LIKE A PROUD father, Paul Croucher shows off photos on his phone.
"It's not photoshopped," he says. "It's against the door of the brewery."
The subject is pleurotus ostreatus: oyster mushrooms.
"We had a young guy make up sacks of sterilised straw and inoculated it with oyster mushroom spawn and grew neat bags of mushrooms."
Croucher and his partner, Nigel Gregory, harvested 15kg and used them to make a beer called Oyster Mushroom Stout. About 100ml of the brown amber sits before me in a wine glass. I try a swig. It's earthy, with a smooth aftertaste.
"It's ageing really well. It's six months old."
The owner/operators of Brew Rotorua and Brew Tauranga are riding a wave of interest in craft beer -the Brewers Guild of New Zealand says the number of professional brewing operations in the country has nearly trebled in the past five years, and beer exports have nearly doubled. A report by ANZ last year showed the craft beer business had grown 40 per cent from 2014.
The group lists five Bay of Plenty member breweries: Aotearoa Brewing in Kawerau; Croucher Brewing in Rotorua; Fitzpatrick's Brewing in Pyes Pa; and Mount Brewing Co. and Rocky Knob, both based in Mount Maunganui. One brewer who started as a hobbyist is Craig Fitzpatrick, who owns Fitzpatrick's Brewing Co with his wife, Catherine.
The operation is housed in a big shed on their 5ha property in Pyes Pa. Craig says he made his first brew at age 16.
"I was fascinated by the process. It think I was in fourth form science at Tauranga Boys' College."
While Craig says he still has a lot of fun brewing, a 60-hour work week in the agricultural sector means his passion is relegated to nights and weekends. Still, he says production has doubled year-on-year the past two years, and he's brewing about 1000 litres per month. Fitzpatrick's beers are on rotation at Brew in Rotorua, at retail outlets and bars in Tauranga, and straight from the vat during Flagon Filling Fridays.
Craig says, "I'm not into world domination and trying to sell beer all over New Zealand; I'm just trying to create great, fresh beer for the locals. "We don't filter our beer, and there's no added preservatives...it's just unnecessary when it's a local product."
Craig says craft beer is full-flavoured, intense and challenging. He says 'craft' isn't about size, it's about taste. "That's where the big guys can do it. Americans are probably 10 years ahead on the craft beer movement. Their craft breweries are bigger than some of our national breweries."
Brew Craft Beer Pub opened on Rotorua's Eat Street in 2011 to showcase Croucher Brewing Co.'s beer. A second pub, Brew Tauranga, followed in 2013.
Today, the pub offers 12 beers on tap and 20 to 30 more bottled craft beers. Paul says Croucher produces about 150,000 litres of beer each year (12,500 per month), and also sells to outlets around the North Island.
"We moved premises last year to be able to ramp up production. We're capable of somuch more, but there are so many more players in the market. We need to refine recipes and keep improving the brand."
Another place to seek beer-vana in Rotorua is CBK Craft Bar and Kitchen, also on Eat Street. CBK opened in 2014, offering tap beers like Moa and Good George, as well as more than 30 varieties of bottled beer, including Aotearoa Brewery's Mata range.
Brewers say craft beer drinkers are always looking for new tastes, which is why Tauranga's Brew has on tap a sour Belgian ale called Citrus Kiss.
Nigel says, "Sour beers have become one of the areas of growth for beers. Three or four years ago, no one was interested in drinking them." The 3.7 per cent alcohol brew tastes light and tart.
"This is like a Fruju," says Paul, taking a swig. Brew offers one of two 'crazy' flavoured beers, such as a bottle of curry flavoured Ballast Point ale Nigel pulls from the fridge. "It's got madras curry, cumin, cayenne, coconut and kaffir lime. The idea of a curry beer does not ring my bell, but the reality of that beer is just fantastic."
Another trend in craft beer is lower alcohol brews. Thanks partly to a law change in December 2014 dropping the legal limit from 80mg to 50mg per millilitre of blood, sales of craft beer as low as 2.5 per cent alcohol by volume are expected to reach record numbers.
Paul Croucher says the company's Low Rider (2.5 per cent) ale has become its second biggest seller.
"It's gone absolutely nuts. Supermarkets haven't picked it up, but high-end restaurants and bottle stores have. It still has heaps of hops and lots of malt and aroma."
Craig Fitzgerald says he's had a lower-alcohol label waiting for two and a- half years for a beer called Two Stroke.
"We've done a couple trial batches, but I'm not happy with it yet. It's a hard thing to keep all that flavour in there while you cut out the alcohol."
NZ Craft Beer Industry Craft breweries:
- Off-premise retail sales up 42 per cent in 2015 over 2014.
- 13 per cent of beer sales by value in New Zealand.
- Sold in about 40 offshore markets.
- $2.7 million worth of craft beer sold to
- Asia (half sold in China).
Source: ANZ 2015 Craft Beer insights