Many of New Zealand's most admired craft beers are made by brewers who do not have their own brewery. The likes of Epic, Yeastie Boys and 8 Wired, for example, are all produced under contract by other breweries.
For the most part it is a symbiotic relationship; the brewery with spare capacity reaps an income from what would otherwise be downtime and the other company can produce its beer without the expense of owning and running its own brewery. A win-win.
The system works until the brewery reaches full capacity, either due to increased demand for its own beers, or those brewed under contract, or both. It is the latter scenario facing Marlborough brewer Soren Eriksen.
Until recently the affable Dane, who is also New Zealand's reigning champion brewer, has been brewing his award-winning 8 Wired beers at Renaissance Brewing Company in Blenheim. Occasional batches of Hopwired, mostly bottled for export, have also been contract-brewed at Auckland's Steam Brewing Company.
With both Renaissance and 8 Wired expanding domestically and gaining traction in overseas markets, the Blenheim brewery has now reached full capacity and Soren has been forced to look elsewhere for additional brewing space. Unfortunately for him, Marlborough neighbours Moa are also running flat out, so there is no extra capacity to be had anywhere in the province.
The obvious solution is for Soren to build his own brewery and, as has been reported in the Marlborough Express, he has been considering that option. However, with a wife and two young children, it is understandable he would prefer not to take on the commitment of buying, installing, running and maintaining his own brewery just yet.
He may not have to. Rumour has it Soren has been negotiating with Tuatara Brewery, which recently shifted to Paraparaumu and is ramping-up production capacity. And there is also the possibility of more capacity at Steam Brewing.
A fortnight ago news broke that the Auckland-based Cock & Bull chain of pubs, whose house beers were brewed by Steam Brewing Company, has been sold. The pub chain's new owners have since signed a deal with Lion and the five Cock & Bull pubs - four in Auckland and one in Hamilton - are switching to Lion beers. As a result the Cock & Bull beers have been axed.
That is bad news for those of us who admired Monk's Habit, Fuggles Best Bitter and the Cock & Bull's other award-winning beers, but their sad demise does have a silver lining; it will free up some production capacity at the Auckland brewery.
However, before Soren gets too excited, there is someone else waiting in the wings to take up any slack at Steam. Having started his professional brewing career making the Cock & Bull beers, Auckland brewer Luke Nicholas now owns the Epic brand, which is also produced at the same facility. With a frantic schedule that involves releasing five new beers in a similar number of weeks, Luke is also eager to ramp-up production of his Epic beers.
Earlier this month Luke's latest release won the West Coast Challenge, an annual competition for ferociously hopped ales which is run by Wellington craft beer bar The Malthouse. This year's challenge, the fifth in the event's history, attracted 17 entries from around the country and I was one of the competition's three judges.
Epic Hop Zombie first appeared last year. A hugely hopped American-style Double IPA which the brewery describes as "palate infecting", its recipe calls for three hop varieties: Pacific Jade from New Zealand and two unidentified American varieties.
Hop Zombie disappeared from the shelves when Luke's hop supplies were exhausted but, having assured everyone the beer would not reappear until 2013 (when hops from this year's American harvest become available), he managed to track down a small quantity of the American hops in Britain and had them air-freighted to Auckland. Hence this latest, unexpected, windfall.
The new brew of Hop Zombie is a gem. My notes from the judging remind me it pours an unusually pale-gold colour, brilliantly clear, beneath a wispy white head, the aroma combining doughy, sweet malt with over-ripe tropical fruit (pineapple? mango?) and hints of pine and cat pee. It is much the same on the palate, with nary a trace of alcoholic heat, even though it weighs in at a hefty 8.5 per cent.
Despite the extreme level of hopping, it Is remarkably well balanced.
Packaged in Epic's familiar tall 500ml bottles, the latest batch of Hop Zombie features a green, red, silver and white glow-in-the-dark label. A gimmick, but the beer inside is a cracker.