After 17 years of writing newspaper and magazine columns about beer, people often ask me why I haven't written a book on the subject. I have a stock answer; I tell them I'll write a book when the brewers stop messing with their recipes.
Most of my favourite New Zealand craft beers are a work in progress - and so they should be; ingredients, as well as people's tastes, change - but I am genuinely concerned that when I write tasting notes for a beer they're often out of date by the time they're published.
It's a bit of a cop-out, of course, and I know I've been lazy not putting together a lengthier offering, but there's another good reason; over the years most books on the subject haven't sold well. The sad truth has been that, given the choice, most Kiwis would rather spend $40 on beer itself, than a book on the subject.
I'm hoping that attitude is changing because this past week I've been enjoying reading a fine new book on New Zealand beer. Written by Michael Donaldson, the deputy editor of the Sunday Star-Times, Beer Nation: The art and heart of Kiwi beer is the first comprehensive new book on the subject for a decade.
Unlike many previous efforts, Michael has wisely steered away from attempting to list and review the country's beers in favour of telling the story of the nation's brewers and the development of its brewing industry. The last author to approach the subject in this manner was Gordon McLauchlan, whose 1994 book The Story of Beer: Beer and brewing - a New Zealand history was sponsored by Lion Breweries.
While The Story of Beer was a dry, historical reference work and is now 18 years old, Beer Nation aims to “take a journey through New Zealand's beer history to find how we ended up, wall to wall, with our unique brown lager in the 1970s and how, from that, a whole new world opened to us”.
In his introduction, Michael talks of drinking his first beer at the age of 15, “during one of my father's life lessons” and that his first taste of Speight's made him screw up his face. “It was way more bitter than anything I'd had up north and I wondered if I could actually finish this foul brew”. The experience didn't stop him from developing an appreciation for Southern Man's preferred brew.
A Monteith's Summer Ale convinced him that “as much as I had once loved Speight's, there's more to beer than 4 per cent brown lager”. Then, at The Martinborough Hotel, one Christmas Eve, he recalls discovering Emerson's Pilsner on tap. “To say it was like a religious epiphany is a bit extreme, but it was a revelation.”
The book outlines the evolution of Kiwi beer, noting that in the early 20th century, New Zealand was home to more than 100 small breweries. Then, as a result of various influences - such as temperance, the six o'clock swill, World War I and World War II, the Depression, lower alcohol requirements and stricter drink-driving laws - we ended up with two large companies monopolising the market.
It tells how Mac's Brewery broke the duopoly's stranglehold in 1981 and outlines the rise of the country's first generation of small independent craft brewers. Pioneering brewers such as Terry McCashin, Richard Emerson, Roger Pink and Ben Middlemiss offer their recollections of those early days.
That's followed by an entertaining chapter called “Image is everything: the marketing of beer” in which the author blames television advertising for allowing the marketing of beer to become more important than the taste. Another chapter outlines the entry of Michael Erceg's Independent Liquor into the market and the discounting and price wars which ensued.
Interviews with Tracy Banner, New Zealand's most experienced female brewer, and Alice Gellatly, a Kiwi woman whose growing interest in beer inspired her to write a blog in which she reviewed a different brew each day for a year, sees the author dismissing the stereotype that brewing and beer appreciation are exclusively male pursuits.
The book also examines beer's four main ingredients and offers a brief insight into home brewing, before a final chapter attempts to guess the future direction of brewing in New Zealand. This "where to from here" chapter is largely devoted to interviews with Stu McKinlay (of Yeastie Boys), Soren Eriksen (8 Wired) and Joseph Wood (Liberty Brewing), three former home brewers who are at varying stages of turning their passion for beer into their livelihood.
However, I do have a couple of quibbles with the book. I found the section on beer and food matching strangely unfulfilling. Although the basic techniques are outlined and there are some suggested beer and food pairings, the views of specialists such as Wellington cheesemonger-turned-beer-retailer Kieran Haslett-Moore and Shaun Clouston of the Capital's Logan Brown restaurant are absent. And the lack of detail about Auckland's pioneering "real ale" brew pub, Galbraith's Alehouse, is in my view, a major oversight.
But, given the general quality of the book, they're minor quibbles. Entertaining, informative and bang up-to-date, Beer Nation is well researched, well written and comprehensively illustrated. I reckon it's a must-read for anyone with an interest in the history and development of this country's beer.
And it's saved me the job of writing it!
Beer Nation: The art and heart of Kiwi beer is published by Penguin Group (NZ) RRP: $44.99
- The Marlborough Express