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. Croucher says, "it's ageing really well. It's six months old."
The owner operators of Brew Tauranga and Brew Rotorua 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 Kknob, both based in Mount Maunganui.
Craft brewers like Bron and Stu marshall, who own Rocky Knob, say their business started as a hobby and spilled over into sales. The couple contract brew with two different breweries. Bron says, "it means we don't have to sell the children to have our own stainless steel."
Stu works fulltime in the forestry industry. He develops recipes and sometimes visits breweries on weekends. Bron handles sales and marketing and says friends help invent brew names such as hen pecked golden ale and black booty.
"We have a lot of fun with names because we can have a really good laugh about it. They usually have a story behind them," says Bron.
When Rocky Knob started in the Marshalls' Mount Maunganui garage, they were producing 500 litres of beer every three months.
Bron says they now make four brews of 500 litres each month. Their beer is available at local bars and stores across the country, in Auckland, Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch.
She says, "the beauty of craft beer is most houses rotate taps. We send kegs every month; we don't know when our beer will be on and how long it'll last."
Another brewer who started as a hobbyist is Craig Fitzpatrick, who owns Fitzpatrick's Brewing Co with 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. I 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 working week in the agricultural sector means his passion is relegated to nights and weekends.
Still, he says production has doubled year on year in the past two years, and he's brewing about 1000 litres per month. His beers are sold locally, at a Wellington bar 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."
Mount Brewing Co started in 1996 as brewer's, in 2012 picking up a partner, its namesake bar on Maunganui Rd. The brewery offers eight core beers year-round, plus seasonal brews such as the 50 Fathom Oat Stout, resin head hoppy red and, most recently, the White Whale. Mount Brewing Co beers are sold in local bottle shops and bars, nationwide and online.
Paul Croucher and Nigel Gregory opened Brew Craft Beer Pub on Rotorua's Eat Street in 2011 to showcase their 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 so much more, but there are so many more players in the market. We need to refine recipes and keep improving the brand."
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.
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 alcohol limit for driving 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."
Rocky Knob introduced a lower-alcohol beer at the start of summer called Undies. Bron says, "it went down very well. We sold out quickly at 3.3 per cent. We were aware of the change in the drink driving act and responded to the need to be responsible manufacturers and show we can still produce a lower-alcohol beer full of flavour 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 of 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."
Secret is start slow, build up a good head
Steve Webb started home brewing three years ago using a kit. After about 10 batches, he wanted to challenge himself to make more unique beers, so started sourcing grains.
"I did think it was a much better product and I enjoyed the whole process."
Steve normally buys yeast, malt and hops online, but last year started growing hops at the family's Bellevue garden. He says most New Zealand hops are grown in Nelson ... "because that's the best place. They need frost in the winter and don't like wind."
Steve's been able to grow enough hops to make 25 litres of beer at once. He says his plants are flowering and fattening up.
"They grow pretty tall. The tallest poles in my garden are on the side of the kids' slide, and they'd be about three and-a-half metres high."
Steve says his beer contains 3.5 per cent to 9 per cent alcohol, and while he hasn't thought about selling it, he enjoys sharing.
"I like hearing what people think about it. I like the social element."
Steve's advice to other would-be home brewers is to start simple, keep equipment sterile and use yeast at the right temperatures. "And don't doing anything too complex before you're ready."