By Jennifer Dann

As head brewer at some of New Zealand's largest breweries, including Speights and McCashin's, Tracy Banner co-led the country's craft beer revolution. The "mother of New Zealand brewing" captained one of the judge's tables at this year's New World Beer and Cider Awards.

1 How did you get into the beer industry?

I grew up in Warrington in northwest England. I was really good at science and left school at 16 to work in the laboratory of a large corporate brewery. It was so big there were 40 people in the lab alone. I spent my first year analysing malts, checking for colour and starch levels. It's the starch in malt that turns into sugar and then alcohol. You don't need to add sugar to beer - it comes from the malt itself. We also tested malt for its head retention properties. All brewers should ask for a certificate of analysis with their malt - many don't.

Advertisement

2 Did they teach you how to taste beer?

Yes. I wasn't allowed to taste the beers until I was 18 so I learned by smell first. You get very detailed sensory training in the lab. Anyone can learn but there are limits. For example, there's a compound called diacetyl that smells like butterscotch and is actually a fault in beer but some very good brewers can't actually pick it. If you ferment beer too fast it can produce ester compounds which smell quite nice and fruity but aren't meant to be there. There are also sulphur compounds which shouldn't necessarily be there.

3 What's the best way to learn brewing?

It's good to get your grounding in a lab but you need to spend time doing each link in the chain; so someone writes the recipe, then someone brews and ferments it, then it's got to be stored in maturation, then filtered and packaged. Packaging is hugely important because any oxygen left in will age it a lot quicker - the equipment has to be spotlessly clean and hygienic. You've got to pay meticulous attention to detail at every stage of the process. Quality and consistency is paramount.

4 You've been brewing beer for 35 years, about half of that time in New Zealand. What did you think of the quality of our beer like when you emigrated in 1993?

I remember tasting a Rheineck and a Double Brown and thinking "Oh my goodness" because they were quite thin and sweet, but hey it was the early 90s. My first job was Lion in Auckland I then became head brewer at McCashin's in Nelson and I suggested the McCashin family look at other styles of beer. Emerson's in Dunedin and Harrington's in Christchurch were doing good things as well. So we set about making some more stylistically correct beers the market was ready for. Back then it was still lagers, just a bit stronger and more flavoursome. In 2002 we brewed an IPA called Mac's Copperhop that was very innovative at the time and won a best in class trophy. The year after that Epic Pale Ale came out and the rest is history when it comes to hoppy beers.

5 Did Kiwi women drink much beer back then?

No, it was perceived as too gassy or bloating. Bartenders were told to offer women the wine list. When Lion took over Mac's we did a blonde beer with slightly more fruit and I went on a road show round the country to introduce it to women. These days women are drinking beer by the pints and they're drinking double IPAs and imperial stouts that are 10 per cent.

6 Why did you leave Lion to become the first female head brewer at Speights?

I saw it as a challenge. Speights is the pride of the south and I was a 5 foot 4 (1.64m) Englishwomen in Southern Man territory but they had a unique way of fermenting their beer in big open-topped kauri vats which was of interest to me. I never had any problems there. The only time I did was back in Britain in the '80s where the guys would stand with their hands in their pockets and watch me roll barrels three times heavier than me.

7 What are you doing these days?

My husband and I wanted to go back to Nelson with our children so we bought into Tasman Brewing Company and changed the name to Sprig and Fern Brewery. We became full owners four years ago and the Sprig and Fern brand now has 11 taverns around the country. I'm passionate about improving the industry so I also spend a lot of time travelling around judging awards and mentoring brewers. Our children are teenagers now, so it's a busy life.

8 You've just finished judging the New World Beer and Cider Awards. Were the winners immediately clear?

It's often very clear-cut whether or not a beer is a medal winner. I captain a judging table and the bit that can take time is if the table is split over whether it's a gold, silver or bronze. A beer that gets gold is world-class. Sometimes you can actually sit in silence because you're just like, "Oh my god this beer is so damn good". I can't wait to find out the results later this month because we judge the beers blind so I have no idea who won each category.

9 What's the most challenging part of judging?

Avoiding palate fatigue. We judge 65 beers a day which gives us about six minutes per beer. It's really tough because it requires so much concentration. You want to be judging the 30th beer the same as the first. You do have to swallow the beer in order to taste the bitterness of the hops but you've already done a lot with smell before you taste. You take regular breaks and there's lots of water and bread on the table.

10 What beers excite you most in the New Zealand market right now?

I love most styles. We're ahead of the Australians when it comes to craft beer. Our quality's really up there with the best in the world. I tend to drink for the occasion; on a cold day I'll have a hearty scotch ale and in summer you want a crisp Pilsner. Sour beers are an acquired taste - you either love them or hate them. Back in the day, if a beer was sour it generally meant it was off but the standards of brewing have come in leaps and bounds. I love judging sours because they can be really intriguing and can actually change while you're drinking them.

11 What's the best beer you've ever made?

Sprig and Fern has New Zealand's highest awarded Pilsner, winning gold at the Brewers Guild of NZ Awards for four years running. It's made once a year with fresh hops straight off the vine. I hand select the hops and then rush them back to the brewery where they go in the beer the same day instead of being kiln dried and made into pellets. The difference is pure freshness.

12 The latest industry report shows craft beer continues to take a larger share of the beer market with consumption now at 10 per cent. Is there room for more growth or is it time to consolidate?

I do feel there is room to grow. New Zealand has 194 craft breweries in New Zealand producing more than 1600 unique beers. We might find the more established breweries carry on while some of the newer kids come and go a bit more frequently.

The winners of the New World Beer and Cider Awards will be announced later this month.