Tasting New Zealand’s boutique brews

New Zealand might be best known for its award-winning wines, but Kiwis are also beer drinkers and have developed a discerning palate that has prompted a boutique brewery boom.

New Zealand might be best known for its award-winning wines, but Kiwis are also beer drinkers and have developed a discerning palate that has prompted a boutique brewery boom.

While well established and internationally renowned Kiwi beer brands such as Steinlager, Speight’s and Tui continue to thrive, more than 50 boutique micro-breweries have sprung up in almost every region of New Zealand - each offering their own unique blends and identity.

Today there are more than 250 beers brewed in New Zealand - many have won international awards, some produced by tried and true traditional methods, others with modern technology and an organic and sustainable approach.

As well as being able to sample the various tipples at source, beer lovers can extend their knowledge and follow their passion through a variety of tours and beer festivals, or by mapping out their own self-guided brewery adventure.

Captain Cook’s early brew
New Zealand’s association with the amber fluid dates back to the late 18th century when Captain James Cook, the first European to chart the islands of New Zealand, brewed the country’s first beer.

Convinced that beer was essential for the health of his seamen, Cook mixed leaves from native trees - rimu, kahikatea and matai - with tea to produce a type of spruce beer.

Captain Cook put down his first brew in Oceania at Dusky Sound, on the South Island’s west coast, on 27 March 1773.

In modern life, Cook’s brewing tradition has been picked up by The Mussel Inn at Onekaka - in the heart of Golden Bay near Nelson - where an all malt beer is flavoured with freshly picked tips of manuka leaves. Locally grown organic hops are added, and the brew is aptly named ‘Captain Cooker’.

NZ brewing heritage
New Zealand’s oldest breweries and pubs date back to the 19th century when pioneers first began to quench their thirst on the local product.

In the South Island, Dunedin’s Speight’s Brewery is a local icon that’s been serving up popular brews - like the revered 'Pride of the South' - since 1876. Brewery tours offer visitors a taste of both history and product.

On the other side of the Southern Alps in the West Coast town of Greymouth, Monteith’s Brewery maintains traditions that reach back to the mid-1880s gold rush times.

In the North Island, the Tui Brewery was established in 1889 on the banks of the Mangatainoka River - after founder Henry Wagstaff reputedly stopped for a cuppa and discovered the finest water he’d ever tasted. The Wairarapa brewery, which established a reputation for export-quality brews, is a NZ institution and a popular tourist attraction.

In the far north, the Duke of Marlborough Hotel - at Russell in the Bay of Islands - was New Zealand's first licensed hotel and has been operating since 1827.

Rugby, racing and beer
A popular folk song of the 1960s - "Rugby, Racing and Beer ... Down Under they’re mad over their Rugby, Racing and Beer" - portrayed the archetypical ‘Kiwi bloke’ as a man who loved to watch rugby, bet on the horse races, and drink good beer.

Five decades later, Kiws still love their rugby, racing and beer, but some things have changed - notably, the beer has got better and many of today’s brews are organic, full of taste and world class.

The Brewers Guild of New Zealand holds annual awards and each year, since the first competition in 2001, sees more breweries and brews registered. The 2012 BrewNZ Beer Awards attracted 460-plus entries.

Beer-lovers visiting Wellington can take a dedicated beer tour with Wild About Wellington who introduced boutique beer tasting tours to New Zealand. Beer expert and writer Neil Miller hosts private and small group tours and tastings.

NZ beer festivals
The Nelson region - at the top of the South Island - is New Zealand’s hop-growing centre, and boasts more craft breweries per head of population than any of part of the country.

It’s also the location of a craft beer and music festival called Marchfest. Launched in 2008, this down-under event is loosely based on Munich’s OktoberFest but it’s not solely about beer. The festival, which adheres to the slow food movement, includes stalls selling tasty New Zealand treats like freshly caught local scallops and locally reared venison, and fine local wines.

The Marlborough town of Blenheim hosts the Blues, Brews & BBQs festival each February. A popular fixture on the regional summer calendar, the festival pays homage to craft brewing giving brewers the chance to present premium beers to thousands of appreciative consumers. The wide range of beer styles and flavours also extends into wine, cider and schnapps, along with live entertainment and food.

Beervana - New Zealand’s largest beer festival - is held each August in Wellington, and runs in conjunction with the BrewNZ Beer Awards. Meanwhile, Auckland has The New Zealand Beer Festival - a stunning beer garden experience on the city waterfront with an indoors / outdoors setting dispensing the finest brews from 30 breweries.

Beer tourism in New Zealand
Many of New Zealand’s breweries are open for tours that reveal some of the age-old brewing techniques that make their tipples so exceptional.

The Beer Tourist website - an independent online guide to New Zealand's breweries and specialist craft beer outlets - offers downloadable maps and details about individual breweries, bars and pubs, including off-sales, brewery tours and accommodation.

In order to be listed, pubs and bars must offer a good selection of craft beers - usually about eight or more on tap, or a broad selection of bottled examples.