops, with a more broad range of tropical fruitiness,” Eriksen claims. “Though this can come with a few drawbacks as they can be a bit sulphury, or petrolly, so you must be a little careful using them. It’s easy to overdo the use of New Zealand hops—it’s a hard hop to use a lot of and still keep the balance in the beer.”

Eriksen is using his non-brewery-owning freedom to be more experimental and as we spoke he was on the verge of putting an imperial stout into oak, as well as starting to play around with a Belgian pale ale and tripel.

While he has been making beers considered big by New Zealand standards, Eriksen is also keeping true to local form. He’s most excited about a project to try and get as much flavor as he can into a beer that’s less than 2 percent alcohol. Describing it as a 2 percent amber IPA, he is using a high percentage of crystal malts to try to get the flavor up while keeping the alcohol down. In a play on words for his flagship Hopwired, he plans to call this one Underwired.

You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right

Another cuckoo interested in drawing as much flavor as possible out of smaller, more sessionable beers is Stu McKinlay.

As a homebrewer and beer geek, McKinlay would each year volunteer to work at BrewNZ, the country’s largest beer festival, giving him a chance to get up close with the New Zealand scene. “I would go home after BrewNZ and try my homebrew and think, ‘these are crap’,” McKinlay recounts. “Until one year I went home and tried them and thought ‘these are as good as anything there’.”

Stu McKinlay

Wanting to brew but having a young family, a good job and professing to be risk averse, McKinlay and his brewing partner Sam Possenniskie went another way. McKinlay called a friend from the Invercargill Brewery who he knew had plenty of spare capacity. He agreed to their plans and their brand, Yeastie Boys, was born.

When McKinlay says that his beer was as good as anything at BrewNZ, it wasn’t a bout of self-delusion. Yeastie Boys’ first beer, a U.S.-inspired porter called Pot Kettle Black, took the category trophy at the 2009 national awards, launching their brewery and their reputation.

Like their beers, whose names all stem from musical and pop culture references, their “brewery’s” name is a play on the Beastie Boys, but also referencing what McKinlay considers beer’s most under-appreciated ingredients. Their use of other breweries’ equipment has given the fledgling Yeastie outfit the freedom to make the beers they want to make first without worrying about whether they will move pallets of them.

We wanted to start off doing one-off beers rather than a regular range of beers such as a pilsener, a pale ale and a porter like most breweries,” McKinlay says. “We’ve never had a business plan or thought about business, it’s just been a hobby that has to continue making money so that we can keep doing it.

If you have bought lots of stainless you can’t think that way, you need to think things like, ‘I need to sell this amount of beer to pay for the brewery and for the rent and for marketing.’

All we have to do is think is, ‘What are we going to charge to get our money back to get enough money to brew our next beer?’”

This nonconformist approach has seen them brew a range of one-off seasonals that casts a scattergun pattern across the beer-style map, with an emphasis on flavor and balance, but with few ABVs above 5 percent. They have thrown up amongst others Punkadiddle, a 3.7 percent red English Ale; Nerdherder, a New Zealand-style pale ale at 4.8 percent; Plan K, a Belgian pale ale at 4.6 percent; and their now-permanent Pot Kettle Black, a U.S.-style porter.

The important thing is that their approach is working and their beers are selling on reputation with demand far outstripping supply. It also fits in with McKinlay’s view that in New Zealand, the ultra-micro brewery is the future.

In a small market I think a greater diversity of beers is the way forward, rather than all breweries going in one direction,” he says. “There’s a couple of guys around now who have little commercial breweries under 200 liters and I think that’s where the future is.”

He could be right and if the New Zealand scene shows anything, small is beautiful.