I used to feel like Robinson Crusoe," recalls Keith Galbraith of the early days of opening his eponymous brewpub in Grafton in the mid-90s. He's no longer a castaway, however, a growing mutiny by craft supporters against bland beers has created a sea of exciting ales for beer drinkers on the lookout for more flavour.
New Zealand has finally embraced the global trend in craft beer happening in Britain, the US, Europe and Australia. The result is the quality and diversity of the beers we're making now is like nothing we've seen before. There are those inspired by the classic ales of Britain and Europe; beers bursting with our distinctive New Zealand hops and a host of daring new inventions, from brews infused with peat smoke to some that even incorporate sauvignon blanc.
"We've seen significant change and diversity of choice develop in food and other beverages in New Zealand over the past 20 years, such as wine, coffee and tea," says David Cryer, who owns one of the craft industry's main malt suppliers, Cryer Malt, and who instigated Wellington's Beervana Festival 12 years ago. "Beer is just further behind but now catching up fast and may well overtake wine for variety and choice," Cryer says.
"Whereas in wine you might get a new grape variety or wine style fairly occasionally, there are new beer styles being created every day," says Anthony Browne, who with business partner and brewer Andrew Larson opened the Brothers Beer craft brewery and comprehensively stocked bar and beer shop in Auckland's City Works Depot late last year. "We've served beers brewed with chocolate, coffee, pumpkin, juniper berries, wood chips and kaffir lime leaves. We even tried one from the US brewed with maple syrup and bacon."
"The range of beer, malts and innovation of using non-traditional ingredients today makes for very some interesting experiences," says Dean McCashin. His family were trailblazers in the 80s, developing the Macs brand before it was sold to major brewer Lion in 1999, and, with very few others, McCashins flew the boutique beer flag for decades.
McCashin revived his family's boutique Nelson operation with the creation of the Stoke label a few years ago. He thinks the present craft ale trend is fantastic, saying: "The beauty nowadays with the huge range of craft beer is that everyone has the chance to find a taste in beer that will suit their preference and palate."
The boom has been fuelled in part by brewers and drinkers' experiences overseas, which exposed a new generation to the great beers of the world and highlighted just what we were missing back home.
"When I did my winemaking OE in France and the US 15 years ago I was introduced to good beer," says Josh Scott, founder of high-profile craft label Moa. "I could not go back to just drinking what was on the market in New Zealand. As there was nothing to buy I thought I would make it."
Scott used winemaking techniques such as using wine yeasts and barrel fermentation and, with a growing number of other craft brewers, has embraced oak maturation to produce more complex and texturally exciting beers.
The Yeastie Boys, aka Stu McKinlay and Sam Possenniskie, are among those leading the way with, among other brews, the "world's first heavily peated single malt ale", Rex Attitude, and the Earl Grey-infused Gunnamatta IPA.
"We've always been lovers of delicious flavours, whether that is food or drink, a subtle or aggressive character, something you associate with something else or something you've never imagined could exist," says McKinlay. "It's this open-minded philosophy and the unlimited palette that we have at our disposal when brewing that's inspired our foray into beer."
Our brewers are fortunate to have great raw ingredients, from increasingly tasty malts to the world-class hops that imbue beer with its characteristic bitterness and provide a combination of flavours and intense aromatics specific to New Zealand: herbs, citrus, passionfruit and florals.
"It's fair to say right now that New Zealand hops are the rock stars of the hops world," says Jos Ruffell of Garage Project, a brewery that's not afraid to use liberal doses of hops. "New Zealand hops have a fantastic reputation overseas at the moment, to the point where we sometimes struggle to get the quantities we would like."
This dynamism in craft beer has doubtless helped craft beer buck the trend in a declining beer market.
Ben Shaw, head of beer at the Independent Liquor-owned Boundary Road Brewery, says Statistics NZ figures show the total beer market declined 7 per cent in the year to March.
But he says that the craft market continues to be the "shining light of the New Zealand beer market", growing at about 25 per cent a year.
That growth has made craft ales increasingly attractive to the big brewers. Last year the country's largest brewer, Lion, bought respected craft brewer Emerson's and launched the Crafty Beggars label, a trend that's raised a few hackles among boutique brewers over what actually defines craft beer.
"We think craft is simply about interesting tastes, great quality, experimentation and the passion and skill of those behind it," says Mark Scown, brand manager of Lion's Craft portfolio. "Ultimately consumers will decide for themselves what craft means to them, and whether they really need to define it to enjoy it," he says.
Joseph Wood, of Liberty Brewing, says: "In a way it's good as it's introducing people who have never tried craft beer before to drinking beer that has a little bit of flavour. But the beer still has to be good."
Wood's beers have been so well-received that it's been hard to keep up with demand. He has relocated to Auckland to join forces with another expanding boutique brewer, Hallertau, to increase output.
However, their 15,000 litres a week production is still a drop in the ocean compared with the big boys.
Liberty joins a burgeoning craft brewing and drinking scene in the city, which after lagging well behind Wellington is starting to catch up. As well as soaking up the English pub ambience at Galbraith's, enthusiasts can now imbibe at an increasing array of establishments switched on to good beer.
They can indulge in a full craft immersion at Brothers Beer, sip among the vats in Brown's Bay's Deep Creek Brewing Company, head to Hallertau in Riverhead to sample its ales and drop by Ponsonby's Golden Dawn or O'Carroll's in central Auckland.
More shops also cater to beer connoisseurs, such as ale emporium Hopscotch and craft-friendly outlets that include Village Wines, Blanc, Wine Circle, Liquorland Newmarket and New World Victoria Park.
The second annual City of Ales, Auckland's craft beer festival, to be held at the city's Floating Pavilion on Saturday, offers a snapshot of the excitement to be found in beers from throughout the North Island.
Craft ale has arrived and beer has never been so exciting in the city.
City of Ales
June 29, The Floating Pavilion, Quay St, City.
Sample 30 beers from the North Island at the intimate City of Ales. Some will not have been available in Auckland before. Booking essential through eventfinder.co.nz
August 9 and 10, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
New Zealand's major craft beer celebration, offering 200 beers and the opportunity to meet many of New Zealand's best brewers. Tickets at ticketek.com
Recommened Craft Beers
POLISHED PILSNER: Moa Methode 330ml - $4.99
Made more like a sparkling wine than a traditional lager, this elegant bottle-fermented beer is crisp and refreshing with notes of citrus, white fruits and honey and has a gentle hops edge.
TOASTY LAGER: McCashins Stoke Bomber Biscuit Lager 650ml - $9
Another lager with a difference, this is made with "biscuit malt" that imparts a toasty flavour to its relatively rich savoury palate with its subtle hint of peach.
AROMATIC PALE ALE: Mke's SAIPA Single American 500ml - $11.99
An aromatic organic pale ale with plenty of body to its sweet and aromatic palate of lemon cake, tropical fruits and herb.
IMPRESSIVE IPA: Garage Project Trip Hop 500ml - $10.50
IPA is a style characterised by higher levels of hops and alcohol, used to preserve beer sent to British troops in India. This is an impressive example, with vibrant notes of grapefruit.
MALTY BROWN: Deep Creek Brewing Company's Dusty Gringo Brown Ale 500ml - $9.99
Made with the darker toasted "chocolate" malt, this brown ale has a malty palate with a deliciously savoury edge. Great food beer.
DARK PLEASURES: Yeastie Boys Pot Kettle Black 330ml - $5.50
Porters are made from some of the darkest malts, which provide their deep colour and rich flavours, evident in this beer in an "American style", with a hops lift.
WHAT A PORTER: Hallertau Porter Noir 750ml - $19
A superlative porter aged in pinot noir barrels, which impart spicy fruit to this smooth, complex beer that layers dark chocolate, coffee, game, truffle and hints of sour cherry.
POTENT DROP: Galbraith's Strong Ale 330ml - $6
A full-bodied ale that supports its 9 per cent alcohol admirably. Rich malt and savoury notes reminiscent of rye, Marmite and a whiff of smoke counterpoised by pleasing freshness.