Craft Beer Distribution in NZ

This last week, while surfing the deep waters of the internet, we came across the results of Purvis Cellars 2009 Oktoberfest. Purvis Cellars is a Melbourne based wine and beer store which carries over 400 domestic and international beers. The Oktoberfest is an in-store tasting event with around 200 participants, who get ten tastes for $10. There are two reasons we mention this event in this fortnight’s column.

The first reason is that four of the top twenty selling beers at the event were from New Zealand. They were, in no particular order: Epic Pale Ale, Founder’s Long Black, Harrington’s Wobbly Boot, and Mac’s Sassy Red. New Zealand craft beers were a featured part of the event, and it is great to see our beers appreciated overseas.

The second reason is that in reading the results list, we realised that we recognised very few of the Australian beers, and started wondering a bit about beer distribution in New Zealand. (Why can they drink our beers, but we can’t find theirs?)

It turns out that craft beer distribution in New Zealand is a rather new phenomenon. For decades, the general beer market was at the mercy of Lion/DB and their related brands. Even as craft brewing began booming, the little breweries had to depend upon their own legwork to get beer out the door. They inevitably focused on their local market, so the craft beer enthusiast had to go to them.

About two and a half years ago, Craig Bowen had what he calls a Eureka moment. Why not provide a channel for all these fantastic breweries to spread their beer further? His first selfish impulse was to get beer to Christchurch, but now his company BeerNZ provides a conduit between over 20 craft brewers and an explosively expanding range of outlets around the country.

His customers range from supermarkets like New World and Fresh Choice down to small cafes with a single tap. Over the past 12 months, the fastest growth has been among bars working to differentiate themselves from the pack where Macs and Montieth’s no longer satisfy the specialty beer focused customer. And while the small brewers can’t provide all the free bling splashed by the big guys, retailers are starting to realize that it’s all about the beer.

Customers like us are asking for a variety of choices, and we understand that we have to pay more for it. Picking up a bottle of Yeastie Boys at Fresh Choice is a lot cheaper than driving to Invercargill. Local products make the most sense in terms of sustainability, but occasionally our easily jaded palates crave something new.

While interesting NZ made beers are popping up in the supermarket and at the local pub, they really haven’t made the same leap into restaurants. Having spent many hours in American brewpubs, we associate craft beer with dining out. Quality New Zealand restaurants pride themselves on their wine selection, but few put the same effort into their beer list. As consumer tastes continue to change, we hope that restaurateurs will catch up to the other outlets.

So what about those imported craft beers? Our conclusion is that we need to give them time. Some are available in specialty bars and stores, and even a few supermarkets around the country, usually at a premium price. They are in the pipeline, but they are still overshadowed by rocketing demand for New Zealand products. While we are curious about how Australia’s best Double India Pale Ale might compare with local brews, for now we will keep exploring the ever wider selection of quality New Zealand beers making it to our doorstep.

Originally published in the Nelson Mail.

About Fritz and Maria

Fritz and Maria have been living, drinking and brewing together for over 20 years. As beer commentators and educators they strive to create a beerocracy where people exercise their palates by voting for quality in the marketplace. Their interests include the personalities, business, and culture of craft beer worldwide. As distillers for Rough Hands, they loved being at the place where magic meets science. Fritz and Maria can be found speaking at beery events, holding guided tastings, judging competitions.

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