About the author
Michael Donaldson is one of New Zealand’s most renowned beer writers and was named Beer Writer of the Year by the Brewers Guild of New Zealand for a third time in 2018. He has been the Chair of Judges for the New World Beer & Cider Awards since 2016.
His writing appears in North & South, The New Zealand Herald, Stuff and Drinksbiz. He is also the editor of The Pursuit of Hoppiness magazine published by the Society of Beer Advocates (SOBA). He is the author of New Zealand's definitive beer history Beer Nation - the Art and Heart of Kiwi Beer as well as The Big Book of Home Brew: a Kiwi Guide and The Hopfather, the biography of Emerson's founder Richard Emerson.
What is Craft Beer?
There’s a fantastic line spoken in 1964 by an American Supreme Court judge about determining what could be classed as “obscene”.
Stating it was something he could not define, Justice Potter Stewart added “But I know it when I see it”.
That famous phrase could well apply to craft beer, a description used widely with equally wide interpretations. There is not a clear definition of craft beer in New Zealand – but when you gaze upon a supermarket shelf you usually “know it when you see it”.
The term “craft” has specific definitions in the United States.
To be called ‘craft’, a brewer must make less than 6 million barrels of beer or approximately 700 million litres (this is approximately 3 percent of US annual sales but more than double total beer sales in New Zealand which sit at around 300 million litres per year).
Basically, craft beer means small, relative to the giants of the industry.
But in the US craft also means independent. If you’re small and at least 75 percent of your brewery is not owned nor controlled by a larger alcohol manufacturer, then you’re a craft brewer.
In New Zealand that would rule out:
• Boundary Road
• Emerson’s and Tuatara
These are all popular supermarket brands but they are all owned by a larger brewer such as Lion, DB or Independent, who are in turn owned by Kirin, Heineken and Asahi respectively.
There are other personality traits of a brewery in the US that are used to define craft – and they are more subjective than the first two measures.
Craft breweries should be innovative, interesting and individual – with personal connections to their customers. They should push boundaries and be creative.
So, how do we define ‘craft beer’ in New Zealand? Well, we don’t. To many people, Emerson’s, Panhead and Tuatara – heck even Mac’s and Monteith’s – are craft. For Kiwis, craft is synonymous with flavoursome. We prefer to put the craft label on innovative, interesting and individual beers from small breweries no matter who owns who.
In Kiwi lingo “craft” has become a catch-all for beers that are not Lion Red, Double Brown, Heineken, Steinlager and the like.
That said, the next question is:
How is craft beer different to ‘regular’ beers?
Before the craft revolution of the past 20 years, New Zealand beer was narrowly defined. If New Zealand beer in the 1970s was a topographical map it would look like a desert.
Basically, there were two choices:
- The first is what we call New Zealand Draught and that encompasses Lion Red, Speight’s, Double Brown, Tui and other variations on that style.
- The second is what’s known as international lager: Heinken, Peroni, Carlsberg, Steinlager, DB Export.
What all these have in common is that it’s pretty difficult to pick them apart in a blind taste test. Only the most loyal drinker could tell you the difference between Speight’s and Tui, Lion and DB – they were (and still are) quite formulaic and work within a narrow flavour window. Their other feature is they are overly challenging to one’s taste buds – which is fine for those who love them.
Ditto the green-bottled lagers – there’s an almost universal flavour profile and production line similarity between the brands.
Craft beer on the other hand – to use our new-found definition above – is often booming with flavour. Whether it’s heaps of hops in a big IPA, lovely rich malts with flavours of coffee and chocolate in an imperial stout, the zesty tartness of a fruited sour, or the curious yeast flavours of bubblegum and spice in a wheat bee.
Basically, craft is about a flavour explosion. You won’t mistake a craft beer for a green-bottled lager.
Which brings us to the next juncture. How did craft beer come to be so big on flavour? And how does it differentiate itself from “regular” beer?
To understand this, you need to know the history of independent craft in New Zealand.
New Zealand Craft beer history
For a whole bunch of reasons, New Zealand went from a land with dozens of breweries a century ago, to just two in the period between 1976-81.
A lot of the rationalisation happened in the era after World War Two as the two big breweries – New Zealand Breweries (later to become Lion) and Dominion Breweries (now DB Breweries) – fought tooth and nail for market share.
Those two big breweries bought small, regional breweries around the country and closed most of them so that brewing happened in just five spots. Lion had sites at Newmarket, Christchurch and Dunedin, with Speight’s. DB had breweries in South Auckland and Timaru.
What’s more, the two breweries – for a long time – shared a curious New Zealand technology called Continuous Fermentation invented by brewing legend Morton Coutts, whose family started DB.
Continuous Fermentation was effectively a beer machine that required little human intervention - raw beer, known as wort, went in at one end and beer came out the other. At that point hop extract, colour and sugar were added to tweak the flavour and look.
It was an effective mechanism for quick beer and a heck of an invention but bore little resemblance to traditional brewing.
The two brewing giants had an effective duopoly. In fact, DB let Lion use the Continuous Fermentation technology in return for a slice of market share – which was allocated via pub ownership. Yes, as well as being the only two producers, the two giants owned all the pubs!
Literally, Kiwis were getting the same beer no matter what it said on the label and had no real choice.
That is until a little battler called Terry McCashin came along and fought the big boys by setting up Mac’s in the Nelson suburb of Stoke.
A former All Black, garbage collector and publican, McCashin went against the two giants because every time he tried to buy a hotel, one of them swooped in and nabbed it. He wanted to run an independent pub but couldn’t.
His brewery was a way of giving a one-fingered salute to the establishment.
And once Mac’s broke the duopoly deadlock, other breweries came along – chancing their arm at cracking what was once a closed market.
Not many of these survived and of those who started in the 1980s, only Sunshine in Gisborne, and Mike’s in Taranaki are still going.
Microbrew vs. craft beer
Back in the 80s, no-one used the term craft beer – the preferred moniker was microbrewery.
That was how the newcomers differentiated themselves – they were small and independent – microscopic when compared with the two giants.
And in reality, this is one of the few ways they could distinguish themselves because the truth is many of these microbreweries were making the same kind of beer as Lion and DB just on a smaller, DIY scale.
The reasons for that were a limited choice of ingredients – including malt, hops and yeast. Little breweries could use only what big breweries used as the market wasn’t big enough to have different speciality malts, unique hops or quirky yeasts.
Also, the knowledge base was narrow – as was the consumer palate. If someone had made an IPA in 1985 it would have been an impossible sell.
By the early 1990s things started to change.
First, Kiwis benefited from the microbrewing revolution in the US.
It’s a strange fact of history that home brewing, while always popular in New Zealand despite other restrictions such as six o’clock closing, was non-existent in America for around 50 years.
When prohibition ended in 1933, the line in the law that made home brewing illegal remained. It was against the law to home brew in the US until President Jimmy Carter repealed that particular hindrance to our happiness in 1978.
As a result, home brewing blossomed and from that sprung a number of cutting-edge American breweries that started dabbling in those forgotten styles of beer. In order to differentiate themselves from the big commercial breweries, these start-up American breweries wanted a point of difference based on more than size.
They reinvented styles such as pale ale, IPA and Imperial Stout. These avant-garde brewers found old recipes and reimagined them in a typically American style – bigger, bolder, brasher.
The other thing they did to differentiate themselves from the likes of Budweiser and Miller was to put the focus on artisanship. They “crafted” their beer.
So slowly, around the turn of the 21st century, craft started to replace micro. And what the Americans did influenced the rest of the world – particularly New Zealand, whose emerging craft brewers started to look to California rather than Britain for inspiration.
What types of breweries does New Zealand now have?
The brewery ecosystem in New Zealand can be best be summed up by the fact that the Brewers Guild of New Zealand every year awards champion brewery status in three categories: Large, Medium, and Small.
There are three giant breweries in New Zealand – Lion, DB and Independent. But below them there are plenty of big breweries who make more than 2 million litres per year. These include Moa, Panhead, Emerson’s and Tuatara. A couple of others, if they’re not there, will be soon: Garage Project and Good George. These are the kauri and totara of the beer forest.
Medium sized breweries are the likes of Liberty, Behemoth, Epic, Sprig & Fern, Parrotdog, Deep Creek, and Sawmill.
The small tier breweries make less than 500,000 litres of beer and some of the small regional brewpubs make much less than that. These make up the bulk of New Zealand’s 200-odd breweries.
Best NZ craft breweries?
With so many breweries now in New Zealand, who do you trust to make the best craft beer that’s reliably tasty and of high quality?
The New World Beer and Cider Awards are a great starting place. Each year we have a top-30 featured beers and a top-100 highly commended.
But there are some breweries who regularly come to the party with beer that the New World judges love.
|Bach Brewing||Garage Project||Sawmill|
|Behemoth||Good George||Sprig & Fern|
|Emerson’s||Panhead Custom Ales|
Dominant craft styles in New Zealand
Beer history is full of wondrous stories of madness, invention and good luck. The madness here was the good folk of Pilsen in the Czech Republic dumping barrels of beer because they didn’t like the taste.
The city started its own brewery, known now as Pilsner Urquell, and hired a German brewer to come up with a recipe that worked. Josef Groll brought a lagering technique from his native Germany, some pale English malt and had the good luck (or knowledge) to understand that Pilsen’s very soft water (low in minerals) suited the making of a light style of beer. Add in some locally-grown spicy Saaz hops and a style was born.
But what made pilsner a star was the fact it came along in the mid-19th century just as scientists were understanding yeast, clear glassware was coming into vogue and the advent of refrigeration helped create the cool temperatures needed to create this style of lager around the globe.
Pilsner took the world by a perfect storm. Modern pilsners are some of the best known beers in the world – Stella Artois, Heineken, Becks and of course Pilsner Urquell.
The style arrived in New Zealand at the turn of the 20th century and 100 years later New Zealand breweries are reimagining Pilsner with the generous use of aromatic Kiwi hops which lend tropical fruit notes to the nose rather than the spicier aroma created by traditional “noble” hops
Pale Ale was first brewed in the early 1700s – until then English ale was all porter and stout, made from malts darkened by roasting in wood-fired kilns. The invention of coke – the non-smoking form of coal – meant better temperature control and no smoke, so malsters were able to create a paler malt.
Beers brewed with this new malt became known as pale ales in as much as they were relatively pale compared to porter and stout. They were also hoppier and as a result gradually came to be known by their taste: hence bitter.
Pale Ale as we know it today is almost entirely based on the craft brewing movement in the United States – and can be sourced to one brewery. In 1978 US President Jimmy Carter ended the last vestige of the prohibition era when he changed the law which had made homebrewing illegal for half a century.
Unshackled by fear of breaking the law, those first home brewers became fledging craft brewers. And the leader of the pale ale pack was California’s Sierra Nevada, whose pale ale influenced generations of brewers and is regarded as the jumping off point for 21st pale ales.
There are a wide variety of pale ales with many New Zealand producers making an APA (American Pale Ale – with American hops) as well as New Zealand-hop dominant pale ale. And lately we’re seeing XPA (for extra pale ale) which usually means a lean malt base, dry finish and lots of hop aroma.
India Pale Ale (IPA) is the most written about, debated, and divisive style of beer on the planet. So much of its history is shrouded in mystery, marketing and re-imagining of events 400 years ago.
There is no doubt that British breweries were exporting beer to India and the West Indies in the 1700s and sometime around 1760 it became common practice for these export beers to be more highly hopped than beer brewed for domestic consumption.
That’s because hops have a preservative quality that helped the beer survive in its wooden casks through warmer temperatures than an English cellar might experience.
Gradually these beers came to be known, according to historian Martyn Cornell, as “Pale Ale prepared for the East and West India climate'' – and were sometimes referred to as pale India ales – before brewers landed on India Pale Ale.
Again, it was the adventurous American brewers of the late 20th century who took this hoppy English style and spun the wheel of fortune, gambling on versions bittered with American hops which had more dominant citrus and pine characters than their earthy, herbal English counterparts.
IPA now comes in every shade imaginable from white to red to black and in styles that vary from country to country.
English IPA tends to be sweeter and more caramel malt-driven while the US versions are hop-forward with those citrus, pine and stone fruit characters and a savoury minerality followed by robust bitterness.
New Zealand IPAs tend towards more tropical fruit such as passionfruit and lychee and can appear sweeter and more approachable than their aggressive American cousins.
As a benchmark a genuine IPA is considered to have an ABV of 5.8 percent or higher. A double IPA is a huge juicy, rich, resinous brew of around 8-10 percent ABV. Brewers are now creating lower ABV versions of IPA that still come with generous hop flavour and bitterness and these are widely known as Session IPAs.
Is it a beer? An orange juice? Or a mango smoothie? A trend that started by accident has been accelerated by Instagram into the unstoppable beast that is hazy IPA.
For the best part of a century, beer’s default position was crystal clear – since glass became a popular vessel around 100 years ago, beer-makers have polished their products so they literally sparkle in the glass. But that’s not beer’s natural state – it takes a lot of tools and technology to make beer that way, such as filtration and ice-cold conditioning tanks.
There are traditional styles, like wheat beers, that are served “cloudy” – with yeast and other particles in suspension – but by and large most popular beer styles over the past century have been clear and bright.
The craze for haze began at The Alchemist, a small brewery in Vermont, USA, and a beer called Heady Topper, an 8 percent IPA that was unfiltered and unpasteurised. It was also brewed with loads of hops and a rare yeast strain known as Conan, that gives off aromas of peaches and citrus. Heady Topper was incredibly tasty – very fruity thanks to the hops and fruit esters – but also quite cloudy thanks to all the organic material that hadn’t been filtered out. It was not too bitter. In fact, it was almost sweet.
With no marketing or promotion, the beer got a cult following. When other American brewers decided to copy this mysterious cultish beer, a new style was born – alternately known as New England IPA, Vermont IPA or Hazy IPA. And when people start trying to imitate they also exaggerate and experiment to the point where we now have beers that bear little or no resemblance to the Vermont source material.
And Instagram doesn’t help as everyone loves the photogenetic nature of a hazy beer which just gives more motivation to the makers. To that end, brewers are using ingredients such as wheat, oats and lactose to increase cloudiness and accent sweetness. Throw in some fruit and vanilla and voila you’ve got a Milkshake IPA – so deliciously fruity as to be mistaken for a smoothie.
Apart from flavour and haziness the other thing that makes these beers so attractive is the colour – ranging from lemon cream through to that rich OJ look.
Stout, porter and dark beer
The difference between a stout and a porter? It’s a line-ball call but for me the addition of roasted barley sets a stout apart from its milder sibling. The roasted barley adds a charry, coffee note that creates a more complex drinking experience – though that’s not a steadfast rule.
Porters tend to lean towards a softer chocolate flavour while stouts are more robust with flavours of bitter chocolate, leather and coffee. Because of the strong malt profile these styles can handle the addition of cacao, coffee beans and other adjuncts (that’s the official term) such as vanilla or chilli and can be aged on oak barrels to create greater depth of flavour.
Stouts can also be sweet (milk stout) or dry (Guinness being the prime example of a dry stout). Porters and stouts also lend themselves to taking on a briny note from the addition of shellfish.
There’s a belief that stouts and porters are higher in alcohol than other beers but a good stout can start at 4 percent and still be packed with flavour.
Dark lagers – known as schwarzbier in Germany – are often confused with stouts but they are made with a lager yeast so finish dry and clean.
Another popular style is Imperial Stout, which is the high alcohol version based on the version made for export to Russia in the 19th century.
Sour beers, tart and Farmhouse styles
There’s a booming trend in the beer world to create styles that are best defined as acidic, tart or sour. It’s a broad church of flavours – from traditional wild ales where the beer is “inoculated” by yeasts found in the air or in fruit.
The best known examples come from Belgium where an ancient tradition has continued in the form of Lambic beers.
A more modern take is what’s known as kettle-soured beers, where a lactic acid-producing bacteria (just like the ones that make yoghurt) are introduced to the raw beer to create an acidic tart base. Brewers then use a combination of hops and fruits to flavour the beers. Or in the case of Gose (pronounced go-suh) salt is added.
Other ways to sour beers include aging the beer in wooden barrels where bacteria and yeast in the wood go to work on the beer, creating acidity and adding tannic qualities as well as the flavours from whatever spirit or wine was previously in the barrels.
Fruit, flavoured and spiced beers
From chilli to coffee, from coconut to cacao, from mint to tea, to salt and pepper, … flavouring beer with spices, fruits and herbs is an ancient tradition. Some of New Zealand’s most adventurous brewers can take nearly any ingredient you might find in a pantry or fridge and create a beer around it. Avocado? Done. Oysters? Done. Chili and mint? Done. Salt and pepper? Done. Cucumber? Done. Raspberry, blueberry, peach, mango, even tomato? Done.
Whether these flavour additions work is a matter of personal opinion for drinkers because we all have different palates but even the most out-there ingredients are fair game because this is the way beer was made traditionally – with whatever was on hand to flavour, bitter or acidify the sweet malt.
Buy craft beer at New World
You're spoilt for choice when it comes to our craft beer selection! We've got an amazing range of all different styles and beers from around the world too. Looking for a wheat beer, lager, apple cider, or pale ale? We've got whatever you're looking for!
How much alcohol is in craft beer?
In 2010, only 3 percent of beer produced in New Zealand was above 5 percent. It’s a fair assumption we can call this the “craft” corner as that’s the space emerging breweries were experimenting in – especially with IPAs which usually start around 5.8 percent ABV.
Today, beers over 5 percent account for a whopping 13 percent of the production and those bigger beers are being made at the expense of the middle of the road ABV beers, whose production has fallen to 84 percent. There has been a slight uptick in beers lower than 2.5 percent in those 10 years – they have grown from 1 percent of production to around 3 percent.
If there’s any definitive mark showing how craft has changed the New Zealand beer scene – the growth in over-5 percent beers is it.
Carbs in craft beer
One of the great debating points around beer is whether it makes you fat.
There’s no getting around the fact that beer – like wine, spirits and RTDs – has calories in it. Breweries – and responsible retailers – cannot make health claims about alcohol (I’ll leave that to various researchers who struggle perennially with the good-bad question of alcohol). But breweries have been quick to react to a growing customer base who want fewer calories and carbohydrate (sugar) in what they consume.
The truth is there’s not that many calories in a standard 4 percent beer: around 120 or about 5 percent of an average male’s recommended daily intake. That same beer might have 10g of carbohydrate – usually in the form of dextrins, which are chains of glucose molecules. Some breweries will try to make a difference between carbohydrate and sugar but the dextrins will break down into simple sugars once consumed.
All things being equal, cutting down the carbs in a beer by various techniques will lower the calories by 10 to 20 percent, which can be important for some consumers. Equally, those pursuing a low-carb lifestyle or ketogenic diet are highly conscious of how many carbs they consume. A beer with 10g of carbs can account for 20 percent or more of a person’s “carb” allowance depending on how strict their diet is. Beers with carbohydrates down around 1g-2g of carbohydrate per 330ml are appealing to those on a low-carb lifestyle.
Reducing carbs, via cutting back dextrins, has a double effect – it makes the beer very dry (which some consumers thoroughly enjoy) and it makes it feel thin or light in the mouth – again not a bad thing for some people but most people don’t like their beer too watery. Dextrins add mouthfeel and body weight so the art for the brewer who cuts them out is to find a way to compensate for this sensory loss. Alternative grains such as oats or using hop oils to provide a resinous quality to the body can help here.
It might lack a little body weight but a well-made low carb beer, for those doing Keto, is worth its weight in gold.
How to store craft beer
But do all craft beers need to be refrigerated all the time? The answer is: it depends.
The bottom line is that a beer stored in a chiller will age less slowly than a beer stored at room temperature. And some beers age better than others but it’s a complicated issue and relies on the quality of the brewing process more than anything.
The less oxygen that’s in a packaged beer the more slowly it will age – if a brewer has good control of his or her processes and the amount of dissolved oxygen is kept low then the beer has longer “shelf life”.
A super-hoppy beer that’s badly packaged and kept at room temperature will deteriorate rapidly compared with a well-made one stored in a fridge.
Filtered and pasteurised beers will have a longer shelf life than non-filtered, unpasteurised beers.
So, if you like hazy IPA for instance, keep it cold and drink it young – it’s best when fresh.
If you love a robust stout, and it’s well-made, keeping it at room temperature for a few months won’t have an adverse effect on it.