Beer is reflective of its country and beer in New Zealand’s no different. Telling it how it is, refreshingly honest but accessible to everyone is how New Zealand and its beer came across to me during a month long trip. There’s much to learn in NZ for UK brewers and pub operators and still much to be proud of about UK pubs and beers. For drinkers it’s a great trip.
Flights totalling nearly 24 hours mean it’s important to maintain discipline to avoid horrendous jet lag so no alcohol for me – until that Pavlovian response (sorry, couldn’t resist the reference to NZ meringue) when the trolley wheels could be heard. I’ll have a beer please, and out popped a can of ABC Stout from Singapore (Heineken’s Asia Pacific Brewery who also own Monteith’s in NZ) – no % alcohol labelling so it must have been re-hydrating. My walking mates and I have developed a theory that anything 3.8% or below is sufficiently close to water as to be re-hydrating.
A bit like tinnies on a train, it’s permissible for drinking standards to drop on a plane but a few ABCs, and that NZ staple, Speight’s on the last leg were perfectly acceptable ways of whiling away the hours. Speight’s, and many of the big NZ ‘craft-promoted’ names (Mac’s and Emerson’s), are part of the giant Lion Nathan enterprise based in Oz but Japanese-controlled. It remains a puzzle to me that the beer brand giants across the world (often managed by Brits) now seem capable of nurturing craft and traditional brands but in the UK only seem to neglect them. I expect that we will see some significant craft brewery acquisitions in the UK by the big players over the next few years unless they continue to be lost in their world of big tasteless keg brands?
Back to the beers – off to a mate’s place and an opportunity to nurse a Mac’s Great White wheat beer. Decent beers, an interesting range and readily available in all good stores, Mac’s became a standard until the great campervan disaster. Mac’s bottles have those ring pull tops that always seem such a good idea. Want to create the aroma of a brewery in your camper? Why not drive along a bumpy road and soon your floor will be awash with beer as the tops go flying. Those crown corks are there for a reason.
Off to Hallertau Brewery, north of Auckland for food and craft beers. A few regular beers – pilsner, pale ale, red and plenty of specials (including blacks, porters and bitters) this seemed to be the craft beer theme for the trip. With the tightening of drink drive legislation in England & Wales seeming inevitable, there are useful lessons for UK craft breweries from Hallertau and its ilk. Reasonably close to a large population centre but remote enough to require car transport, it’s picked up on the wine estate trick of food, drink and sometimes live music. Not fine dining but good NZ classics and paddles of beer made for a decent evening for all including the driver and well-behaved kids. Surely an ideal approach for someone like Thornbridge to increase the brewery tour spend and widen its brand positioning?
Supermarkets regularly offered Mac’s, Epic and Tuatara with Monteith’s and Emerson’s in some regions. Tuatara’s APA and Pilsner were ideal for those warm evenings – plenty of hop flavours but subtly done, worth savouring and good with ‘fush n chups’. Sadly I failed to get round to tasting enough of their range. Epic, whether pale ale or lager, to my taste seemed hops for hops sake. Epic’s description of their Pale Ale, “in fact there are 23 (hops) crammed into this bottle. Many brewers would call that ‘insane’. We call it flavour.”, reminded me of the PR obsessive end of the UK craft beer spectrum.
On to Wellington and its chilled-out waterfront and the national museum. Typical Kiwi welcome in the museum, “here’s a map, go and see if you can get lost and break a few things. If you lose him he’ll be in Mac’s next door.” Imagine that at the V&A? Mac’s brewery tap was a grand place for a paddle with Mac’s Gold lager and Great White achieving favoured status. Again beer and food was the norm for craft beer customers.
On the east coast of South Island we rolled into Oamaru and parked up the campervan on the edge of the harbour, close to the town’s Victorian Quarter – grainstores and their like, strangely reminiscent of Burton’s brewery buildings. Life feels good when you realise you’re parked only 200 yards from Scott’s craft brewery. Sunday morning farmers’ market and a few beers on offer at Scott’s including guests. Scott’s had the usual NZ craft range but also a proper hand pump for a guest on their brewery tap bar. The Twisted Hop Brewery specialises in English-style cask conditioned real ales.
I’d like to tell you more about their Challenger Bitter but it was snaffled by Mrs TWM before I’d taken more than a sip. A brewery to look out for if you’re after a taste of Blighty. Like many businesses, Twisted Hop had to relocate after the Christchurch earthquake. The city still reels from the commercial aftershocks of the earthquakes – damaged buildings still subject to endless arguments between owners and insurers and to us it seemed difficult to spend the tourist dollar.
The Botanical Gardens near the centre of the city was an obvious place of safety for those escaping collapsing buildings in the CBD and it remains a tranquil haven for many. On the last day of our trip I enjoyed a Three Boys IPA in the café next to the glasshouses. Christchurch still has much to do but even craft brewers can play their part in raising spirits.
The beer scene in NZ felt less exclusive than the craft and real ale camps in Britain.’ Want to drink decent beer, you’re welcome’ seems to be the general approach. It’s no surprise that the beer consumers’ association is called SOBA – gently irreverent and without pretention is the Kiwi way. The result is a bigger market open to all. Even small towns often had a small pub cum craft brewery as an alternative to the traditional ‘hotel’ bar in the town that I suspect was a home for the old six o’clock swill.
As someone who doesn’t like their beer saturated with hops I’d still recommend New Zealand – the choice of beers is exceptional, all topped up by great scenery and the friendliest of people. I probably missed out 90% of the craft beers available in NZ but for what it’s worth Three Boys IPA was my best of the trip but a can or two of Speight’s after 19km on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing wasn’t far behind.