Last updated on December 7, 2016
Welcome to part three of 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: 30-21
30. Tuatara Hefe – These days the beer is known as Weiz Guy, and why not – it’s a smart beer. One of the most successful individual beers in the history of the Brewer’s Guild of New Zealand Awards, with four trophies to its name, it has long been the best wheat beer available in New Zealand. Going back 16 years when Carl Vasta started brewing his European-inspired beers this cloudy Hefeweizen was beyond the understanding of many consumers but its popularity and success helped pave a way for a raft of cloudy wheat beers which followed. Smooth, creamy with notes of hay, banana and clove on the nose, it’s an elegant, refreshing drop.
29. Moa Sour Blanc – When some of the country’s best brewers laud this as possibly the best sour beer in New Zealand, who am I to argue. In fact, Yeastie Boys’ Stu McKinlay once called it his “favourite sour beer. EVER” in a Twitter post. Brewed in the time-honoured, and time-consuming, Lambic style that requires a long ferment and conditioning utilising wild yeast, this is dry, spicy, and just acidic enough to cleanse and refresh the palate. A connoisseur’s beer which helped earned Moa brewer David Nicholls the rightful title “godfather” of sour.
— Yeastie Boys (@yeastieboys) June 18, 2016
28. Mac’s Gold – This beer warrants its place on more than pure nostalgia but to back track … 35 years, Mac’s Gold was a key beer in helping Terry McCashin break the Lion-DB duopoly that had ruled our brewing scene in the dire years between 1976 and 1981. McCashin originally wanted to brew a beer like Castlemaine’s XXXX but his brewer Jim Pollitt came up with something a little bit better. Other Mac’s beers have made their mark on our drinking consciousness, notably Black Mac, Hop Rocker and Sassy Red but Mac’s Gold retains an unwavering connection to a critical point in our brewing history – and – it continues to win medals at the highest level, taking home gold in the NZ Lager class at this year’s Brewer’s Guild of NZ Awards. Its quality endures.
27. Emerson’s Taieri George – Once upon a time this was New Zealand’s most eagerly-awaited annual release. It comes out on March 6 each year in commemoration of Richard Emerson’s father George. Not only is it an intensely satisfying spiced beer but its provenance is something of a brewing folklore. George Emerson was young Richard’s strongest supporter, guide and mentor and without his backing Emerson’s, the brewery, would never have got off the ground. And this beer, which started life as Forty Winks, was a beer Richard had tried to perfect for his father. George was terminally ill with cancer when Richard presented him the final iteration of the beer but the dying dad gave his son the thumbs up – he’d nailed it. Following George’s funeral, a family friend was reading a framed certificate on the wall given to George by the Dunedin City Council for work he’d done on the Taieri Gorge Railway. The friend spotted a typo in it: “Thank you George Emerson for work on the Taieri George Railway,” it read. And so a famous beer found a fitting name.
26. Croucher Low Rider – Playing in the ballpark of 2.5 per cent beers can be a nightmare for brewers. Yes, drinkers want low alcohol (and believe me they do) but the industry has hooked them on the joy of hops. So, to deliver a flavoursome beer in the low alcohol range that wins fans is a tough gig. It’s either out of balance by being too hop forward, or too watery and thin to be enjoyable. Croucher, with some tweaks along the way, have struck that balance, producing a highly flavoured, very drinkable definition of a session beer that pleases the hard-to-please. The fact it took out the Brewers Guild Award trophy in the Specialty, Experimental, Aged, Barrel- and Wood-Aged class against a multitude of extravagant and souped up beers this year is testament to its quality.
25. Craftwork Bruxelles Ma Belle – The Oamaru micro-brewing partners Lee-Ann Scotti and Michael O’Brien (the Oamaru bookbiner who helped create the name for Emerson’s famous Bookbinder beer) make an array of Belgian-style beers that could easily hold their place on this list and, in years to come, no doubt will. I’m equally fond of their Red Bonnet, a Flanders Red Ale (especially the sour cherry version) but Bruxelles Ma Belle – a wild ale conditioned on Central Otago apricots – makes this list because of its inherent Kiwi-ness. Honeyed apricot on the nose and a round yet pleasingly dry mouthfeel, this wild-fermented ale is typical of Craftwork’s dedication. Using just a 50-litre brewery and doing everything by hand, they also invest the requisite time – a year, two years, whatever it takes – to create sublime beers.
24. 8 Wired iStout – There was a time when I could count on one hand my “wow” beers (that’s just not possible now as there are so many good drops) and for a long time, the first thumb raised in this count was iStout. The first time I tried this imperial stout I was literally talking out loud to the cat about how good it was. Densely black, a booming 10 per cent alcohol that is well disguised by luscious coffee, chocolate and creamy oat notes followed by a late layer of hoppy bitterness and roast barley char. And what’s more, it’s the beer which brought to New Zealand drinkers the idea of an Imperial Stout Float – a glass of iStout with a scoop of vanilla icecream. If you haven’t tried it … do it soon.
23. Ben Middlemiss Nota Bene – When Stephen `Ben’ Middlemiss was brewing at Galbraith’s in at the turn of the 21st century, he created a range of beers that captivated beer writer Michael Jackson. Not only did the Australis range feature in one of Jackson’s many books, but he picked Benediction for his annual tasting at the University of Philadelphia. He described the beer as a Belgian abbey style with a colour “reminiscent of the Trappist classic Orval. So is its woody aroma, though Benediction’s bouquet is more cedary and aniseed-like. Its palate – medicinal, spicy, herbal, winey – is reminiscent of another Belgian classic, Chimay Cinq Cents.” Huge praise from the giant of beer-writing. When Middlemiss left Galbraith’s, a dispute with Keith Galbraith over the Australis brand saw that range of beers disappear. Middlemiss later recreated a version of the beer under the name Nota Bene after Galbraith’s had registered a trademark for Benediction*.
22. Epic Pale Ale – if there was a single beer that defined the direction of brewing in New Zealand it would have to be Epic Pale Ale. Inspired by Sierra Nevada’s famed pale ale, this elegantly simple beer uses just one hop variety, US Cascade, for bitterness, flavour and aroma. It delivers grapefruit and rosewater on the nose, and a bright citrus bite on the palate which is well integrated with the caramel malt. When it was first released 10 years it was, it’s fair to say, so far ahead of its time in New Zealand to be called it revolutionary. It quickly became an industry leader for the glut of American pale ales which have dominated the market since. And yet it loses nothing in comparison with the challengers that have arisen and has won its category at the New World Beer and Cider Awards for two years running.
21. Garage Project Death From Above – One of the things Garage Project does exceptionally well is cross-pollinate beer and food (or beer and other beverages) to create authentic, unique and flavour-filled brews. Cereal Milk Stout, Cookies & Cream, Umami Monster, Two-tap Flat White, Lola, Nerissimo, Pan Pacific, Rum & Raisin … all take inspiration from foods as diverse as Cornflakes, cola, coffee, Anzac biscuits, truffles, ice-cream … the list goes on. But the beer that seemed to make the least sense on paper but which tastes absolutely on the money is Death From Above. Based on Vietnamese mango and chili salad, it features mango, lime, Vietnamese mint and chili. An astonishing concoction which melds spice, herbs and fruit with hop notes of the same ilk, it provides a drinking experience which is both familiar (IPA) and foreign.
If you’ve enjoyed this list, please take the time to visit Pledgeme, and pre-order your copy of Beer Nation: Another Round.
*This entry has been amended since it was first posted.