Craft Brewing Takes Flight in N.Z. (part I)

Way down under, little New Zealand was one of the last areas to be discovered and settled by Europeans. And with European settlement came, naturally enough, beer. Between Captain James Cook’s first voyage here in 1769 and the early part of the 20th Century, New Zealand arguably produced some of the world’s best beers in some of the most modern regional breweries. But in the 1920s and 1930s, two domestic giants, Lion and Dominion Breweries (DB), came on the scene and began to aggressively gobble up the regionals in ever increasing bites, By the 1970s, virtually all domestic competition had been eliminated. However, a remarkable resurgence of independent craft brewing has occurred over the last 20 years, to the point where New Zealand can now boast the highest number of breweries per capita anywhere in the world.

PART I: Early History: New Zealand is a small island country in the South Pacific. It’s 103,000 square miles of land area, slightly smaller than the state of Colorado in the U.S.A., is comprised of two main islands-North Island and South Island-plus much smaller Stewart Island and a smattering of others.

New Zealand’s population is quite small, only about 3.8 million (approximately the size of Connecticut in the U.S.A.) and is primarily of British Commonwealth origin, with a smaller endemic Maori population (about 9 percent) and, more recently, Asian immigrants. It’s major trading partners are its nearest neighbor, Australia, which lies some 1,000 miles northwest, Asia, and to lesser degrees, Great Britain, continental Europe, and the U.S.

In March 1773, within a week of completing a four month, 11,000 mile, non-stop voyage from England, the crew of Captain Cook’s Resolution put down New Zealand’s first brew. Cook was a stickler for protecting his crews from the ravages of the common shipboard diseases of the day, including scurvy, and he had this first brew prepared primarily for that purpose, using basic ingredients brought along on the voyage plus local vegetation, including tree bark, found near the landing site. Thus commenced New Zealand’s first two and a quarter centuries of craft brewing.

In the decades after Captain Cook’s first microbrew, New Zealand grew slowly. Although there were reportedly numerous brews and spirits concocted by the early European settlers, it wasn’t until 1835 that New Zealand’s first commercial brewery was established by Englishman Joel Palack in the far north shantytown port of Kororareka (now Russell), then the major supply and trade station for the thriving whaling industry and renowned as the “hellhole of the Pacific.”

As in the British Isles, from where the majority of the early immigrants had come, most communities of any consequence eventually had at least one brewery, often a prominent structure in town. The importance of having a locally produced source of beer was furthered by the country’s terrain, which is mostly vertical, making early inter-community travel difficult or impossible, except by sea. Even today the country’s major inter-city highways are only two lanes wide.

Gold was discovered in a number of locations in the early 1860s, and the resulting rush to the diggings, which lasted through the following decade, brought on New Zealand’s greatest surge in brewery growth. In 1867, when the country had a population of only about 240,000, there were at least 50 breweries operating. By 1877, when the population had almost doubled to 430,000, the figure was 91. This was a remarkable ratio of one brewery for every 4,725 men, women and children in the country. With the inevitable petering out of the gold fields, followed by the worldwide depression of the 1880s, the number of breweries subsided to 50 or so, large and small, coming and going, which were still around in 1923 when New Zealand’s rapid brewery consolidation commenced. !

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by Luke Nicholas and Tony Rutherford
Appeared in New Brewer International, March 1999

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