Glass of beer

Beer and brewing

There are a few things you should know as a consumer when it comes to the new beer market. What’s in the beer you’re drinking? What size drink will you get at a bar and how many of those high strength beers can you drink before you’re over the limit? We answer these questions and reveal scores for 7 home brewing kits.

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The trend of beer drinkers turning to craft beer has meant a whole new nomenclature to get used to, but also a subtle change in culture.

Many bars now serve craft beers or at least big brewery imitation-craft beers, such as Crafty Beggars, Boundary Road, or Monteiths. Where previously we had draught beers now we have a variety of styles: from pilsners to chocolate oatmeal stouts to mango, chilli, and Vietnamese mint pale ales… walking into a bar can get very confusing.

Styles of beer

We’ve listed a number of popular styles to give you an idea of what to expect.

Lagers and pilsners

Lagers and pilsners are lighter beers made with different yeast to ales. Lagers tend to be crisper while pilsners have a softer flavour. Most mass marketed beers are lagers. If you haven’t tried a craft beer, this is the style to start with.

Why don’t you try:

  • Galbraith’s Munich Lager
  • Garage Project Beer
  • Sawmill Brewing The Doctor

Pale ales

Pale ales are light coloured beers with a good amount of hop bitterness. There’s a big range of pale ales, most with regional variations. British Pale Ales tend to be maltier with less harsh bitterness than other pale ale styles. American Pale Ales (APAs) have big hop flavours often described as “pine resin”. India Pale Ales (IPAs) are also known to be hoppy and nicely bitter, but without the dark resin flavour. New Zealand Pale Ales (NZPAs) are a newish style made using New Zealand hops that tend to give a nice “tropical” fruity hop bitterness to the beer.

Why don’t you try:

  • Tuatara American Pale Ale
  • Tuatara Aotearoa Pale Ale
  • ParrotDog Bloody Dingo
  • Panhead Custom Ales Vindicator
  • Behemoth Brewing Chur NZ Pale Ale

Wheat beers

Wheat beers are another style with a wide variety of versions, though they are far subtler than pale ales and all are brewed with wheat instead of a percentage of malt. Wheat beer flavours can range from citrus and coriander to banana. They also tend to be cloudier than other styles and softer on the palate.

Why don’t you try:

  • Tuatara Hefe
  • Mac’s Great White

Stouts and porters

Stouts and porters are dark beers with strong malt flavours. Often they will have notes of coffee and dark toast. Generally these darker beers have a higher alcohol percentage. In recent years some brewers have experimented with creating hoppy stouts and porters.

Why don’t you try:

  • Garage Project Baltic Porter
  • Three Boys Brewery Oyster Stout
  • Yeastie Boys Pot Kettle Black

Sour beers

Sours can be made in a wide variety of styles. The most common are very light with strong citrusy sour flavours and usually less than 4% abv. Other, less common, sours are made by barrel-aging. These tend to be darker with a stronger flavour and much higher alcohol content. These barrel-aged beers are also perfect for aging at home like wine.

Why don’t you try:

  • Townshend Brewery Flemish Stout
  • Hallertau Funkonnay

Imperial beers

Imperial beers are larger sized beers made in various styles, but most often found as stouts. They average around 8-9% but can get upwards of 15%. As there aren’t many imperial beers made as part of a regular line-up, we suggest you just check your local bar.

Consumer issues

Styles

The words "East India Pale Ale" adorn every bottle of Tui. It's a throwback to the original strong and bitter beer called Wagstaff's IPA, but the current version of Tui is a pale lager. The claim is reiterated on the Tui website (“This rather traditional IPA by modern standards…”). With the influx of new craft beers and all of the new popular styles this can be incredibly confusing to consumers not to mention a potential breach of the Fair Trading Act. We asked DB to comment but got no response.

DB also produces beer in its Monteith’s range marketed as a Radler. A traditional Radler is a low alcohol light beer with lemon-lime flavour added meant as a refreshing drink. Monteith’s version is 5% abv, much higher than any drinker would be expecting.

Labelling

The Reinheitsgebot, also known as the German Beer Purity Law, set beer ingredients in 16th century Germany to only include malt, hops and water (it was written before yeast was known as an ingredient). However, these days brewers are adding all kinds of interesting ingredients from chilli and chocolate to seaweed and ewe’s milk.

These new ingredients have the potential to set off a number of allergies. Annoyingly many beer labels do not list the ingredients. Milk stouts, for example, use lactose as a sugar as it’s not eaten by the yeast, but many milk stouts are not described as such. Nor are the ingredients listed.

Pint size

Unlike the UK, there is no official measure of a pint in New Zealand. In fact the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment advise that: “The use of Imperial measures (eg, 'pint') for trade is illegal, so avoid using this term.” Most New Zealand bars use a 425-473ml glass closer to the American pint than the Imperial. So if you go into a bar and ask for a pint, know that it is only a colloquial term here and you cannot expect a larger size.

With the increase in higher alcohol beers, more bars are offering half pints. These glasses can range in size from 250-300ml and offer consumers more choice in how they’re drinking.

Standard drinks

A standard drink is defined as the amount of alcohol the average person can process in an hour. So if a beer is listed as 1.5 standard drinks, that means you have roughly an hour and half before your body has processed that drink. Of course while standard drinks are a good guide, it will change slightly depending on your height, weight, age and health. But if you aren’t sure of what the standard drink measurement is then you can use this formula:

[drink volume in litres] x [%abv] x 0.789 = [standard drinks]

So 500ml of 5% beer is: 0.5 x 5 x 0.789 = 1.97 standard drinks. This is a good number to have in mind while drinking as most beers hover around the 5% mark. If you were drinking the same amount of a 10% abv Imperial stout this number rises to 4 standard drinks. This is why half pints are a good idea.

Home brewing kits

Home brewing is going through a renaissance in New Zealand as better beers and better brewing supplies have become available. We took a look at 7 brewing kits, from supermarket level can kits through to more complex kits that require extra hops.

Homebrew test

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How we tested

We brewed each kit on a Mangrove Jack’s Traditional Series Starter home brewery. We brewed each kit exactly as described in the provided instructions.

Instructions were evaluated on how easy they were to follow and read, were they easy to keep while fermenting, and how they compared to "good practice". Ease of use was based on how simple it was to get the extract into the fermenter and then finish the brew. This included measuring hot and cold water. Beer quality was a subjective test when tasting after the suggested bottling period.

Clean clean clean

The number one thing you do when brewing is cleaning. Any small infection can grow to ruin your beer either in the fermenter or in the bottles. After cleaning and rinsing with detergent you need to rinse all equipment with steriliser.

It’s a laborious process but necessary to make good beer.

About the kits

All the ales

There are a number of different beer styles being made in our test. APA stands for American Pale Ale, a beer made with American hops. These tend to have strong resin flavours. NZPA is a New Zealand Pale Ale, made with New Zealand hops, which aren’t as strong but still have a sharp bitterness. The draughts are basic ales.

The brews

Baylands Brewing NZPA
This large kit comes with just over 20 litres of wort (the liquid containing all the sugars from the malt and hops from the boiling stage of brewing) with Gladfield malts and NZ hops, (Nelson Sauvin, Kohatu and Cascade). The pack also comes with yeast to pitch and hop pellets to add later in the process for extra hop bitterness, giving you a lovely pineapple fruitiness in the beer. As there’s nothing much to be done when brewing, the instructions and process are simple. While it’s the most expensive ($1.79/pint) the beer is certainly worth it.
Availability: Only available from Baylands brewing online store.

Brewtec Premium Draught
This can kit comes with one tin of malt and hop extract, you’ll need to add 1kg of brewing sugar (dextrose) or another brew helper. To brew, you need to melt the extract inside the can, before adding it to the fermenter. This kit made the darkest coloured beer with a nice malty flavour. While not a spectacular tasting beer it was very drinkable and at $0.46 per pint it’s also the cheapest brew.

Mangrove Jack’s Columbus APA
This kit comes with two foil packs of malt and hop extract, you’ll need to add 650g of brewing sugar (dextrose). To brew, you need to melt the extract inside the foil packs, before adding it to the fermenter. This kit comes with quite detailed instructions about various factors when brewing. The beer was a lot sweeter than we expected but still has a lot of hop bitterness, though it is the second most expensive at $1.31 per pint.

Lion Draught
This can kit comes with one tin of malt and hop extract, you’ll need to add 1kg of brewing sugar (dextrose) or another brew helper. To brew, you need to melt the extract inside the can, before adding it to the fermenter. We noted that this can kit was the only one that told us to remove the label instructions from the can before starting. This kit makes a beer similar to Lion Brown which could certainly stand to be a bit maltier. While not a spectacular tasting beer it was drinkable and only $0.57 per pint.

Cooper’s Mexican Cerveza
This can kit comes with one tin of malt and hop extract, you’ll need to add 1kg of brewing sugar (dextrose) or another brew helper. To brew, you need to melt the extract inside the can, before adding it to the fermenter. This kit makes a beer similar to Corona and was just as pleasant with that beer’s famous lime. While not an amazing tasting beer it was drinkable and only $0.48 per pint.

Blackrock American Pale Ale
This can kit comes with one tin of malt and hop extract, you’ll need to add a 1kg can of Blackrock Ultralight malt extract (or similar). To brew, you need to melt the extract inside the cans, before adding them to the fermenter. Unfortunately there was an issue with this brew that may have been caused by an infection in the fermenter, as such the beer was not drinkable. We have not included Beer Quality in the final overall score

Mangrove Jack’s Traditional Pale Ale
This kit comes with a foil pack of malt and hop extract, you’ll need to add 1kg of brewing sugar (dextrose). To brew, you need to melt the extract inside the foil pack, before adding it to the fermenter. This kit comes with quite hard to read instructions due to small print and the use of red text on a green background. The beer was a lot sweeter than we expected but still had some hop bitterness, still only $0.68 per pint.

But is it cheaper?

As you can see by our price per pint calculations, even the most expensive brew kit makes some very cheap beer. The Baylands NZPA wort kit costs $70 for the pack and (excluding the cost of bottles and the fermenter) works out to roughly $1.70 per pint. The kit makes a nice hoppy pale ale, that wouldn’t win awards but was pub quality. A fair equivalent might be Mac’s Shady Pale Ale which retails for roughly $24/dozen or $2/bottle. We measured price per pint using American pints (~473mls), so using this measure, the Mac’s would be roughly $2.87 per pint.

At the cheaper end, the Brewtec Draught kit made a simple slightly darker NZ draught ale for $0.46 per pint. A case of 18x330ml cans of Double Brown retails for $21, or roughly $1.67 per pint. The home brew is practically a quarter of the price!

Brewing tips

Most brew kits told us to sprinkle the yeast over the brew. While simple, this may not give the dried yeast the best shot at life in your beer. Instead mix the yeast slowly into a small amount of warm (roughly 20°C) water or even a sample of your brew, for a few minutes just to get the culture up and running. Then pour this mixture into your brew.

Temperature is incredibly important to yeast and hence temperature control while brewing is essential. If the brew is too cold fermentation will be slower. Too warm and the yeast may start to create unwanted chemicals. Most of the kits we tried required you to add hot and cold water so you needed to be careful of the temperature when pitching the provided yeast.

Adding finings to your beer roughly two days before you bottle should give nice clear amber beer. We used the provided Mangrove Jack’s finings as well as Isinglass finings. Of the two the Mangrove Jack’s finings worked much better.

If you are dry hopping your beer (adding hops during fermentation) then we recommend using a permeable bag as the dried hops will disintegrate into your brew and need to be removed later. One of these bags is supplied with the Mangrove Jack’s Columbus APA.

Many home brewers use a “bottling bucket” instead of bottling directly from the fermenter. Essentially this is a container the same size as your fermenter that you siphon your brew into before bottling. This step will cut down the amount of sediment in your beer and allows you to mix in a priming solution instead of adding priming sugar to each bottle.

How times have changed

Michael Donaldson is an award winning beer writer. In his book Beer Nation, which chronicles the history of beer in New Zealand, he uncovered this description of Speights from journalist Pat Lawler in 1964: bitter, austere, “mighty and mystic”, with a strong hop character. Lawlor said it was so strong and bitter that he was forced to turn it into a shandy to make it palatable.

Crack a tinny

In recent years many brewers have moved back to putting their beer into cans. For a long time it was seen as a backwards move, as many poorly made beers were put in the cheaper cans. However, cans have a longer shelf life, do nothing to the flavour of the beer, are easy to recycle and don’t break. In fact they protect the beer from its biggest enemy: light. Light can cause an effect called “light strike” that can create “skunk” flavours in beer. Green bottles are the worst for this, brown bottles are better, but cans are the best.