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Kiwi Craft Beer: Possibly the most vibrant craft beer scene in the world.

NZ Craft Beer
Cuisine: International
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Norman Miller: NZs craft beer is devised with the same sort of drive that gave us bungee jumping and jet boats.
 
When Captain Cook sailed into a tree-hugged New Zealand cove back in the 1770s, he became NZ's first craft brewer when he ordered his crew to rustle up a brew made with local manuka leaves, which local Maori told him had medicinal clout. And sitting in top Wellington beer bar Hashigo Zake nearly 250 years later, I sup happily on a modern-day recreation - Mussel Inn's Captain Cooker – whose ginger, orange peel and fragrant rose notes earned a perfect 10/10 in Keith Stewart's 2002 Complete Guide To New Zealand Beer.
 
That seminal book listed 240 beers already being produced by arguably the most vibrant per capita craft beer scenes in the world. Today, there are around 150 brewers doing their thing in a country of just 4.5 million people. And New Zealand's craft beer is as distinctive as it is delicious: intriguing  Pacific Rim flavours; bold use of NZ hops like Nelson Sauvin (think fresh crushed gooseberry and white wine fruitiness); plus the same sort of  legendary Kiwi drive to push boundaries that gave us bungee jumping and jet boats.
 
Wellington's Garage Project exemplify the Kiwi scene, making their debut in 2011 by brewing 24 distinctive very small batch beers in 24 weeks. “We wanted to do something different, inspired by chefs like Ferran Adria,” says the Project's Jos Ruffell. “The idea of starting 50 litres at a time meant we could really take risks and do things we wouldn't do making thousands of litres.”
 
“We've carried that pace on - in the last year we've released 26 new beers,” he continues. “The ones that people really responded to weren't the ones you'd expect. Like VPA – Venusian Pale Ale, which we brewed with lime leaf, lemongrass, coriander, aniseed and grapefruit peel. People just loved it. And Day Of The Dead  with chilli, chocolate, agave.”
 
Other boldly flavoured efforts include their Umami Monster made using seaweed and fermented bonito flakes. Add novel serves too, such as a 2015 beery take on a flat white: Garage Project Russian Imperial coffee stout as the shot, topped with a nitrogenous cream ale as the 'milk'. “You get the foam, the colour, the interplay between the sharp coffee notes and the milk,” says Ruffell. “But it's beer.”
 
The company have also turned to intriguing brewing techniques as well as flavours. Take their acclaimed Red Rock Reserve. Many elements of a beer's colour, flavour and aroma are influenced when the "wort” (the malt component) is boiled with the hops – something most brewers do with a straightforward heating element. But Garage Project decided to try an ancient method from pre-electricity days of using hot rocks – keeping things local by super-heating red volcanic rocks from  Wellington's south coast to 500C. Genuinely worried the rocks might explode and destroy their precious tank, they were relieved to end up with a roaring superboil that provided a distinctive toffee sweetness from extra caramelised sugars.
Garage Project's Chateau Aro, meanwhile, exemplifies a current Kiwi trend of blurring beer/wine boundaries by brewing with hefty quantities of crushed pinot noir grapes. Another brilliant example using pinot noir was 8 Wired's superb Grand Cru 2011 - well worth the $NZ25 (£10) for a 330ml bottle I pay at Auckland's fantastic Brothers Beer bar to snap up one of the last few drops on the market (it's sold out now).
 
Some NZ winemakers are starting to play with beer boundaries too. Green Hopped Gooseberry Bomb Sauvignon Blanc brings together Marlborough sauvignon blanc grapes with Nelson green sauvin hops. Unlike the beers above, however, maker Josh Scott firmly categorises his creation as “definitely a wine”. But that's another story...
 
Back at Brothers Beer, I'm enjoying Auckland idea of brewtopia. Selling over 200 beers (including its own efforts made in huge tanks lining one side of the bar), it's a perfect place to get your beer bearings courtesy of tasting flights. So I spend a happy evening in the shadow of the city's famous Sky Needle knocking back local beauties covering the range from oatmeal chocolate stouts to cherry beers via Scotch ales and double IPAs. 
 
But it's Wellington that is NZ's beer capital – as well as political one – and a grand way to dip into its thriving scene are the Beer Walks run by Stephanie Coutts, founder of the city's Craft Beer College (craftbeercollege.nz). Her initiative offers an "Introduction to Beer" series complete with a "Beer 101" evening and an exam which Coutts says is intended to “expand understanding of the diversity of beer, of the different colour, aromas, flavours and styles – plus a bit about beer history and about New Zealand and Wellington beer history as well.”
 
As well as Garage Project, the Beer Walks introduce you to other key local brewers like ParrotDog, Black Dog, Panhead and Wild & Woolly. The fluidity of the city's beer scene also means there are always fresh offerings – brews or bars - to explore. As more micro breweries emerge, Coutts points out, so do new beer trends – she cites Kiwi takes on Saison (French farmhouse seasonal ale) and Berliner Weisse as particularly hot at present. 
 
Food pairing is another NZ beer forte, nowhere more than at Wellington's fabulous Ortega Shack restaurant, where a 40-strong Kiwi beer list offers up a wide range of delights under general headings like Zesty & Full or Dark & Roasty. I grab a seat at the bar to discover just how well the likes of Panhead's Supercharger (citrussy hops augmented by tropical fruit flavours of mango and passion fruit) provide a brilliantly flexible match with seafood, spicy dishes and punchy salads. “We love Renaissance Stonecutter too,” says Ortega's joint-owner Davey McDonald, pausing from serving. “It's rich, round, great body. It works well with a lot of dishes, including rich winter ones.”
 
NZ's pint-sized population has, however, led brewers to focus on quality and invention rather than quantity, making its brilliant beers League Of Gentlemen stuff – local beer for local people. You want a taster of the scene in the UK? Dream on, sunshine.
 
But rejoice! 2015 has seen the arrival of The New Zealand Craft Beer Collective, an initiative to  finally spread the love from the very distant Land of the Long White Cloud to the Land of the More Often Grey Cloud by making a selection of interesting Kiwi craft available in indy bar chains like Brewdog, online sellers like Honest Brew and specialist shops such as Brighton's Bison Beer and London's Hop Burns & Black.
 
Spearheaded by Stu McKinley of brilliantly-named NZ brewmeisters Yeastie Boys, the Collective is has initially brought in 10 beers from five brewers: Yeastie Boys' award-winning Pot Kettle Black Porter and Earl Grey-flavoured Gunnamatta IPA; the sublime Stone Cutter Scotch Ale and session-able Voyager IPA from Renaissance; an ass-kicking Double Trouble 9% Extra Dimensional Aotearoa Pale Ale and Pilsner by Tuatara; 8Wired's fruity brown Rewind Unchained and luscious iStout; and Three Boys' roasty Oyster Stout and hip hoppy NZ IPA.
 
Cue beer-lover frenzy. “At the moment our biggest problem is the beer sells out the moment it hits the shelves,” says McKinley, who has relocated to the UK not only to drive the campaign but also brew some Yeastie Boys' favourites here in quantities he could only dream of back home. Using the facilities at Brewdog, his first brew of 10,000 litres was four times the batch size he could produce in New Zealand, with the option to scale up to 80,000 litres at a time – about as much as much as Yeastie Boys brews each year back on NZ soil.
 
Other NZ beers are set to follow on from the initial selection. “People always want to try new stuff. So we'll send other beers in the future to keep them interested,” says  Renaissance development manager Roger Kerrison. He points out, however, that the Collective is merely icing on the NZ beer cake: “None of us need to sell to the UK. It's 2% of our sales, just 0.4% for Tuatara. But it's something we're happy to grow.”
 
Boosting awareness is vital. “People know US brewers like Stone are great, so they'll pay £6 for that. But with the Kiwi stuff are they going to take a punt? Maybe not,” says Nick Vardy of Brighton's Bison Beers. “But once they're aware of how great the NZ beer is that will change.”
 
The signs are good. “They've been hugely popular,” enthuses Jen Ferguson of London retailer Hop Burns & Black. “Tuatara's APA and Yeastie Boys' Gunnamatta have been particularly well received - succulent beers that really showcase NZ hops.” Take your cue from Captain Cook – get exploring.
 
FOUR TO TRY
8Wired Rewind Unchained (5.7%)– barrel-aged dark amber beauty, with malty caramel aroma and soft orange peel and grapefruit notes. Good food match.
Yeastie Boys' Gunnamatta (6.5%) – Skip your usual cuppa and go with this bergamot-infused floral-and-fruity summery quaffer. Persevere if unsure – its appeal grows.
Tuatara Aotearoa Pale Ale (5.8%) - Swapping US hopes for NZ varieties like Sauvin and Wai-iti, this hazy beauty offers apricot and herbal flavours with nice bitterness.
Three Boys Oyster Stout (6.2%) – Made with NZ Bluff oysters for that hint of brine, this is rich, roasty and complex – coffee, malty, more-ish.
 
All words and images: Norman Miller
 
Norman Miller is an award-winning travel writer. He shares his time between Brighton and the rest of the world.
 
 
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8 October 2015
By: Norman Miller
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