It’s the first Friday of September, meaning it is time for The Session – when a whole heap of beer bloggers from all across the world write about one particular beer-y topic.
This month it is hosted by the very opinionated and passionate Englishman Ding, who has somehow found himself living in Atlanta, Georgia. Openly trying to stir up some trouble, he chose the topic ‘What the hell has America done to beer?’ to have people argue their point on the seemingly never-ending USA versus Old World Beer Culture issue.
I fear I may disappoint Ding with my views…
Here in little ol’ New Zealand, we’ve really only come into our own when it comes to beer in the past decade¹. Before then, we pretty much had the choice of Speight’s Gold Medal Ale (a watery lager), Tui East India Pale Ale (a watery lager), a draught² of some sort either on tap, in a can or a crate bottle (DB Draught, Waikato Draught, Canterbury Draught and so on) or Steinlager (a light-struck lager – pretty much our version of a Heineken).
Of course there was the odd exception, and those exceptions were generally malt-driven ales, inspired by traditional English brews. And it was from there that the craft beer movement in New Zealand really began. Beautiful beers, such as the strong, sweet, caramel goodness of Roger Pink’s Pink Elephant Mammoth, blew my mind in my early drinking years.
But the New Zealand craft beer scene has grown dramatically in recent years, and I believe it’s the influence of American beer that has really inspired our brewers. The American Pale Ale was a bit of a revelation to craft beer drinkers. Sweet, fruity hops with a piney, bitter kick – we’d never really had beers with flavours like those before. And there were just so many hops in the American IPAs.
Breweries like Epic started importing American hops and pushing the boundaries – for a time there was nothing else like the US Cascade-hopped Epic Pale Ale on the New Zealand market, and when Epic Armageddon IPA was first released, its bitterness shocked and amazed us – introducing many a home-brewer to the wonder that is the Simcoe hop.
American-hopped beers started popping up everywhere. And then New Zealand brewers were faced with the problems of rising US hop prices and a shortage of many of our favourite varieties. But hey, they thought, New Zealand hops aren’t all that different from the US hops.
The grapefruit character of Riwaka, the lemon notes in Motueka and the earthiness of NZ Cascade all have similarities to the fruity and piney US hops. And with a heavy hand, the brewers added our local hops to their pale ales and IPAs. Only, New Zealand hops are generally more bitter than US hops, which tend to be sweeter. The malt balance of American Pale Ales and IPAs was somewhat lost behind the intense hop character from the New Zealand varieties.
But the American-inspired New Zealand-hopped pale ales and IPAs have won a place in the hearts and minds of the beer-drinking public in this part of the world. We’re now a nation of hop-hungry drinkers, trying to challenge our palates with the driest, bitterest beer we can find.
I’m proud to say New Zealand Pale Ales and IPAs are now a unique beer style, unlike any other Pale Ales or IPAs across the world³. And that is thanks to the American craft beer influence. Sure, the English ales started New Zealand in the right direction, but our craft beer scene would not be where it is today without the US.
I would personally prefer an American pale ale⁴, a balanced IPA⁵ or hand-pulled stout to a New Zealand IPA 6 out of 7 days of the week. But what New Zealand has to offer on the world’s craft beer stage is all thanks to America. Apart from our pilsner. Which is a whole other story…
¹ Though I must point out, I haven’t even been of legal drinking age for a decade yet.
² Here in New Zealand draught has a different meaning than in other countries. While often found on tap, it actually refers to some kind of 4%, bland, watery beer coloured with caramel.
³ This is a huge exaggeration on my part – I have only ever travelled to Australia (and Rarotonga, where Steinlager’s pretty much the most exciting beer on offer), so all of my foreign beer drinking has been from imported goodies. But I hear from visitors to our wee country that this statement might, in fact, be quite accurate.
⁴ I find the fruitiness and sweetness of an American pale ale lifts the malt behind the hops, rather than masking it.
⁵ I have fond memories of Meantime IPA on tap which had just the right balance of pale malt and earthy hops – working in harmony rather than trying to outdo one another.