Essence feature: Northland craft brewers reveal thirst for experimenting
Craft beer has become increasingly popular over the past decade. Reporter Jenny Ling discovers what’s behind the success of two Northland breweries.
Oysters, sol berries, bananas, feijoas, peaches, honey and grapes – they’re the last ingredients you’d expect to find in beer, right?
How about chilli, coffee, vanilla, coconut, cacao, mint, tea, salt and pepper?
Then there’s beer aged in wooden barrels to create sour, tart beers and hazy fruity IPAs which taste like orange juice.
The craft beer revolution has well and truly taken off in New Zealand over the past decade or so, and Northland is punching above its weight in the niche market.
Two Northland craft breweries, in particular, have developed a thirst for going above and beyond the standard mix of barley, water, hops and yeast.
McLeod’s Brewery in Waipū and Kainui Brew Co on the outskirts of Kerikeri have proven themselves in the industry.
McLeod’s head brewer Jason Bathgate said the rise of craft brewers and the popularity of craft beers is a “trend that’s been coming for some time”.
“People are always looking for something new and interesting.
“In New Zealand there used to be hundreds of breweries, and they were all consolidated into DB, Lion and Independent.
“A few others started to diversify in the late 1990s and 2000s and started to be more popular.
“But it’s a global phenomenon, it’s exploded in the US, and it’s always been popular in Europe.”
Bathgate, who is originally from Vermont in the United States, joined the business owned by brothers Clayton and Geoff Gwynne in 2016.
The brewery has seen a 35-45 per cent growth year on year since he’s been there, he said.
When he started, the brewery was churning out around 50,000 litres, and this year they’re looking to do around 400,000 litres.
Bathgate has also helped secure swathes of accolades at national and international beer awards for their bottled brews which include Pioneer Brown Porter, Longboarder Lager, Tropical Cyclone Double IPA and Traders Scotch Ale.
Bathgate was a chef for 25 years before turning his hand to beer.
He did a stint in a brewery in the South Island before moving for a job at the brewery in Waipū, where the brothers had been running their iconic Pizza Barn since 2003.
He likes to experiment with German-style beers, sour ales using fresh oysters, and fruity flavours from the unique sol berry, a tropical raspberry sourced from Maungatapere Berries near Whangārei.
“I fell down the rabbit hole of home brewing when I moved to New Zealand and decided to follow that career path,” Bathgate said.
“I’ve loved craft beer for years.
“The industry here has grown and become more diverse.
“There’s a huge range of really good beers out there with different smells and flavours worth experimenting with.”
New Zealand’s brewing industry is going great guns, with beer sales in New Zealand contributing around $2.7 billion to the economy.
There are believed to be around 250 breweries across the country.
The first record of beer being brewed in New Zealand is by Captain James Cook in 1770.
While in Dusky Sound, Cook brewed a batch using rimu branches and leaves in a bid to fight off scurvy.
New Zealand draught went on to become synonymous with Lion Red, Speight’s, Double Brown and Tui.
Along came craft beer in the early 1980s, breaking the mould with their rich stouts, funky sours, Kiwi-style pilsners and big IPAs.
Yet flavouring beer with spices, fruits and herbs is nothing new, Kainui Brew Co’s Gary Henwood said.
The tradition goes back 200 years.
Henwood likes to work with all sorts of locally harvested fruit and native micro-flora to create his beer in the farmhouse brewery on the outskirts of Kerikeri.
“It’s all about flavour,” he said.
“We’re looking to produce a product that’s all about flavour or style rather than putting it out there to be mass consumed.”
Kainui Brew Co does between 22 and 30 types of beer, from lagers, pale ales, IPAs and Porters, to Scottish Ales and stouts – all using the magic four ingredients.
“From there we branch out and play around with the blending, the yeast, adding fruit and fermenting some in oak barrels,” Henwood said.
“A lot of what we do is experimental.
“If we think it’ll taste good, we give it a go.”
Henwood, who is self-taught, had been making home brew for five years when he decided to get serious.
The year was 2010 and he was having a conversation with a mate about starting a business, either in beer or growing mushrooms.
“He said growing mushrooms was lucrative, but we decided not to go into it for the money. We wanted to do something we were passionate about.
“It [craft beer] was just kicking off when I started home brewing, and in the last 15 years it’s exploded.”
By 2015, Kainui Brew Co had produced and sold its first commercial beer at Kainui Road Vineyard which is run by Henwood’s in-laws Alan and Helen Thompson.
Henwood entered the 2018 New World Beer and Cider Awards competition “to get our beers out there” and won three medals from four entries.
While their beer was distributed through the national supermarket chain for a time, Henwood has ceased bottling and selling to supermarkets and local markets.
Now all beer is sold on tap at the Plough and Feather restaurant in Kerikeri, along with summer concerts and events at Kainui Road Vineyard and from the cellar door.
The brewery has remained small scale which allows them to keep experimenting with styles and methods including open top and barrel fermentation.
Paul Keating took over as head brewer last November, leaving Henwood free to dream up beer recipes.
The former landscaper and lawn mowing contractor admits it’s a turnaround from his first impression of craft beer.
“I grew up on Lion Red,” Henwood said.
“The first craft beer I had I thought it was disgusting. By the third, I was hooked.”
As for brewing, Henwood said he enjoys the whole process.
“It’s a hobby that’s gotten out of control.
“There’s a lot of people who just like the process of brewing beer because they like figuring stuff out.
“I was always interested in that side of it, and tweaking things along the way.
“There were a lot of years where we weren’t financially viable, now it’s finding its feet and we can pay the bills.”
Brewers Association of New Zealand executive director Dylan Firth said the popularity of craft beer is two-fold.
One is that people are more focused on high-quality products with big flavour profiles, and the other is around wellness.
“People think about what they’re putting in their bodies, which is reflected in the growth in low and no alcohol beers and beers with low carbs and sugars.”
There has also been a shift in drinking habits over the years, Firth said.
“Alcohol consumption overall is down but values are up.
“A lot of people who drunk mainstream beer in the olden days have moved to craft beer so there’s a bit of a switch there.
“People want big flavours and something different. It allows consumers to have a bit of variety.”
For the love of beer
Kainui Brew Co’s top winter brews:
* Hell Hole of the Pacific: A barrel-fermented smokey red IPA.
* Imperial Stout: A bourbon-barrelled aged imperial stout.
McLeod’s Brewery top winter brews:
* Sub Tropical Stout: Strong, dark stout with hints of coffee and chocolate.
* Great Wave Dark Lager: Uncomplicated dark lager with a hint of cocoa.
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