New Zealand Beer Guide

New Zealand is not a country with a long and proud brewing history. Before European settlers arrived there is no evidence of beer production. The first beer is reported to have been made by Captain Cook in the 18th century using spruce tree needles to help fight off scurvy from his crew. The European immigrants soon started a range of breweries which supplied not only the domestic market but also exported to Australia and Fiji - leading to the development of a number of strong beers that would export better.

However the threat of prohibition and the strength of the temperance movement lead to the leading breweries banding together to form New Zealand Breweries Limited in order to survive. However wartime restrictions lead to an upper limit on the strength of their beers leading to the death of the stronger ales that had developed. The restrictions also meant that pubs closed at 6pm until the 1960s.

By the end of European occupation there were 3 major breweries in New Zealand and had an attempt at nationalising all the breweries into a single 'Lucky' brand there would only have been one. Today around 90% of the market is dominated breweries owned by the Lion Nathan and DB Breweries companies, with the former owning many Australian breweries too. Alongside these there are many microbreweries and brew pubs which have grown in numbers since the 1980s.

In most cases domestic beer in New Zealand will mean lager - even if in some cases it says ale on the label - as is the case with Speight's Gold Medal Ale and Tui East India Pale Ale. This odd naming convention appears to be due to brewers wanting to hang onto their brand names whilst appealing to the growing lager market in the middle of the 20th century. Whereas in Australia the unrelentingly hot climate explains the ubiquity of lager, the more varied climate in New Zealand makes this harder to understand.

Unlike Australia beer is available in supermarkets as well as bars and specialist bottle shops - the only exception being around Invercargill on the south island where you'll need to visit a state licensed liquor shop. Some beers in supermarkets you will only be available in 6 packs, which can be an issue if you buy something that you end up not liking or of you want to try a wide range of beers. The range of beers will vary widely. Some supermarkets will only have 6 packs of beer from the major breweries, others will have a range of individual bottles from microbreweries to purchase. Likewise some bottle shops will basically only sell wine and spirits. If you are looking for microbrewed beers then the New World and Fresh Choice supermarkets generally offer the best range.

The majority of the beers served in bars are domestic ones, with a few types of imported beer kept in fridges behind the bar. Draught beer will either be served in a small "glass" or a larger pint sized "handle". You could also splash out on a litre jug.

If you are travelling anywhere in the south island you will find the Speight's brewery logo pretty much ubiquitous - it seems to appear more than the national flag. Their Gold Medal Ale, an above average lager, is the biggest selling beer in the country - though the brewery no longer has over 50% of the Market as it did in the first half of the 20th century.

The brewery was started by three British ex-employees of the [Watchback?] brewery in the east coast port of Dunedin in the 1870s. At the time Dunedin was the biggest city in New Zealand, swelled by a gold rush. The city had many breweries at that time and it was only thanks to the prestige of winning a number of awards for their strong ales (over 10% abv) at the Sydney international festival that the brewery developed into a major force. The Gold Medal Ale name was first used when they started bottling beers and the beer it describes seems to have changed over the years, most notably from a top fermenting ale to a bottom fermenting lager.

Today their range is a mix of bland modern drinks such as Summit aimed at fashionable markets - light lager and cider - combined with some decent 'craft ales' such as their Porter, Old Dark and Distinction Ale that are apparently brewed to 100 year old recipes. Speight's also run a set of Ale House's that feel a lot like most chain pubs in the UK. They are part of the Lion breweries conglomerate who also brew the unadventurous but also ubiquitous Steinlager. Lion also own the Mac's brewery who produce a range of lagers that are widely available.

Over on the west coast of the south island are Monteith's, part of rival brewing powerhouse Dominion Breweries. Monteith's has wide distribution in shops and bars as well as having a branded range of ale houses. The basic range of 6 beers have much of interest. The Summer Ale is made with rata honey and has a Ginger taste to it, the Original Ale majors on caramel and malt but has a hint of blackberries whilst the Celtic Red Ale has hints of a sherry cask whisky. Owners Dominion also produce the mainstream DB Export Gold and Tui lagers.

Whilst the national brewers have made a dozen or so interesting beers, the patchwork of over 60 microbreweries have managed to create a version of pretty much every beer style going. A good example of a New Zealand micro is the Invercargill Brewery. It has four regular beers (three lagers and a stout) but constantly tries out new beers and releases them as seasonal specials. So far they have made over 20 different beers through this method, including an abbey ale called Dubbel Happy that is better than most Belgian Dubbels.

Other breweries such as Dunedin based Emerson's have a wider range of beers available all year round including English Bitter, German Weiss and India Pale Ale. The microbreweries often have widespread distribution in their home towns.

Some places will also have brewpubs, whether they be tiny tourist spots like Arrowtown who have a brewpubs of the same name or big cities like Christchurch who boast both Dux and Twisted Hop. The Dux de Lux brewpub is a large building in the centre of town serving up hearty meals of decent quality. They will also do tasting trays of six of their beers for $20. This approach appears to be fairly typical for most brewpubs.

There is an annual national beer festival called Beervana that takes place in Wellington. This features around 45 different breweries and attracts around 4000 people. It's organised by the brewers guild of New Zealand and is when the national beer awards are handed out.

Five New Zealand Beers To Try -

1. Invercargill Dubbel Happy:

2. Yeastie Boys Pot Kettle Black:

3. Kaimai Porter's Rye Ale:

4. Wigram Vienna Lager:

5. Twisted Hop IPA: