For what seemed like a millennium, New Zealand beer was brown fizzy stuff that tasted of, well, nothing. But no longer. Instead tasty beer, made by sometimes tiny local breweries, is causing all the fizz. Greg Dixon discovers why we've fallen in love with a thing called 'craft' beer.

Decisions, decisions. Should I risk a "Pernicious Weed", chance a "Trip Hop" or get involved in the "Dark Arts"? Or maybe I'm a "BitterBitch" man, or a "DeadCanary" or a "Bloodhound"? Oh God, was it really possible there could be such a thing as too many different kinds of beer?

Under the stands at Wellington's Westpac Stadium, I stood absolutely still, riven by indecision. I was only an hour into the first session at my first Beervana - Wellington's fabulous annual beer festival - and my power to choose what to drink next was already buckling under the strain.

There were exactly 271 varieties of the amber liquid available at this year's festival, all but 20 or so of them brewed right here in New Zealand.

From the 12 Gauge Strong Lager from Leigh Sawmill Brewery north of Auckland, to the Smokin' Bishop from Invercargill Brewery in the deep south, there were hundreds of beers from dozens of breweries at scores of taps at a dozen booths scattered under the stadium's stands. It was as exhausting as it was exciting.


So, after that first hour, it was already quite clear to me that my ambition to sample as many of the 271 as I could was no match for the sheer scale of Beervana, nor the crowds (more than 8000 people, the "grogniscenti" as someone called them, attended over the two days) not to mention that my logistical and decision-making powers (and my bladder) were not up to the job. Fortunately, a few ales took the edge off the disappointment ...

But another thing occurred to me as I stood riven to the spot, vacillating: if there was any doubt about the rise and rise of New Zealand "craft" beer (explanation below) then Beervana is a solid gold assurance that the country has entered what might be called an amber age of brewing.

No wonder the brewers were toasting each other with such (I won't use the word gay) abandon at the Brewers Guild Awards the night before.

Over a few hours and more than a few ales, a few hundred of our brewing industry's elite gathered inside an unlovely, high-studded, concrete foyer named the Renouf Room at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre to celebrate and recognise the best beer made in the last year.

They're an interesting lot, brewers, though you'd hardly know it to look at them. A few had classic brewers' droops (sadly I spotted just one mullet, though pleasingly it was ginger) but most looked like fit, conservative provincial blokes out for a night on the town - jeans with a dress shirt untucked and opened necked.

To these blokes, scores of gold, silver and bronze medals were handed out, while overall winners were announced for 15 beer and cider categories, from lager to ales to cask-conditioned beers to packaging. There was of course excitement among the winners, but there also seemed to be, surprisingly for an industry awards ceremony, a genuine warmth, enthusiasm and excitement from non-winners for those awarded medals and gongs.

Naturally, the night's most prestigious award, the 2012 New Zealand champion brewery, was left until last and went to, drum roll please, Christchurch's Harrington's Brewery. (Haven't heard of it? Well there's part of the answer to the question about what exactly constitutes a craft beer: in many cases, it's strongly regional).

Over a quick beer at Beervana the following afternoon, Carl Harrington - formerly a gruff West Coaster, now a gruff Cantabrian and son of the probably gruff brewery founder "Big" John Harrington - is still frothing like a European-style lager about the win.

"It probably still hasn't really sunk in," he growled, happily as he repeatedly clicked a pen. "It's quite prestigious; the previous winners are 8-Wired, Tuatara, DB, Emerson's, now us ... I think over all the years of us brewing it's built up to this, you know. It's a pinnacle for us, it's excellent."

In New Zealand brewing, Harring-ton's, along with a few others, including Mac's, Rapaura's Pink Elephant Brewery and Emerson's in Dunedin, are what might be called the craft beer originals. And, in the two decades since Harrington's started making beer at "a price to suit the working person's pocket", Harrington has seen craft grow exponentially. "Go back 10 years even, the majority of people would have a sip of their DB or Lion Brown, which hasn't got a lot of character or a lot of anything going on. People now [thanks to craft breweries] have been opened up to Pale Ale or extra special bitter that's got a lot of hops, a lot of aromas, and I think that's where it kind of took off."

Harrington isn't wrong. In a country that for most of the 20th century was dominated by two large brewing companies - DB and Lion - there is now a fast growing number of small and medium ones as well. Brewers Guild figures released in August show the number of breweries has increased by 42 per cent over the four years to December 2011. In 2008 there were 48, now there are 68. In that period the number of small craft breweries (the guild defines these as those brewing under 40,000 litres a year) has doubled from 15 to 30.

The growth in craft beer-makers is a response to consumer demand; while the consumption of beer as a category has mostly dropped year by year in New Zealand since the 1980s, craft beer sales have defied gravity, particularly in recent years and particularly in Wellington, which styles itself as our "craft beer capital". Indeed, the most recent figure available showed the New Zealand craft beer market had grown a stonking 14 per cent.

The question, of course, is what makes craft beer the exception?

They don't just drink beer at Wellington's annual beer festival, they talk about it too. Beervana's owner David Cryer - a former guild chairman who bought the festival from the guild two years ago - has a clear agenda: he wants his festival to be the best in the country. So, as well as the enormous variety of beer, Cryer's ballyhoo had great food provided by some of Wellington's best restaurants, and included seminars on everything from matching beer with food to the history of brewing in New Zealand.

One seminar I wandered into, billed, punfully, "Where to from beer?", proved most illuminating. While Jos Ruffel from hip Wellington microbrewery The Garage Project and craft beer legend Richard Emerson talked, respectively, about the difficulties of setting up a small brewery (bloody councils) and the future of New Zealand beer (more variety, hopefully more hand-pumped beer), it was Debra Green, Lion's director of planning and insight, who provided some, well, insight into the New Zealand drinker's growing infatuation with craft beer.

Green's research put the romanticism I'd heard at Beervana and the guild awards - she called it our "love affair" with craft - through the lens of international and local consumer trends. New Zealand, she said, was joining a global infatuation. The United States and Britain had also seen craft beer sales rise, even though overall beer consumption had gone into decline in those countries too.

There were, worldwide, several reasons for this, not least of which the general belief that big (say, enormous multi-national breweries) is bad, and small (say, microbreweries making craft) is good.

However, enthusiasm for craft beer was also a part of wider consumer trends, particularly for Generation Y, that have seen an increasing desire to experiment and to have a product be more than just a product - to have it be an "experience" too.

Moderation is also at play, she said. Certainly the trend toward healthy lifestyle choices meant smart drinkers are drinking less and therefore want to imbibe something decent (and like meat, cheese and most other consumables, they were keen on knowing its provenance too). But Green also talked about moderation in terms of spending, which seemed a little counterintuitive given that craft beer is typically more expensive than mainstream brews. "Rather than going out for the big meal, we actually say 'I'm going to get myself a nice bottle of wine or nice beer and sit at home and savour it'. When we think about rewarding ourselves with food and drink, it is typically with something you want to enjoy ... and savour. And craft really talks to that."

But there's something else at play too. Green didn't call it a sort of beer snobbery, but I will. "There is also generally this desire for us all to know more," she said, "just to know more about stuff - to be a connoisseur of something. It's been around in wine for a long time. You get it in whisky, you get it in other food categories and it is becoming much more prevalent for craft beer. So now you will go to a barbecue and there is a real pride in chatting with your mates about how much you know about the beers that you are drinking."

And there is actually plenty to talk about, not least about the thing that was so long absent from New Zealand beer: flavour.

Ralph Bungard, the guild president and co-owner of Three Boys Brewery in Christchurch, says the variety of New Zealand beer now available to the discerning local drinker is nothing short of remarkable.

"I think suddenly people have realised that there is not just one flavour of beer. Some of that has been from people travelling overseas and tasting something different and coming back and thinking the brown fizzy stuff that we've been calling beer isn't the only thing about beer. I think some of it is about a backlash against the incredibly restrictive beer market we had for a lot of years ... There was no choice. I think it's almost an epiphany that you can get more than one beer and an excitement has just sort of come with that."

Now for the reality check. Craft beer might well be hailed by its devotees as the future, but it is, for now, just 2 per cent of all the beer consumed in New Zealand. The two major breweries, Lion and DB, still own the beer market, as they have done since at least the mid-1970s.

It wasn't always so. At a Beervana seminar about the history of local brewing (and in his new, excellent and highly readable book Beer Nation) journalist Michael Donaldson pointed out that in the late 19th century New Zealand had more than 100 breweries.

By 1976, it was down to just the big two, and it took ex-All Black Terry McCashin, setting up his Mac's Brewery in Stoke near Nelson in 1981, to break the duopoly - though Mac's was eventually bought by Lion in 1999.

New Zealand's beer history is actually rather sad. During the course of the 20th century, industry intransigence, stupid laws, even stupider politicians, Morton Coutts' unique and revolutionary continuous brewing process, the temperance movement, two World Wars and 6 o'clock closing combined to create an infernal machine that produced a weak, watery brew which, no matter what its advertising suggested, was as boring as it was low in alcohol.

And there it might have stayed but for McCashin, though Donaldson reports that DB and Lion did their best to make it difficult for him to get up and running. Emerson's, Harrington's and others followed McCashin a decade or so later, and in the last 10 years dozens of others have joined them.

Competition with the big two can still be intense. In 2008 DB took small Dunedin craft brewery, Green Man, to court to protect its (DB) trademark on the term "radler" (internationally it's a generic name for a shandy), a case that dragged on until last year. Also last year, craft brewer Moa and DB's Monteith's had a spat over which would be the first beer to be sold duty-free.

However, Cryer, who also owns a malt company that sells to breweries big and small, says the only real tension between the big two and craft brewers is for the taps in pubs.

"I think Lion and DB really understand that craft is really good for the market because for its size - 2 per cent - it makes so much noise. That Moa thing [with Monteith's] is exactly an example. Okay, it may be a slightly negative thing that they're talking about but at least they're talking about beer. And if you're talking about beer, people are going to go 'beer ... maybe I'll try one'."

Certainly the big two recognised some time ago that drinkers' - or at least some drinkers' - tastes have changed and responded by establishing their own craft ranges through Monteith's, Mac's and Speight's. Even Independent Liquor, which mainly hogs the ready-to-drink market with grog like Woodstock, has its own craft beer range, Boundary Rd.

Rather than the big boys, it actually turns out the biggest hazard for the nascent craft industry is the risk of boom and bust.

Guild president Ralph Bungard was worried enough about this to raise the issue in his speech at the guild awards.

"We're a very small country of 4.4 million - that's roughly the population of Melbourne - and we've got 60 breweries," he tells me later. "So we've gone from one extreme to the other in a very short space of time. Even over the last couple years the number of breweries [making less than] 40,000 litres a year has doubled. Whether they are going to be able to make a living out of it is going to be relatively tricky. Like all businesses in New Zealand, it will come down to whether they haven't over-extended themselves on capital and they can make a product that people continuously come back to and buy ... and they'll have to be relatively small breweries. We can't have 62 Tuataras, 62 Emerson's, or 62 Three Boys for that matter. It won't economically work."

Novelty, Bungard concedes, remains a bigger driver for craft beer, particularly in Wellington. But the future, he believes, should be fine as long craft brewers deliver great go-to beers consistently.

It would be no bad thing if Aucklanders started drinking more craft beer too. Cryer believes Auckland is about three years behind Wellington; we northerners are still locked into drinking - label out of course - boring lager from green bottles.

However that, too, is changing. There is good beer brewed in the region, including Hallertau's, and, while the Shakespeare and Galbraith's pubs have long made their own craft beer, Cryer is encouraged by the increasing number of other inner city Auckland bars offering and, in some cases, specialising in craft.

"Auckland's catching up" Cryer says. "I've been doing this for 20 years and for a while there I wondered if it would ever happen. Of course, Aucklanders are very badge-conscious and they like to have that beer that everyone else is drinking, that says something about them. But now having a beer brand that nobody knows about is suddenly cool."

The art of craft

What makes a beer a craft beer? Tricky question, this, and no one Canvas spoke to could define it exactly. Possibly it is easier to say what it isn't: something like Heineken. Beervana's David Cryer reckons craft is indefinable but gave it a crack: "I call it Mac's and Monteith's, minus Mac's Gold and Monteith's Original - which is
really confusing - and then it's everything else."

Brewers Guild president Ralph Bungard suggests provenance is hugely important: "You would like to think it's a beer that is made in one place. You can go to where that beer is made. If you pick up a Three Boys pilsner in Auckland, you know that it is made on our site right here in Christchurch. You don't have to debate whether it was made in Auckland, Wellington or overseas."

Debra Green, Lion's director of planning and insight, says it's open to interpretation. "Certainly, yes, craft's smaller, yes there is a personality, etc. But typically there is not a clear definition.

But what we're seeing is that craft beer drinkers just love to be challenged; that they really want those challenging liquids and they are really interested in how it is made, the history and what-have-you - and that's great."

Hmm, so it's as clear as a dark heavy in other words.

What I'd say is, if you can identify exactly where it was brewed, name the brewer and it has great aromas and good strong flavours (and perhaps a silly name), it's probably craft beer. Cheers.