New Zealand’s Burgeoning Craft Beer Scene

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 29, Issue 4
September 1, 2008 By

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.

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).

The Beginnings of Craft

This lack of choice sparked a microbrewery revolution in New Zealand with many parallels to the U.S. movement. In 1981, McCashin’s Brewery became the first craft brewery in New Zealand, only five years after New Albion, America’s first modern microbrewery. It was started by Terry McCashin on the south island city of Nelson, in an old cider factory. McCashin was a farmer and a former athlete, having been a member of the All Blacks, New Zealand’s popular national rugby union team. In 1999, the Mac’s brand was leased by Lion Nation and is now among that company’s stable of brands, helping it to grow into a national phenomenon on the relative order of a Sierra Nevada or Redhook. Not to be left behind, DB created their own craft-like brand, Montheith’s Brewery, a west coast brewery founded in 1868, but re-branded as a local craft-type beer.

New Zealand’s craft beer era has since had its ups and downs. In 1986, the Shakespeare Tavern & Brewery opened in the capital city of Auckland. It was the nation’s first true brewpub, and is still going strong (though the beers themselves are pedestrian at best). The brewpub concept has picked up steam and nearly half of New Zealand’s breweries are brewpubs or serve food. The remaining breweries are all production breweries and, because the power of the big two plus the lingering tied house affiliations makes it difficult to get tap handles in even local bars, most are also package breweries.

Today there are roughly fifty small breweries in New Zealand, down from sixty a decade ago. But they account for less than five percent of the country’s total beer sales. Of course, not being able to get their beer into bars or even some retail stores has made simply getting their beer to market an uphill climb worthy of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mt. Everest, and a New Zealander himself.

The Six O’Clock Swill

There are several other reasons why New Zealand’s consumers have been slow to accept craft beer, but one of the most curious is a story that begins in the early part of the last century, when New Zealand narrowly avoided a national prohibition.

Like most English-speaking countries in the late 19th century, they had an active temperance movement agitating for prohibition. In New Zealand, supporters of this anti-alcohol movement were known as “wowsers.” Shortly before World War I, the country narrowly managed to escape that fate by a slim margin in a nationwide vote. Undeterred, the wowsers managed to get a “temporary measure” passed in 1917, using the war as an excuse, which prohibited the sale of alcohol after 6:00 p.m.

This created a condition known as “the six o’clock swill” because men (women were then not permitted in bars) would finish work at five and then spend the following hour swilling as much beer as they could. It was clear from the beginning that this measure not only did not reduce the consumption of alcohol, but actually made it worse. Men would arrive at the nearest bar directly from work, invariably on an empty stomach, order pitchers of beer and down them as fast as possible, often vomiting on the public bus on the way home an hour later. Arriving on their doorstep, many immediately passed out, spending no more time with their families than if they’d been at the bar all evening drinking at a more leisurely pace.

Despite this failure to achieve its goals, the six o’clock swill persisted in New Zealand for fifty years, and wasn’t abolished until 1967, when closing time was finally extended until ten o’clock. The legacy of those fifty years a demand for very light-bodied, sweet beer that could be consumed as quickly as possible. This style became known loosely as “New Zealand draught style” and it’s still the most popular type of beer in New Zealand today. It’s also less alcoholic than the average American beer, another throwback concession to concerns during World War II. Most Kiwi beers from large breweries are about four percent alcohol by volume, about one to one and a half percentage points lower than their American and European counterparts.

Even though over forty years have passed since the six o’clock swill was abolished, its effects are still being felt in the average Kiwi’s preference for a beer with as little discernible body or flavor as possible, lighter, sweeter, less hoppy and even lower in alcohol than American premium lager.

Another problem with consumer acceptance appears simply to be quality control. New Zealand’s craft beer scene is arguably where the U.S. market was 15-20 years ago, but with a greater incidence of basic problems. Some believe this is part and parcel of the dispersal of New Zealand’s population, which has made people less willing to share problems and help one another as an industry. One of the reasons that so many American microbreweries were successful is undoubtedly the willingness of brewers to help one another out with problem solving and sharing their experience and technical expertise.

Band of Brewers

This may also help to explain why it took twenty-five years for the small brewers of New Zealand to form a brewer’s guild, which happened just two years ago, in 2006. One of the first things the new guild did was buy out the Brew NZ Festival from the big breweries. It was once the country’s largest national beer festival, but had fallen on difficult times.

In September, the guild will host the event for a third time, held each year in Wellington at the southern tip of the North Island, putting it in roughly the center of the country. The two-day event includes professional judging, an awards banquet, beer and health seminars, educational seminars—especially on beer and food pairings by well-known chefs—and three public tasting sessions. The goal is to elevate the status of beer in New Zealand and attract both female as well as male attendees. One of the sponsors, David Cryer (from Cryer Malt), looks at the event as an opportunity. “We want to create a world-class event celebrating New Zealand beer.”

“Things are definitely improving,” Luke Nicholas offered, and the efforts of the guild do seem to be paying off. Nicholas is the vice chairman of the new brewer’s guild, and is also one of New Zealand beer’s biggest cheerleaders and supporters. A Kiwi native, he’s been involved with beer for most of his life, discovering American microbreweries while working for an exporter who sold strawberries to the U.S. market. He spent several years in California, and worked for the San Francisco-based online beer portal,, before launching New Zealand’s own Real Beer New Zealand (

He also founded SOBA, The Society of Beer Advocates (, an organization dedicated to building awareness of better beer throughout New Zealand. And he’s the former head brewer at Steam Brewing, a production brewery that makes beer for the Cock & Bull chain of tavern brewpubs. He won many awards for his beers during his tenure there, and continues to market his own line, Epic Beer, brewed at the Steam Brewery, although he’ll likely be moving production shortly.

It’s also impossible to tell the full story of New Zealand Brewing without mentioning their locally grown hops and barley. It’s the rare country that can grow all of the ingredients it needs to make beer, especially organically. But because of the islands’ isolated history, no natural pests developed, making it remarkably feasible to grow hops and barley without pesticides. Many craft brewers have seized on this fact to create beers, using both organic and local ingredients. At one time, organically grown New Zealand hops accounted for 80% of all organic hops sold worldwide.

Kiwi Real Ale

Despite some growing pains and quality issues, there are, however, many talented brewers in New Zealand, and two of the best are in the Auckland area.

One is Keith Galbraith’s cask brewery, Galbraith’s Alehouse, brewing the nation’s only cask-conditioned “real ales.” Galbraith spent a good portion of his life in the wine business, when he was bitten by the beer bug. He apprenticed for a year with Bob Hudson at Larkins Brewery in Kent, England, to learn his craft, before returning in 1995 to open his brewpub. Galbraith’s is located in the old Grafton Library in Auckland. Because the building has a dark wood interior, it immediately sets the mood as an English-style pub and the appointments inside will further persuade that you’re been transported to a London pub.

The brewery can be seen as you enter the building, through a large glass window. From there, Galbraith’s brews at least five English-style ales and two European-style lagers. All of them were spot on, especially Bob Hudson’s Bitter (named for his mentor) and the Bellringer’s Best Bitter, both of which were delicate and full-flavored. The Bob Hudson has grassy hop notes, and was more of an ordinary bitter, whereas the Bellringer did just that; rang your bell with terrific balance and a beautiful dry-hopped presence. The beer originally had another name, but was an immediate favorite of the group from a local church that rang the bells, who were some of the earliest regulars when Galbraith’s first opened. Other standouts include the Grafton Porter, a jet-black malty porter, and Resurrection, a Trappist-style ale with spicy, herbal notes and very complex flavors.

In addition to their own beers, Galbraith’s also carries a wide range of other New Zealand and imported beers, both on draft and in bottles. With decent pub grub, a comfortable atmosphere that includes nook and crannies, two fireplaces and an outdoor beer garden, this is the type of place to get lost in for an entire afternoon or evening.

Near the edge of the city limits, in Riverhead, is Galbraith’s polar opposite, the Hallertau Brewbar & Restaurant. Opened just three years ago by Stephen Plowman, the restaurant is thoroughly modern in both décor and cuisine, with an emphasis on local ingredients wherever possible. The menu includes esoteric fare as well as new takes on traditional dishes, and everything tastes homemade and delicious. The brewing equipment, though much less modern, and looking as if designed by MacGyver, still manages to create some terrific beers.

Plowman makes an interesting range of beers, and likes to play around with his seasonals. His regular beers include a Kölsch-style ale, an American pale ale, an Irish red and a German-style schwarzbier. His seasonal offerings have included an Imperial IPA (big, hoppy beers are a veritable rarity in New Zealand), a Belgian-style tripel and a saison flavored with manuka tips, a local shrub sometimes also called a tea tree.

But Plowman’s most ambitious beer may also be his best. His Porter Noir is a barrel-aged beer, which may be the first beer in New Zealand to use Brettanomyces. He brewed a strong porter (6.6% ABV) and aged it in local Pinot Noir barrels for four months before bottling. In the bottle, Brettanomyces was added and left to bottle condition for another six months, before being released for purchase. It’s a wonderful beer, with rich, complex flavors of thick figs, raisins and the like, and strong Brett horse stable character. I can’t say for sure whether or not the people of New Zealand are ready for a beer so vastly different from their popular, but insipid, draught style. But ready or not, here it comes.

There is a new passion that’s immediately evident among New Zealand’s craft brewers, who want to create a vibrant beer community. Many have been to America or tasted our beers and, as a result, many point to the U.S. craft scene and say that we have become a model for a world in which a wide variety of beer can flourish. New Zealand seems poised to be one the next great brewing nations. It will be wonderful to see what the Kiwis brew over the next ten years.