New Zealand is a wonderfully varied place. Beaches, mountains, hills, fjords, countryside, wine, beer and even the odd city. Many are not odd. New Zealand in spring has all of those things, still. But, if you’re English, you have to bear two things in mind: Cold and Hot. Auckland, in particular, does a wind that chews more than bites, drizzle that attaches itself to your soul and hard rain that flays skin. It makes you want to sit in front of a fire and defrost with a nice hearty porter. Alternatively, thanks to the absence of ozone, it also does a sun that scorches and burns your skin. It makes you want to take your clothes off so that you can sit for hours, if armoured with factor 50, in the sparkling shine drinking a lovely cold pale ale.
This is great, both make you feel alive. New Zealand in spring is enervating, more so even than in the rest of the year. But when it comes to writing a nice varied blog about the country’s various beer offerings it means you don’t venture much into the middle ground between refreshing and hearty. Very infrequently do your needs fall somewhere in the demilitarized zone between 8 Wired’s Imperial Stout and Parrot Dog’s Flaxen Feather Blonde.
So, this blog about New Zealand’s beers has devolved into a straight fight: do Kiwi pale ales stand up to the might of Aussie pales and can they do the big, chewy porters that the Aussies just can’t muster?
The refreshing thing about a lack of knowldge of the machinations of the antipodean beer scene (for want of a better phrase) is that you can start your drinking journey free from pre-conceived ideas about breweries and just concentrate on the taste. Before research you don’t know which beer is a local brewer producing small batch beer for the love or a multi-national trying to cash in on the zeitgeist by mass-brewing a slightly quirky variant of one of their big sellers. Taste is everything and I’ve tried not to research the histories of the beers or breweries – I am doing that as you read, so I can berate myself for getting suckered.
PORTERS / STOUTS
The short answer to the ‘do Kiwis do better porters than Australia’ question is YES. While New Zealand does at least two seasons in its’ calendar year, often within ten minutes, Australia does not. Australia is almost always hot, even in the south where it still manages hot for about nine months of the year. They simply don’t have the climate where the average enthusiast is thinking, *bit parky out, I’d like to sit by a wrought iron radiator with a meal in a glass*. There are few months where there’s a nip in the air. It may also be denial. Australia does not do central heating, it refuses to accept that it ever gets cold and, similarly, they seem equally disinterested in realising there’s a need to make beers that suit that brief chilly mood.
In short, New Zealand is culturally and meteorologically predisposed to being drawn into a lengthy need for stouts and porters. As a consequence Kiwis make more of them, make them more frequently and have an understanding of what people need from them.
Australia does a good number of sound, mid-range, easily drinkable, late 20th century stouts and porters. Nelson’s Blood (Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel), The Butcher (Rocks Brewing), New World Order (Temple Brewing) and Breakneck (Napoleone Brewers) will not disappoint. But while those names evoke the current heavy, thick and tasty British craft porters and stouts they are in fact more refreshing, fizzy and conducive to the vague warmth. Their names imply they know winter struggle, they think they have the balls to compete with Funnell Blower (Box Steam), Ola Dubh (Harviestoun) or 03|03 (Brew By Numbers) but, while they can be very nice, they don’t have the punch to kick through your bone-jangling cold.
This may sound like a criticism but it is not, it’s an observation of different needs. The UK sometimes gets snow, the country grinds to a stand still while it thaws, people wring their hands at the inpetitude and then someone points out that putting in infrastructure to cope with excessive snow is a little pointless. It’s very expensive to acquire buses and trains that can cope with relatively extreme weather on the off-chance that that weather turns up for a few days a year – it is simply not economical. Similarly, it’s not cold enough for long enough in Australia for it to be economically viable to try to make a beer for a scenario that may never transpire.
And, don’t get me wrong, the UK does hundreds of this type of standard porter and stout, usually courtesy of old-style breweries or those at the vanguard of bringing back old recipes. There is a place for this. New Zealand has those too – Montieth’s Barrel Aged Porter is perfectly nice if a little thin, Mike’s Organic Chocolate Milk Stout is pleasing in a slightly-too-watery-hot-chocolate kind of way and the Otis Oatmeal Stout (Parrot Dog) is like an alcoholic Weetabix (or Weetbix as they weirdly call it over here).
But, unlike the Aussies, New Zealand have the need for something a little bigger and they do it better for the English palate.
THE BEST PORTERS / STOUTS
The Big Smoke. 8 Wired Brewery’s beefed up porter with its’ Bamberg Rauchmalz is smoked to the max. They claim it won’t overpower but the dark chocolate is marinated in Frazzles and smoked almonds so you’d struggle to find food to compete with this that won’t give you gout. It’s marvellous. I’m not a huge fan of smoked beer either but this is just brilliantly balanced, it’s not a face full of BBQ with some alcohol in it.
London Porter. Emerson’s Brewery describe this as an old school porter and it’s colour points that way. But don’t be dissuaded by the slightly off-putting red-ness of this, it’s lively and fruity and does the chocolatey, sweet and sour toastiness that should be in a nice homely porter.
Batch 2.18, imperial stout by the 8 Wired brewery. The absolute daddy of dark beers in the southern hemisphere. The chances are you won’t be able to get this outside the brewery or a well-connected craft beer house (Brothers Beer in Auckland) but it’s worth a trip to NZ alone. “Woof!” was all I managed to repeat while drinking it but I wouldn’t argue with the brewers assertion of “dates, jaggery and vanilla beans, oak aged and fermented in open oak foudres”. King-sized taste.
Imperial Stout. The Moa Brewing Company have managed to make a beer that tastes like Pedro Jiminez, raisin-arsed with a dark chocolate finish. The brewer says “… a very strong, upfront and rich beer hopped to over 100 IBUs … this beer not only displays coffee, mocha and smoked cedar characters but also some sweet and savoury notes unique to Moa Imperial Stout. A great beer to cellar and age”. This would need to be bought in some bulk to manage to cellar and age it, you’ll drink it all day from October to March.
Vanilla Coffee Porter. Mike’s Organic Brewery has packed in an island’s worth of V and a barrista full of C to make a very tasty P that packs more flavour than its admittedly limited viscosity would suggest.
Mataccino. The Aotearoa Brewery have some good contenders in this bracket and this is a proper big porter. It’s all coffee and chocolate, as you’d expect from a beer “infused with locally roasted coffee, cacao nibs and vanilla beans”. *applauds*. Imagine being from the 80s and drinking Sade’s ‘Diamond Life’ produced by Quincy Jones.
Of course, having said all that about Australia being too warm to make exellent porters we have to appreciate that they spend most of the year catering for exhausted, hot surfers as they prepare to do whatever surfers do when they’ve stopped surfing and need a little me time.
England has a tendency to overly tart pale ales, the recent preponderance of sours will tell you all you need to know. There often isn’t enough warmth and generosity in our pale ales, they can be a tad upright, a bit stiff-upper-lip. That’s not to say we can’t: Seven Bro7hers’ ‘Session Ale’, ‘Rock Top’ by Old Dairy, Wylam’s ‘Writer’s Block’, any of Brodie’s Amarilla pales and many, many others are tasty as hell.
New Zealand seems similarly afflicted, some very good pales, some annoyingly sour rubbish and a decent lump of bog-standard. But, whoah, the best ones are very good.
THE BEST PALES
Panhead Custom Ales: Quickchange XPA, Super Charger & The Vandal.
It took me two sips of two different beers to realise Panhead Custom Ales were going to be the best brewery in New Zealand. And boy do they know what they’re doing when it comes to pales. Hence, there are three on this list, so I thought I’d lump them into one paragraph. Their darks didn’t quite cut the mustard but these three made my UNTAPPD reviews go slightly nuts. Quickchange: “Gooseberry. Lush. Pantastic. Bee On Quay. Oompah Dads Army, Blackadder.” Vandal: “Monster hoppage. Brendon MacCullum. Boom. Fruity, thick and bitter but yet not bitter. A big six to long on”. Supercharger: “Big lively hopmonger, Jiff.”
Panhead have a marvellous website, by the way. PANHEAD
Pale Ale. Epic Brewing‘s little trickster, Daniel Vettori in a glass. 15 [fifteen] hops it said in the bar blurb (16 Tun, Auckland) but the brewer says “there are 23 [hops] crammed into this bottle, many brewers would call that ‘insane’. We call it flavour.” Oddly malty for a hop-packed brew but it’s sweet and nettly and, appropriately, was Supreme Champion Beer at the New Zealand International Beer Awards. You can’t argue with that. With so many hops you might think this will be a subtle beer but it’s more like an orchestral crescendo, you might just be able to pick out the gong but it’s the volume that leaves your ears ringing. Very much more than the sum of its parts, a mighty punch.
Yakima Monster. Grrrrr … another monster hopped pale, this one (obviously) an American from Liberty Brewing. A 2012 award winner, most of Yakimas hops have been shipped in for this yet it’s sufficiently fruity to stop the tangs.
APA, American Pale Ale. The Tuatara Brewery are up there with Panhead and Epic and not just for their incredibly tactile reptilian bottles. A massive great hint of weed in this one, not just that hoppy ganja whiff, and a quick toot on the pina colada.
APA, Aoteara pale Ale. Tuatara’s totally tropical adventure. Get yourself on a secluded northern island, after which this beer is named (the north NZ island rather than a specific island, that is), and sit under a palm tree. Pineapples, kiwi hops, fucking marvellous with the spicy shrimps at Topsail.
Basically: New Zealand 1-1 Australia
If you’re not from 1986 then you probably aren’t a fan of pilsners. That ubiquitous taste. But, Auckland’s Crab Shack (they of the fucking jam jar glasses) redeem themselves with great crab and Speight’s Triple Hop Pilsner. Really rather enjoyable, the extra hops shine through in the taste and while that rather stark feel of a pilsner is still there, it seems softer. Gold Medal at the 2013 International Brewing Awards.