Geoff Griggs* raises a glass to an innovative new breed of Kiwi craft brewers.

Where once the choice of mainstream Kiwi beers was ‘lager, dark or draught’ (which were all similar sweetened lagers with differing amounts of caramel colouring added), today in New Zealand craft brewers are vying with each other to produce all manner of new and interesting styles. Smoked beers, honey beers, fruit beers, spiced beers, barrel-aged beers – they’re all out there to tempt the adventurous drinker.

According to the Brewers Guild of New Zealand, as we headed into 2010 there were 54 craft brewers and brew pubs nationwide. Already, since then, two more have opened (one in the Coromandel and another in Geraldine). Most of these breweries are comparatively small – ranging from 10,000 litres per batch, down to just a few hundred – but their impact is growing.

Although craft beers (excluding Mac’s and Monteith’s, which are brewed by Lion and DB) account for only one in every fifty beers consumed in New Zealand, their presence is being increasingly felt across the country. More and more shops, bars and restaurants are identifying a need to stock a range of beer styles and, with retail prices reaching up to $13 for a single bottle, are recognising there is good money to be made selling them.

The sheer adventurousness inherent in craft brewing is not a path that big, established brewing companies can easily follow. Faced with the day-to-day costs of owning and running a brewery, it’s always a fine line between being satisfying your regular clientele and being too adventurous – between overstepping the mark and alienating your customers. For such brewers, the desire to brew flavoursome, radical, challenging beers must be offset against the commercial necessity of producing beers that will sell in large enough quantities to pay the bills.

But now there’s a new generation of craft brewers who aren’t hamstrung by such concerns. These brewers design and market their own beers – but brew them in someone else’s brewery. Brewing companies like Yeastie Boys, Golden Ticket and 8 Wired have been set up by talented home brewers with a desire to take their beers to a wider audience.

By purchasing their own ingredients and contracting the use of other craft breweries – Yeastie Boys and Golden Ticket both use Invercargill Brewery – they make small batches of characterful craft beers, often with strong flavours and sometimes with elevated alcoholic strengths. Their beers often change according to the season, are of limited release, and are sold only in a small number of carefully selected outlets. By their very nature they’re designed to appeal, and be available, to only a tiny proportion of consumers.

The business model employed by these cuckoos of the brewing world is diametrically opposed to that of the largest brewers. Standard practice in the corporate brewing world is to produce a beer – usually a mild-flavoured golden lager – that looks good in the glass and is designed not to offend; give it a name that’s easy to remember and pronounce; use clever advertising campaigns aimed at a specific target market; distribute it widely and sell as much of it as possible. Brewers like Yeastie Boys, Golden Ticket and 8 Wired do precisely the opposite!

But these brewers aren’t just taking on the established national and global brands. Ally McGilvray of Golden Ticket is keen to stress his company’s desire to produce beers that differ from those of other craft brewers.

‘Almost every craft brewery has their pilsner and stout and NZ hopped pale ale, so instead of producing yet more of these styles, we aim to fill the gaps for the local drinkers’, he says.

Soren Eriksen is the assistant brewer at Blenheim’s Renaissance Brewery and the man behind Marlborough’s newest beer brand, 8 Wired. Having named his brand after the legendary Kiwi ‘can do’ ability to make almost anything with number 8 wire, the young Dane stated his intention ‘To produce mind-blowing beers that will wow craft beer lovers, excite fellow beer geeks and educate the misguided who still believe that “beer is just beer”’. Judging by the massive hop attack of the first batch of HopWired IPA – a beer that many regard as one of the best Kiwi beers of 2009 – he wasn’t joking.

But creating great beer is only half the battle. Do these upstart ‘brewers without a brewery’ actually make any money? Well the short answer is that it’s not really their main aim; they’re brewing because they love great beer and want to share that passion with other beer aficionados. That may sound somewhat idealistic, but it’s true.

Although Soren Eriksen of 8 Wired is a professional brewer, the owners of Golden Ticket and Yeastie Boys have other full-time jobs outside of the industry. For them, brewing beer is a sideline – albeit a passionate one.

‘First and foremost, this is still very much a hobby thing. We do absolutely everything in our spare time,’ points out Stu McKinlay of Yeastie Boys. ‘We’re not trying to make a living off this, just enough money to keep going and enough beer to keep beer lovers happy.’

With no need to pay rent, or finance the purchase or upgrading of a brewery, so long as the beers sell and cover the cost of their production, everything’s fine.

Although all three companies have websites giving details of the beers and where they are currently available (see below), most of their promotion is by personal recommendation, either by word of mouth or on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The bottom line is the people behind these beers would much rather spend their money on what goes into your glass, than on promoting it. What a novel and refreshing concept!

*Geoff Griggs is a New Zealand beer writer.