Danielle Wright gets a lesson in beer appreciation as she infiltrates a weekly meeting of the Hopful Thinkers, a craft beer club on the North Shore.

"We're not beer snobs, we're beer geeks," says Chris Hannent, whose backyard is over-run each week by around 10 men, all from very different walks of life, wearing beer-themed T-shirts with labels such as Hop Zombie or Chukker Big Ale.

Smoke from an outdoor potbelly stove fills the air while we sit under the house, just out of the rain, to taste and talk about craft beers. Many of the men's wives and girlfriends are talking vampire romance novels in their Vamp Tramp book club upstairs, warm and snug inside the house.

"You're safer down here with us!" says Dan Capper, explaining that the group started because going to the pub was becoming unaffordable and it felt more natural to meet at home instead. "Chris started to homebrew, but it was quite hit or miss, so we moved on to craft beer. The homebrew got us started though."

Chris has just returned from a visit to a craft beer festival in Minnesota, where the craft beer movement is more established and he noticed 30 craft beers were on tap at one of the alehouses he visited.


He also talks about The Malthouse in Wellington as a place for craft beer lovers - it has over 80 of the world's best beers. It's clear The Hopful Thinkers take their mission to try all the craft beers in the world seriously, even building holidays around the idea.

Before long, I'm handed a tiny glass filled with a beer called Mash Up, which is a collaboration ale with contributions from 44 NZ breweries, and one of the group's favourites.

Josh Cassin is the designated person to put the beers in order and much like wine tastings, it goes from lighter to fuller flavours so the ability to taste the delicate flavours isn't ruined. Surprisingly, it's best to drink the beer from red wine glasses.

I innocently ask what the top five craft beers are in New Zealand and realise that discussions about the beers can get a bit heated at times: they don't always agree.

Just in time, Steve Wilton, the designated beer chef, arrives with an enviably moist chocolate cake made with Croucher Patriot, an American Black Ale full of American amarillo and simcoe hops, and topped with icing made using Dark Horse by Invercargill's Mussell Inn.

A bottle of bubbly is placed on the table and I wonder if they confused my request for fizzy water for something bubblier and more alcoholic. They explain it's actually a beer called Morning Glory from Moa, borrowing from founder and head brewer Josh Scott's winemaking past. "It's perfect first thing in the morning with pancakes, maple syrup and bacon, or a good fry-up," explains Josh, adding, "It's not alcoholism unless you go to a meeting."

None of the men seem like big drinkers, it's all in moderation and each person drinks only about a glass and a half in total throughout the evening. The group is about enjoying the beer, not getting drunk.

Each beer is discussed, though, as you'd expect, the more that is drunk, the less chat there is. It ranges from "a nice floral bouquet" and "it has a sweet banana taste" on the first beers to simply "yummy" and "hoppy" as a few are downed. As we finish, the comments become a bit more personal: "very smooth, very simple - a bit like you Steve".

Off on a tangent we are suddenly discussing Captain Cook's manuka-flavoured beer and whether his nickname was actually Cookie. Steve's final word on the matter: "He would have been a good bloke that Cookie." I've never been to a book club, but I imagine it's about now the ladies are veering off subject too.

The men I know, who as boyish-men spent their free time buying and learning about music, are now buying and learning about craft beers or fine wines.

It seems the search for authenticity and rarity, while having a good time with your mates, remains the same, even if the topic changes with age.

Start a craft beer club at home
* Buying the beer online may save money, or look at group-buying for discounts. Forrest Hill Liquorland (252 Forrest Hill Rd, Forrest Hill, Auckland, ph (09) 449 0250) has a selection of different beers each week and was mentioned quite a few times during the evening as the place to go on the Shore, or try Farro Fresh Food (Mt Wellington, Mairangi Bay or Te Rapa).

* If you have to eat something on the night, make sure it has beer in it. Try Sam Cook's The Kiwi Beer Lover's Cookbook, 150 recipes in which the key ingredient is beer.

* Remember to choose a lighter flavoured beer to start, malt-driven beers later and a stronger, hoppier beer to finish.

* Follow other craft beer groups and join the community: hopfulthinking.wordpress.com, @hopfultweeting or facebook.com/HopfulThinking.

* beernz.co.nz has a good section on how to run a beer club night and which beers to choose.

* themalthouse.co.nz in Wellington is a good spot for a boys' weekend of craft beer tasting to get everyone into the spirit.