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

PART III: A New Age in Brewing

The traditionally recognized benchmark for New Zealand’s current age of microbrewing was 1981, when former All Black rugby player Terry McCashin converted a cider operation in Nelson into a brewery. Over the following four years, other breweries opened and closed, but only McCashin’s remains today from that early period.

But perhaps a more accurate reference year for the beginning of the current microbrewing renaissance would be 1986, when the Shakespear Tavern & Brewery (New Zealand’s first real brewpub) opened in downtown Auckland. From then, the movement grew fairly steadily until a crescendo was reached in 1995, when 11 of today’s 54 micros were established. Four new microbreweries opened in 1996, three in 1997 and four in1998. Yet another is nearing completion, and two more are rumored to go on line this year.

New Zealand’s microbreweries, based on kettle capacity, range from under 1,000 litres up to 10,000 litres. The 1,200 litre system is by far the most common, but almost two-thirds fall between 1,200 and 2,500 litres.

It is estimated that New Zealand’s 54 microbreweries will produce approximately 14.5 million litres of beer in 1998, or about 4.5 percent of the 332 million litre national total. The combined annual capacity of these breweries is estimated at 26.5 million litres.

By comparison, Australia, with a population of about 18.5 million, or almost five times that of New Zealand, has only 23 microbreweries, and Sydney, with a population of 3.5 million, almost equal to that of New Zealand, has a mere one.

The Beers

There are three typical styles almost universally produced by New Zealand microbreweries; draught, lager and dark, all in the 4 percent ABV range, and all generally reflecting the mainstream beers produced by the majors. Draught is a relatively sweet, low bitterness and low aroma amber beer which has evolved over time to become New Zealand’s most popular style. Lager is pale and relatively sweet, with medium bitterness and sometimes with hop aroma. Dark typically has substantial malt flavor, with low bitterness and aroma. An emerging fourth style, strong lager, is pretty much the same as regular lager, but with an alcohol level of around 7 percent ABV. Most breweries use one of two main strains of bottom fermenting yeast and control flavor and, to some degree, style by controlling fermentation temperature. For the last six months the authors have been importing a full range of Wyeast from the U.S., and quite a few brewers have begun using this to produce a much wider variety of beers.

The beer produced in New Zealand before World War II was typically styled after English ales. During the war, however, the government dictated, ostensibly for austerity reasons, that wort gravity could not exceed 1.036, which pretty much works out to the 4 percent ABV finished beer we generally produce today. After the war, and after consumer tastes had been altered, the 4 percent standard stayed around, and the loose style names evolved into those currently used today.

Michael Jackson commented on his 1997 visit that our beers really have a character of their own, which could probably be defined as “New Zealand Draught Style.” A number of micro-breweries are making serious efforts to introduce new styles and to educate the public in the joys of variety. If you know where to look, which isn’t always easy as they are often in isolated locations, the following styles can now be found in New Zealand: Abbey-style ale, hefe weizen, dunkel weizen, Kolsch-style, American pale ale, raspberry wheat, porter, mild, IPA, Old ale, stout, English bitter, best bitter, and ESB.

The majority of New Zealand’s current 53 microbreweries are serving very local markets, and 23 operate in brewpubs. Five other breweries are jointly owned by groups of publicans and produce beer for their own establishments as well as others in the area.

The Current Environment

Micro-breweries are not difficult to establish in New Zealand. Some components, particularly fermenters, often consist of surplus dairy equipment, which can be purchased and converted relatively inexpensively. Also, the reduction in tied establishments has created a surplus of the ubiquitous hotel serving tanks of earlier years, and many of these units have become available for conditioning, bright beer and storage.

In 1998, for example, one Australian microbrewery purchased 70 of these stainless-steel tanks and relocated them back across the ditch. Also, there are a number of excellent stainless-steel fabricators who can build out the basic brewery system for a fairly competitive price. A recent alternative has been the prefabricated system. Two complete breweries, a three barrel and a five barrel, were containerized, shipped and installed by DME for customers in the North Island and South Island during 1998.

Import taxes are not a significant deterrent to shipping in “turn-key” brewing systems. The most successful breweries seem to be associated with pubs and/or restaurants, particularly those in good locations, as these provide ready outlets for their products. Those without attached pubs typically sell their beer across the counter in 1.5 to 2 litre plastic, screw-top flagons-known as “pub PETS” or “riggers”-and also distribute kegs to local clubs, bars and restaurants. The big problem comes if a brewery wants to grow beyond that point, as the relatively massive bottling, distribution and marketing costs typically outweigh the potential additional income. Because of the relatively small market, bottling equipment is not presently manufactured in New Zealand, so it must be brought in from overseas.

In addition, it must be kept in mind that this is a very small country with fairly widely separated population centers, so it is very difficult at best for breweries to penetrate beyond a very limited regional market. What we have here, in general terms, is a lot of independent, local microbreweries, some with marginal equipment and marginal budgets, serving very local or regional markets. So what has spawned this explosive growth? There was no demonstrable, pent-up demand, no major marketing study stating “Kiwis want microbreweries.”

Certainly the liberalization of the country’s liquor laws, which allowed for the separate licensing of taverns and restaurants and expanded hours of operation, made the growth possible. But these changes occurred well before the 1980s. Instead, it was probably more of a “build it and they will come” phenomenon in an increasingly sophisticated consumer market, similar to that in the U.S., which simply desired greater variety and adventure.

Obviously, if the present growth continues, a saturation point and a concomitant shake-out of the less able competitors must occur somewhere down the road. However, there is no current indication that such brakes are being applied, if even gently. And certainly, whatever the future may bring, there can be no return, under any circumstances other than the lobotomizing of the entire beer drinking population, to the dreary brewing environment of the 1970s.

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

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