Eight is Enough to Make a Difference

Many of us have beer “epiphanies” – moments that change our drinking direction.
Martin Craig lists the eight beers that changed his drinking life.

A handful of beers have had a big influence on me. Some have been long-term favourites; others have recalibrated my expectations of what a beer could taste like. Here’s eight beers that have changed the way I look at beer.

DB Lager c1974
Probably the first beer I ever tasted.
When almost all of the beer sold in New Zealand was brown “Draught” lager, this one showed me other forms of beer existed. That seems a bit obvious, but it wasn’t then. It was quite possible to grow up in New Zealand in the 1960s and 70s and think that there were only two kinds of beer – Lion Brown and DB Draught – and they both looked and tasted pretty much the same.
My mother did her OE in the 1950s and discovered lager in Germany. Like many of the later craft beer pioneers, she returned to New Zealand with an appreciation of different beer varieties. So my parents drank DB Lager. I haven’t tasted it for years and I expect it would seem very sweet today, but I grew up knowing beer came in different styles. It was a start.

Coopers Sparkling Ale 1989
In Sydney in the late 1980s I flatted with a guy who was a bit of a hippy. He talked a lot of rubbish about The System and Corporates and how they were bringing us down, but he lived near a beach. He drank Coopers Sparkling Ale for two main reasons – it was produced by a family-owned business rather than The Corporates, and it was entirely natural so it had no toxins to give you a hangover.
Five-point-eight per cent of Coopers Sparking Ale is the toxin ethanol, so, yes, it can give you hangovers, especially when you’re used to 4 per cent tap draughts. It’s strongly carbonated and cloudy, so it didn’t even look like the flat beer I had favoured as a uni student in Wellington. Some people decry Coopers’ craft beer credentials, largely because it is the largest independent brewery in Australia. I think that’s just familiarity-bred contempt. Coopers is old, still family-owned, and it’s a craft beer I happily return to.

Gisborne Gold 1993
Sunshine Brewery in Gisborne was a recklessly brave craft beer adventure. When it started in 1989 there was little demand for craft beer and no independent distribution networks. Sure, they could make a better beer, but who could buy it? Fortunately these pioneers met the pioneers at Regional Wines, Bar Bodega and The Malthouse in Wellington. Brewers, retailers and bars combined like fuel, heat and oxygen, and our craft beer scene started to burn.
Gisborne Gold was a simple 4 per cent lager brewed with Green Bullet and Saaz hops. Its quality varied over the years, especially when demand took off in Wellington and the production equipment was strained beyond its limit. There are new owners now and a tweaked recipe, but Gizzy Gold proved there was a market for small brewers and many others have followed since.

Epic Pale Ale 2007
After a thoroughly amateur birth, our craft beer scene went a bit stagnant. For maybe a decade the alternatives to the mainstream were fake English and Irish theme bars. Although these weren’t your standard draught ‘n’ Steinie kiwi pubs, they were still pretty boring and mimicked a foreign mainstream rather than a craft beer alternative.
Then Bang! Epic Pale Ale hit and nothing was ever the same again. The archetype New Zealand craft beer is a hoppy New World pale ale every brewer seems to do one. American craft brewers have long loved bold, unsubtle, hoppy pales, and Epic Pale Ale brought the style to New Zealand. We had pale ales here before, of course, but they were usually based on more discreet English styles, often Timothy Taylor Landlord. Looking back seven years on, this is no longer a big hoppy beer, but it certainly was in 2007. This was a game changer for me and the New Zealand craft beer scene.

Yeastie Boys Pot Kettle Black 2008
Everything louder than everything else – that’s what Deep Purple asked for on Live in Japan.
Yeastie Boys took that attitude to beer in 2008 with Pot Kettle Black. It takes the intense malts of a stout and adds the big, up-front hops of a New World Pale ale carried by 6 per cent alcohol. It works, and now many craft brewers include a beer of this style in their range. What style? Good question. Some call it a black pale ale or black India pale ale. Others call it an American porter (it’s original name was Stu McKinlay’s American Porter – ed). The names are inconsistent but the balancing combination of hefty dark malt and brash hops works.
The revelation wasn’t simply that one beer can present big hops and big malt. The revelation was that the balance of both brings out flavours that aren’t evident in hop-bombs or malt-bombs. Balance is good in a beer.

Three Boys Oyster Stout 2010
This lovely stout isn’t so much a game changer as a game over. It makes other stouts and porters obsolete.
There are various stories around that the oyster stout style was invented in New Zealand in 1929, as claimed by revered beer writer Michael Jackson, but he was wrong on this one. It’s much more likely that the style has its origins in Industrial Revolution England, when oysters and stout were both cheap energy sources for the factory fodder. No one seems to know how or why raw oysters were first added to the boil (and they are – vegetarians be afraid), but given there were beer recipes that included a raw chicken, it could be worse.
Three Boys’ was the first oyster stout I tasted. It’s strong, dry, umami and hearty. I certainly try other stouts and porters, but if this is on tap I’ll have one. At least.

Epic Hop Zombie 2011
Beer shouldn’t be able to be this big, this strong and this tasty.
After introducing us to New World hoppery, Epic came back and outdid itself in 2011 with Hop Zombie. This one takes the hopping to the extreme, with a combination of US and New Zealand hops. It is powerfully aromatic and although it has plenty of bitterness, this is matched by rich hop and malt flavours. Perhaps the most frequent comment about Hop Zombie is it is deceptively smooth and drinkable for a beer with 8.5 per cent alcohol and 80 IBUs. It has great mouth feel and the flavours are impressively balanced, making it dangerously drinkable. Epic is often labelled a ‘one trick pony’ for its emphasis on hop-dominated beers. It is, but it is a good trick.

ParrotDog DeadCanary 2014
I don’t know yet if this is a game changer for me. It is my favourite beer right now. DeadCanary doesn’t show off. It isn’t a big show stopper and it won’t change the direction of our brewing industry.
It is a well-made, balanced, pale ale at 5.3 per cent alcohol and combines English malts (good) and New Zealand hops (very good) in a way that brings out the best in both while letting you go back for another. This is what beer is for – it’s clever, classy and drinkable. Not sure if the name is a reference to safety in the mining industry or a secret ingredient.

Back to The Pursuit of Hoppiness: Autumn 2015

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