Welcome to the top-20 the list documenting what I believe are the 50 greatest beers in New Zealand.
The list is built on a raft of criteria that includes:
- Ratings on sites including Untappd and Ratebeer;
- Gold medals / trophies won at the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards and other competitions;
- The influence the beer has had on the New Zealand brewing scene;
- Enduring quality;
- Personal taste preferences.
NZ’s 50 Greatest Beers: 20-11
20. Townshend’s Old House ESB – In a beer market dominated by new world pale ales and IPAs, there’s an other-worldly charm about Martin Townshend’s Extra Special Bitter. It’s a a beer I regularly pine for, and almost entirely for its quaffable simplicity. Townshend does any number of great beers in a traditional English style – as evidenced by the fact Townshend’s was named champion brewery at the 2014 Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards. Townshend has had his setbacks in recent times after a contract brewing problem with Tuatara but I’m pleased to report the ESB is tasting as good as ever: marmalade hoppiness and thirst-quenching drinkability that slakes your thirst and nourishes at the end of the summer’s day.
19. Hallertau Funkonnay – A number of breweries are now making their name as producers of sour beers but if there was a true pioneer of the barrel-aged sour in this country, it’s Steve Plowman at Hallertau in west Auckland. Funkonnay is the flagbearer for New Zealand sours brewed in the true lambic style; it even uses aged hops to go with the wild yeasts. And for a Kiwi twist the ferment is carried out in old chardonnay barrels, hence the name. Dry, tart, wine-like, with hints of mandarin and stone fruit, it has a smooth palate and easy-drinkability. Funkonnay 2015 is due for release soon, continuing a tradition that has paved the way for others who are now rolling out the barrels.
18. Tuatara Pilsner – You know the phrase they love in the capital – “you can’t beat Wellington on a good day” – will that’s the same with Tuatara Pilsner, now renamed (somewhat weirdly) Mot Eureka. If every New Zealand-style pilsner was at its freshest and cleanest and they lined up in a contest I have no doubt this would come out on top (you simply can’t beat Mot Eureka on a good day!) and that’s exactly what happened at this year’s Brewers Guild of NZ awards where it took out the trophy for NZ-style lager. Brim to bursting with the Kiwi hops that have redefined this classical style into a brash antipodean version that’s a brighter bundle of joy than its bohemian forebear, Mot Eureka utilises all that’s good in Kiwi hops without totally spurning the style book.
17. Invercargill Sa!son – One of two Kiwi beers utitising an exclamation mark in ts name – this one was to get around the fact that, at the time, DB had trademarked Saison (later withdrawn, unlike Radler – see entry 50). The fact Invercargill came up with the punctuation sidestep should indicate the cleverness to be found in this powerhouse brewery of the deep south. But the real ingenuity is in the beer, which is aged, in the traditional saison style for three months. And in the saison ethos of being a bit of a mongrel that uses whatever ingredients a brewer can lay his or her hands on, it uses orange zest (now lime zest for the latest version) to add a pithy sparkle to a funky, tart, hoppy, spicy, complex and delicious drop. Holds its place in the top-20 on taste and the fact Invercargill was one of the first Kiwi breweries to hone this somewhat enigmatic style.
16. 8-Wired The Big Smoke – The most widely-available, regularly-produced smoked beer in New Zealand which, for good measure, uses traditional German beechwood-smoked rauchmalt. Plus, it regularly picks up top awards. In short, it’s New Zealand’s best smoked beer. The beauty of The Big Smoke is the lush but restrained smokiness. The smoke is definitely there first and foremost but the sweet chocolate underlay of the base porter lends a smooth relief for those who may find the smoke gets in their eyes. When this beer first came out around six years ago, famed brewer Richard Emerson quipped that once he’d tasted it he couldn’t stop thinking about it. I can understand that, like the morning after a camp fire, the smoky flavour lingers on in your memory.
15. Liberty Yakima Monster – Joe Wood of Liberty Brewing is one of the best and most reliable producers of pale ale in the country. And the beer that charted his course was Yakima Monster, with its Tales from the Crypt stylised hands grabbing at you from the depths of label. The extremely drinkable, slightly lower alcohol Oh Brother is now Liberty’s flagship pale ale in six packs, but Yakima Monster is where the heart of the brewery beats. Why this beer stands the test of time is that it was a fraction ahead of the pack with its sweet hop flavour – think pineapple and mango – rather than the snappier bitterness many of its contemporaries displayed. That kind of sweeter pale ale is all the rage now but this beer was doing that trick four years ago. If you don’t want to over-analyse your beer, it’s a generous, lush and easy-drinking drop; yet it remains complex enough to keep beer geeks entertained. Just a clever, delicious beer.
14. Yeastie Boys Gunnamatta – Such a simple idea really, to add tea to beer, but so simple you have to do it pretty damn well to make it memorable. Gunnamatta was the first Kiwi beer to go down the tea route, with lateral-thinking brewer Stu McKinlay looking at a proliferation of coffee-flavoured beers and immediately opening a different kitchen cupboard to produce an Earl Grey-infused IPA. The orange from the bergamot flowers in the tea works perfectly with the hops to build an intensity of floral aroma and citrus flavour. But the joy is in the sweetly tannic, iced tea notes that transport you to a deck chair on the lawn in summer – a feeling reflected in the name, which references a Paul Kelly surf-inspired instrumental track, in turn inspired by the famed Victorian surf beach Gunnamatta. A tea-beer about a song about a beach? Yep, but the world makes sense when you drink it.
13. ParrotDog Bitter Bitch – Earlier this year ParrotDog raised $2 million for a new brewery by crowd-funding on PledgeMe. Not a bad for a brewery that could have fallen at the first hurdle when their attempt to go from home to commercial brewers went badly awry in 2012. Their favourite home brew recipe turned out too bitter when upscaled to commercial quantities and they saved it only by dry-hopping it to kingdom come with the relatively new Nelson Sauvin, which created a fruitiness that change the perceived bitterness. The beer, originally to be called ParrotDog IPA was given an outrageous name and became a hit at Beervana in 2012, keeping the aspiring brewery afloat. What started out as a classical English-style IPA with a more earthy hop profile became an accidental Anglo-Kiwi IPA hero. It’s been refined over the years but Bitter Bitch remains a testament to ingenuity in the face of a crisis and a very modern interpretation of the old Chinese fable “good luck, bad luck, who knows”.
12. Epic Hop Zombie – You know how people say they can always remember where they were and what they were doing at a special moment in history – like the day Princess Diana died (I was in a hotel room in Perth). Well, the same thing happens to me with certain beers – I can remember exactly the circumstances of my first taste of some special brews. And amongst those, Hop Zombie stands out (it was at Pomeroy’s in Christchurch and I was sitting just inside the dining room area eating ribs). What joy there was that night as New Zealand’s first double IPA worked its hop magic. Rich, decadent, with a perfect balance (two fat men on a bitter-sweet see-saw I first described it as). There was a moment in time (during the great American hop shortage) when it looked like Hop Zombie would be a one-off but brewer Luke Nicholas can source hops better than anyone and it is now part of Epic’s core range. It remains the Kiwi benchmark for big, hoppy beers – of which there have been many imitators.
11. Emerson’s Bookbinder – For a long, long time when I was asked to name my favourite New Zealand beer, it was this cultured gent. And I can’t help but thinking of Bookbinder in human terms, because it’s such a character. It’s got charm, spirit and the old world elegance you’d expect of a beer name for two actual bookbinders, Michael O’Brien (now of Craftwork Brewery) and David Stedman (Dutybound). Conceived as a one-off for the annual Oamaru Victorian Fete it soon became synonymous with Emerson’s and in an era when so many hopped-to-the-hilt session beers assail the senses with an out of balance bid to cash in on the popularity of “session”, Bookbinder, at 3.7 per cent and with its nuanced layers of nutty and biscuity malt combined with judicious floral and earthy hops, remains the ultimate session beer. It doesn’t have the showmanship of some its newer rivals in the lower-alcohol space but the workmanship that’s gone into endures.
I hoped you are enjoying this list. Look out for the top-10 countdown coming next week. And, more importantly, if you love Kiwi beer and the brewers who make it, please support me in telling their stories by visiting Pledgeme to pre-order your copy of Beer Nation: Another Round.