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Drink local & why we should care

Luke White from Beer Jerk tagged me in a post the other day referencing a story I wrote for the Sunday Star-Times (checks calendar) … six years ago. It was an interview with Greg Koch, the famed founder of Stone Brewing in the United States who was in New Zealand on a what we know call a “digital detox” — a phrase that seemed not to exist in 2014!

I’m pretty sure it was another Luke, Nicholas from Epic Brewing, who helped tee up the interview. I present the whole article below because for some reason it feels more relevant now than ever before as we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic into a changed world focused on our local economy.

Greg was commenting specifically about New Zealand’s dire customer-facing beer presentation as it stood in 2014, where we’d give the tourists the options of various multi-national, green-bottled lagers to slake their thirsts after a day of exciting New Zealand tourism activities.

Things have definitely changed since 214, there’s no doubt about that, with a number of great locally-brewed, independent beers on offer at some of our major tourist destinations and airports.

But the fact remains that as a country we’re all too keen to quaff imported (or locally-brewed under licence) multi-national lagers.

There’s been lots of talk, and rightly so, about #shoplocal #buykiwimade in this new environment where our borders will remain closed or restricted for a long time to come.

When we’re left to our own devices over the two years or more, we will want a strong domestic economy. I also believe we will want a diverse, interesting Kiwi way of life in which we celebrate what we do and make here.

Beer should have a role to play here. If we really care we will buy local beer. In this case local doesn’t just mean what’s up the road from you, although that’s important. It means buying NZ-made. I think Heineken and Corona and the like will survive without New Zealanders buying their beer but I don’t think the thriving New Zealand beer scene can survive without New Zealanders buying the beer we make right here.

And that comes to what Greg was talking about all those years ago: the care factor.

“The most important light switch to flip is not the understanding light switch but the care light switch.

“I care that beer comes from a small brewery; I care whether they are being honest; I care about the flavour – once you start to care, the learning and understanding will come. But it seems to me the average Kiwi I run into hasn’t figured out why they should care.

“So for the craft beer community, the education about hops can come later, right now it’s about why it means something, why it’s relevant . . . and you’d think getting people interested in beer shouldn’t be too hard.”

Here’s the full article for context and a bit of time-travelling to April 2014:

Leading tourism providers are failing to project a genuine image of New Zealand by stocking foreign beer, says one of the world’s most influential brewers.
 
Greg Koch, who started California’s Stone Brewing in 1996 with business partner Steve Wagner, has just finished a seven-week stint in New Zealand as part of a self-imposed “communication sabbatical” and left here on Friday both impressed with some of the craft beer on offer, but also disappointed.
 
Stone Brewing, named “All-time Top Brewery on Planet Earth” by BeerAdvocate magazine in 2008 and 2009, is the 10th biggest craft brewery in the US and is growing every year.
 
Koch, a zealot who rails against blandness and mediocrity at every opportunity, headed to New Zealand to tune out for a few weeks. “The primary objective was a communications sabbatical – mostly from the day-in, day-out avalanche of emails, Twitter stuff, Facebook stuff and all that – so I shouldn’t really be doing this interview but it’s my one little relapse,” Koch tells the Sunday Star-Times.
 
He came to New Zealand for his email escape because “the goal was to do it properly”. But what he couldn’t escape was beer.
 
He described the craft brewing scene in New Zealand as “all over the map” in terms of quality but that “there’s certain gems all over the place [and] I’ve had many excellent beers and some chance discoveries of delights”.
 
“When I was in Golden Bay everybody said we had to go the Mussel Inn and we loved it – the surprise was a beer called Lean Lamb and I thought ‘wow, they’ve got a beer like this?’,” he said referring to the barrel-aged sour ale.
 
Koch also raved about Golden Bear, located at Mapua Wharf outside Nelson – “wow, pow, awesome beers” – as well as Tuatara, Epic and Garage Project.
 
“Golden Bear shows you can brew completely uncompromising, big-character beers in a market that had no interest or reception and over a period of time you’ll hook them.
 
“I love the creativity of Tuatara’s moulded bottles – how brilliant is that? I love Garage Project’s sheer artistic creativity, and I’ll drink anything from Epic.”
 
But the news was not so good when it came to places he stayed, airports and well-populated tourist attractions.
 
“I’m going to make a strong comment here . . . but there’s a moral responsibility that places like airports and tourist institutions have to serve decent and true New Zealand craft beer.
 
“I went in to places that served Heineken or Amstel Light and I asked myself ‘how are you representing yourselves to visitors like me’. Or if I go to the airport and I see anything but New Zealand beer, it’s telling me you think beer from anywhere else is better than New Zealand beer.
 
“It’s about local pride and, by the way, the New Zealand craft beer is actually way better than the foreign beer. It’s not a compromise, it’s a step up.”
 
He was also critical of the lack of free houses, pubs that are not tied to a big brewery. For a long period of New Zealand history, the two biggest breweries, Lion and DB, controlled not only production of beer but also the pubs it was served in. While that system has gradually broken down, the major breweries can still control supply by offering incentives, such as cheap finance, for pubs to pour only their beer.
 
Koch’s brewery has its own restaurant and he has no qualms about stocking rivals’ products in the interests for providing both choice and the broadest range of best beer.
 
“You’ve got to chuck the tied house system out the window because that helps nobody,” he said.
 
“Publicans I’ve talked to – those who have the nerve and the backbone to turn down the big fat cheque and go their own way find it was a far, far, far better business decision in the long-run. What looks like a better business decision up front just relegates you to mediocrity.”
 
And what of New Zealand consumers? The craft beer market, by all estimations is growing strongly. New breweries are popping up regularly and existing craft breweries are expanding but overall beer consumption has been in decline for a long time, though there was an upturn in 2013 according to Statistics NZ.
 
How do craft brewers woo a new audience and grow the market in the way it’s exploded in the United States?
 
“The most important light switch to flip is not the understanding light switch but the care light switch.
 
“I care that beer comes from a small brewery; I care whether they are being honest; I care about the flavour – once you start to care, the learning and understanding will come. But it seems to me the average Kiwi I run into hasn’t figured out why they should care.
 
“So for the craft beer community, the education about hops can come later, right now it’s about why it means something, why it’s relevant . . . and you’d think getting people interested in beer shouldn’t be too hard.”

For more reading, here’s Greg on beer in the time of Covid-19

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