Hamish, a friend of the site’s and all-around righteous Kiwi, recently returned to Los Angeles from his homeland with his luggage brimming with New Zealand brewed beers. He invited some local beer nerds over to his pad one Friday for a horizontal tasting of his bounty from the southern hemisphere. There were six or seven tasters and the bottles ranged from 12oz to 22oz bombers so our pours were small, but they were enough to get an impression of the brews and make some determinations about our favorites.
Beer has a long history in New Zealand; on one of James Cook’s early expeditions he brewed a beer with molasses and native spruce-tips to help combat scurvy on his journey home. The early British and Irish settlers established breweries throughout the country in the 19th century, and today the most popular style on the islands is “New Zealand Draught”, a low-alcohol lager descendant of a brown ale, or an English mild. Though the NZ Draught made by large commercial producers is the most popular beer, New Zealand is home to a vibrant and successful craft beer industry that accounts for close to 10% of the beer sold on the islands. Hops and barley grow well in the islands’ climate, and several new hop varieties have been developed by brewers that can give New Zealand beers a distinct regional character. Add “Kiwi ingenuity” and creativity to these quality ingredients and you have a recipe for some really interesting brews!
First up in the tasting was a Wild Plum Ale, a seasonal release from three boys brewery in Hamish’s hometown of Christchurch. The beer poured a pale straw and had a tart and slightly spicy nose. The tartness continued through the first sip, and the beer was much dryer than I expected. This was a well balanced fruit-beer where the plums did not overwhelm the profile, but it was far from my favorite of the night.
This rare special release beer was followed by one of our host’s favorite go-to session beers: the Tuatara Bohemian Pilsner from Wellington. This was a delicious and straightforward pils with a light body, great malty sweetness, and a big bitter hoppy finish from the Saaz hops. Tuatara is known for is very sessionable brews, and I could certainly drink these all evening. It would make a great beer for a ballgame (or cricket (?) match I suppose), and I hope that Tuatara (named for a kick-ass New Zealand dinosaur-cum-lizard) starts exporting their beers to the states soon as this was a favorite from the tasting.
Next up was Bookbinder, an English bitter from Emerson’s Brewery in Dunedin at the southern tip of the South Island. This beer was dry and light with some mellow bitterness. Though the beer wasn’t particularly memorable I’d like to try is again.
Contrasting the unmemorable and somewhat mundane Bookbinder was one of the more unique brews of the evening: a Spruce Beer by Wigram Brewing Company based on Captain James Cook’s original 1740s-era recipe. I expected weirdness when this was poured, but i didn’t expect such a drinkable brew! The beer poured with a wonderful light copper color and thin head and was heavy with spruce on the nose. The spruce flavor was very much at the forefront, and indeed it proved too strong for many tasters. But a handful of us really enjoyed the heavy, piney spruce and delicious perfume-like undertone from the tea tree oils added to the beer. While I wouldn’t want to drink more than a small glass of this beer, I would gladly open another bottle if I could come across one. It was like drinking a tasty glass of history.
The only straight IPA of the evening was poured next, a fantastic commemorative beer for release during the New Zealand metal band Beastwars’ tour. Brewed by the Auckland brewery Hallertau this is no marketing gimmick, and the beer seriously made the grade with all the hop-heads among the tasters. A light golden color with terrific head and lacing, Beastwars had a big hop bite with lots of citrus and floral notes and a wonderful malt-heavy mouthfeel. Beastwars was my favorite of the night, even if you discount the badass label art:
And at this point in the lengthening evening things started to get odd. Spruce beer is one thing, a unique style of beer that holds a place in New Zealand’s history, but the Rex Attitude from gypsy-brewers the Yeastie Boys was more than I had bargained for. A Stone Brewing-esque take on a traditional German style, called rauchbier, that uses a small percentage of smoked malts. But this Yeastie Boy’s version used an insane 100% heavy peat-smoked malt. The results were an intensely smoky beer that poured a sinister golden color with nearly no head. The nose was all campfire, and the taste was camphor and whiskey-like smoky heat. Unique is truly an understatement and many, if not most, of the tasters struggled to finish their pour (or pawned off their share on the couple of people who were fascinated by the brew). I dutifully finished my taster, but it took two hand washings and most of a light lager to wash the sticky smoke flavor from my hands and pallet. Hamish loves the stuff, and I say he is welcome to it!
I visibly cringed when Hamish presented the next beer in the line-up: another Yeastie Boy’s brew called xeRRex that is billed as “an Imperial version of Rex Attitude.” The pour of this brew was darker with no discernible head. The smoke aroma was present again, but it was less overpowering this time and more rounded. On first sip I was surprised and relived to find the flavor was much more balanced, and that the beer had a very pleasant smoke flavor instead of the Rex Attitude’s more medicinal flavors. The additional malts resulted in better mouthfeel and an increase in body helped the palatability of the xeRRex greatly, and I found myself savoring the final sips of my taster.
The final New Zealand beer of the night was another of Wigram’s brews: Czar, a bottle-conditioned imperial Russian stout. The 8.5%abv stout poured dark and creamy and the nose was all toasted malts and rich chocolate. The flavor was dominated with dark fruits with moderate sweetness and an abrupt spicy-hop finish. I was generally unimpressed by this stout as I prefer a more toffee-coffee-roasty flavor profile to the dark fruit flavors in my stouts. Add in a newly arrived 4-pack of Oskar Blues Ten-Fiddy imperial stout and I quickly forgot all about the Czar.
Craft Brews from the Other Side
I’d like to thank the tasting’s host and importer of the fine line-up for a wonderful evening filled with friends and lots of crazy and unique beers. A fair number of California beers were opened throughout the evening as well with Lagunitas, Stone, Drakes, and some home brew complementing the New Zealand line-up, and the New Zealand beers held their own not only in quality, but in their creativity as well. Kiwis love beer and their brewer’s passion for making interesting and delicious beers was evident throughout the tasting with some really different and groundbreaking ideas being showcased next to excellent takes on classic styles.