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KaiAugust 20, 2016

Stay hungry: the insatiable appetites driving New Zealand’s restaurant and bar revolution


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Rose Hoare speaks to chefs, architects, critics and hospitality identities to evaluate the state of the art in eating and drinking – without once using the word ‘foodie’.

Even trends are getting trendier

Let’s address the elephant in the room right away: kale has peaked. Although still popular with dairy cows as a winter feed option, it has been on the slide in New Zealand since January last year, according to Google Trends. And if you think I’m going to be talking about cronuts, you can forget it. They flatlined shortly after appearing in 2013, and I feel embarrassed for you that you even asked me that.

It’s odd that what we eat and drink can be considered so culturally significant that it competes for space alongside Blac Chyna and national elections in news headlines but, apparently, such is the mystique of doughnuts.

Blame the appeal of charismatic TV chefs like Jamie Oliver (who people love because he doesn’t measure anything) and Nigella Lawson (sexy) and Gordon Ramsey (good swearing). Blame the popularity of cooking shows like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules and Chef’s Table, which has just been renewed for three more seasons.

Blame Instagram, with its ability to popularise things like kale salads and rainbow lattes, which look much better than they taste. Blame René Redzepi, a very thoughtful and serious innovator, whose careful experiments in reinventing Nordic cuisine at his Copenhagen restaurant Noma have spawned so many imitators.

For whatever reason, it seems that in the last 15 years or so, we have come to care about food and drink more than ever. “A lot more people are eating out than used to,” says food writer Ray McVinnie. “People are choosing to spend their money on restaurants, whereas they didn’t use to. Food is taken a lot more seriously than it used to be.

“I watched two old guys on a train in Italy once, discussing how you make spaghetti carbonara for two hours. I spoke to a woman about ricotta for two and a half hours. We don’t take food quite that seriously or have that very special relationship with food that old cultures have, but I think we’re getting towards it.”

Crew Club, Auckland. Photos: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
Today’s answer to pub grub is pretty exceptional. Sam Clark (ex Clooney) plates a meal at The Crew Club, a bar in Auckland’s Viaduct. Photos: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

These days, bars and restaurants, their customers, and the social media that brings them together, all thrive on novelty. Going out has become a trend-hunt, which has driven – or forced – more innovation.

John Hellebrekers, who as managing director of Barworks oversees 19 Auckland venues, says people decide where to go out based on what’s trending. “You need to keep introducing new flavours that people are craving,” he says. “Social media has made it speed up and it means people aren’t as loyal. Instead of going down to your local on Saturday night, people are wanting something they haven’t experienced before.”

In Auckland, new bars and restaurants open every day. There are already around 9,000 food premises, and for the last four years, Auckland Council has been approving new licences at a rate of around 700-800 a year, making Auckland a tough place to compete – or even find staff.

“There’s not been the growth of people working in hospitality, relative to the growth of the industry,” Hellebrekers warns. “If we didn’t have immigrants coming in to fill these positions, we’d be in dire straits, really. There’s pressure on HR, there’s pressure on wages to increase, and it’s not going to get any better because of the growth of tourism.”

Dining precincts like Ponsonby Central and CityWorks Depot in Auckland, Eat Streat in Rotorua, or Leed Street in Wellington are having some success by offering punters more choice. And large hospitality groups like Barworks, The Hip Group and The Nourish Group can similarly hedge their bets, spreading risk and discovering operational efficiencies and economies of scale.

To survive, bar and restaurant owners need to figure out how to move with the times. “Due to fit-out costs and increasing rents and labour costs, I think you’ll see more smaller venues being built,” Hellebrekers predicts. “You might open a venue with a certain style, but you’ll know in the back of your mind that in three years’ time it’s going to be a different concept.”

Although punishing for owners, the intensified interest and competition has meant that the overall quality of our restaurants has improved, and even your average mid-range pub will now have chef-y flourishes on the menu.

In 2000, if you’d walked into one of the joints crammed in on Auckland’s waterfront, you’d probably have had a choice of three or four beers on tap and an overpriced menu of basic greasies. If you didn’t like it, you could suffer in your jocks.

Today, if you wandered into The Crew Club, a vast gastro-pub near the Maritime Museum, you could have a kedgeree with ras el hanout, pickled egg, mussels and golden raisins for your brunch (the fact that you could have brunch at all is pretty revolutionary), or a paleo chia custard thing if you’re health conscious, or interesting dishes like Hawaiian poke. There are five low-strength beers to choose from – that’s just the low-strength beers – and you know the food will be good because the chef just came from Clooney.

Increasingly, the distinction between high-end and cheap-and-cheerful is blurring. In fact, everything’s blurring! Where restaurants used to offer food service, café service and bar service in order to reach as many people as possible, these days, restaurants, cafes and bars are all narrowing what they offer.

“Cafés have gone in their own direction, extracting this and cold drip that,” explains Renee Coulter, who co-owns popular Auckland bistro Coco’s Cantina with her sister Damaris. “There are places that have stripped it right back to where you just get your shot of coffee at the bar, through to the full brunch with table service thing. Bars have done the same. Each area is getting fine-tuned and everyone’s defining what they do.”

“And within restaurants, everyone’s defining what they do. Apero is a good example: people are like, what are you? Why don’t you be a restaurant with more choices? They’re like: we wanna be a bar that does amazing food.”

Perhaps a sign of how fluid everything’s getting: Coco’s Cantina will turn half of its space into a bar with no table service, while half will continue to be semi-fancy dining.

Increasingly, New Zealanders are just looking for more options. They want somewhere they can go out for a few drinks, eat some nice food (without killing the vibe), and to have the option to go somewhere else afterwards. They’re eating out more, but at a lower price point. They’re embracing beer as a food match in a way which was once the exclusive preserve of wine.

Places that are narrow in concept or single-proposition (meaning they specialise in one type of thing) and low-cost (meaning that thing is cheap to make) are reaping the profits, while the closure of Hammerheads and Kermadec in Auckland suggests that serving expensive seafood in a huge waterfront space – something that used to represent the pinnacle of New Zealand hospitality – now seems like a great way to lose money. Tellingly, at SkyCity’s newest restaurant, the signature dish is a $13.50 cheeseburger.

In the kitchen at Cassia. Photo: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
In the kitchen at Cassia, Auckland. Photo: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Ready to gaze into the crystal ball? Here’s our pick of the trends worth paying attention to (read on for the detail).

1. Everyone wants to be healthy (by day)…

More interest in food has lead to more knowledge about food, and those offering menus free from artificial flavours and colours, immodest levels of salt and sugar, and gluten-free and dairy-free alternatives are poised to do well. If you don’t believe us, ask McDonalds.

2. …And unhealthy by night

Inspired by monster success stories in London and New York, gourmet burgers have spread throughout Auckland, proving that high-end treatment of low-brow food (aka drinking food) can be big business. If you can make it fast enough.

3. Please, let’s stop saying ‘modern ethnic’

Although French cooking techniques are still highly valued, old cultural hierarchies are toppling and, in a country with growing migrant populations, a more careful and personal exploration of different cuisines is emerging.

4.  Food your grandmother would recognise

With arcane and tricky dishes on the rise among Serious Young Chefs, now more than ever there’s an increasing appetite for food that doesn’t exhaust the intellect or cry out for attention.

5. Behind the smiles: service with integrity

Natural organisers and motivators, some of the best behind-the-scenes people in hospitality are coming up with new ways to offset the industry’s inherent hedonism.

6. Beer drinking: will craft go mainstream?

Craft is exploding in an otherwise low-growth beer market. But beer is experiencing a 40 year trend of very gradual decline. Will craft and other growth areas – including premium, low-alcohol and cider – help reverse that phenomenon?

7. Interiors

How open kitchens make your food taste better, and why the niching of the industry might mean restaurant and bar fit-outs will get crazier.

1. Everyone wants to be healthier (by day)…

“Clean eating” – the practice of favouring whole foods, the rawer the better, and avoiding gluten, sugar, dairy and meat – has been accused of being an eating disorder, deemed anti-feminist, and lampooned as unobtainable. But it’s rooted in a widespread and thoroughgoing concern about nutrition that’s trickling up, down and sideways into every level of food service, so even if you think it’s a bunch of bollocks, history will prove you wrong.

Research suggests that people now seek out gluten, wheat and dairy-free products, regardless of whether they have food intolerances, because they think they’re healthier. Traceability, sustainability and efforts to minimise waste are also increasingly on customers’ minds, and are therefore increasingly a selling-point.

Around the world, businesses are scrambling to cleanse their menus of undesirable ingredients, or offer healthy alternatives.

Describing itself as “the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness company”, erstwhile chocolate giant Nestlé announced it’s replacing the Red 40 and Yellow 5 in its American chocolate bars with natural ingredients, and its new candies will be free from artificial colours and flavours. Even McDonald’s is phasing out some of the human antibiotics its chickens are fed. A real treat for us!

This context makes it easier to understand the success of Little Bird Organics, which launched in 2010 with a range of organic macaroons, granola and crackers, and has since expanded to involve three Auckland cafés serving dishes free from dairy, gluten, cane sugar and soy. They make their own nut milks, nut cheeses and coconut yoghurt from scratch, and since opening, they’ve been fully cranking.

Founder Megan May was as surprised as anyone that her first “unbakery” was an instant hit. “It was an odd combination of people who had been waiting for something like this for a really long time — people like me — and, because we were at the beginning of a trend, you’d get all the fashion people,” she says.

Although she was initially careful to make everything taste traditionally yummy, May has noticed that her core customers now crave the grassy, sour, bitter flavours of things like ginger, turmeric, and lemon.

“Whether it’s through us, or regular cafes that are serving green smoothies, people are getting a taste for it. I was totally addicted to sugar as a kid, but actually this food can be really addictive as well. It makes you feel a bit cleaner. It’s like having a shower, almost.”

Next, May plans to introduce more herbs and mushrooms from Chinese medicine, which she says, “can come with some interesting flavour [that is] a little bit harder to jazz up”.

Bearded Clam's chilli cheeseburger. Photo: supplied
A Bearded Clam chilli cheeseburger, which aims to resemble a McDonald’s cheeseburger, but in a boutique way. Photo supplied

2. …And unhealthy by night

What’s paradoxical about the rise of clean eating is the concomitant rise of ‘elevated’ street food. We’re eating chia granola and drinking charcoal smoothies by day, then gorging on gourmet burgers and fried chicken after dark.

Burgers, in particular, have gone from being perceived as “what fat people eat”, as food writer AA Gill puts it, to being cool. Maybe not as cool as drugs, but just as much a part of a big night out for hipsters in London, Paris and New York, where the trend originated.

In 2000, decorated New York chef Danny Meyer opened a concession stand in Madison Square Park called Shake Shack, serving basic but good-quality burgers made with 100% natural Angus beef patties. By the time it listed on the NY Stock Exchange last year, Shake Shack was valued at US$1.6 billion and it’s just one player in a global market that’s still growing.

In Auckland, Ryan Kneebone and Adam Crickett cook burgers sporadically at pop-up events as The Bearded Clam. Their patties are high-grade beef cooked medium-rare, and their brioche bun was developed carefully by Crickett, but they use pre-sliced Mainland catering cheese, Heinz ketchup, French’s mustard and Best Foods mayo, because their intention is to approximate a McDonald’s cheeseburger, “in a controlled, boutique sort of way”.

Crickett says they’ve struggled against a Kiwi preconception that a gourmet burger ought to have frilly lettuce, red onion and tomato, no matter what. “The ‘aioli and relish burger’, I call them,” Crickett says.

But the fact that there’s now four other restaurants doing similarly American-styled burgers in the central city alone suggests consumers are catching on. For those who don’t have the money or the will to sit in a restaurant for hours spending big bucks on a three-course meal, gourmet burgers are cheap and quick, and, crucially, pair very well with beer.

They’re also both accessible and exclusive: there’s nothing intimidating about a cheeseburger, but if you add recherche ingredients like kimchi, they become something special.

Burgers are at the sweet spot where convenience, price and novelty – but not too much novelty – meet. They’re hipster comfort food that, like fried chicken, gourmet hotdogs and other elevated street foods, taste that much better once you’ve had a couple of beers.

Head chef Sid Sahrawat and his team at Cassia, left, and one of his elegant desserts, right. Photos: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
Head chef Sid Sahrawat and his team at Cassia, left, and one of his elegant desserts, right. Photos: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

3. Please, let’s stop saying ‘modern ethnic’

Although New Zealand’s population is still three-quarters European, Auckland is a different story. A quarter of the city now identifies as Asian, with Indian, Chinese and Filipino the most common ethnic groups. Thanks to these and other migrant populations, a lot of New Zealanders are now at ease eating and cooking lots of different cuisines, and exploring how their flavours can be reworked.

Parallel with this exploration is a growing awareness that a chef from one ethnic background might be interested in cooking the cuisine of another ethnicity (an Indian chef might be good at cooking French food, for instance). And, just as freaky, a chef from a particular ethnic background (let’s say Portuguese) might tinker with his or her own parent cuisine, creating dishes that are not, strictly speaking, “authentic” or “traditional”. One might call these dishes “Modern Portuguese”, to reflect the departure from tradition. (Or, if it’s a non-European cuisine being reworked, the cringey designation “modern ethnic” apparently covers all.)

Although French cooking techniques are still highly valued as a building block for experimentation, old cultural hierarchies have toppled. The clearest proof is that some of the country’s best formal restaurants serve careful or playful interpretations of cuisines that used to be relegated to the ‘cheap and cheerful’ category: Thai, Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Middle Eastern.

Ten years ago, diners might have blanched at paying more than $10 or $12 for Indian food, and may have been confused to find an Indian restaurant that doesn’t do butter chicken or rogan josh. This year, Metro magazine’s Restaurant of the Year is a fine dining Indian restaurant that does paneer and goat’s cheese fritters ($30), a duck and chicken ‘stirfry’ with kadhai spices ($38), really elegant, finely-wrought desserts, and a gin-focused cocktail list that helps keep the vibe ‘buzzy’.

But before opening Cassia in 2014, chef Sid Sahrawat had probably cooked Italian more than any other cuisine. As a youngster, he did a hotel management course in Chennai, then an apprenticeship in Oman, where he cooked in a busy hotel restaurant called Tuscany. He came to New Zealand in 2000, aged 20, and worked at Toto and Non Solo Pizza for three years.

He and his wife Chand dreamed of opening a restaurant like Cassia. Instead, he opened his degustation restaurant, Sidart, building it into something that’s earned three hats in Cuisine’s Good Food Guide and been voted Auckland’s #1 restaurant on Trip Advisor.

At Cassia, he’s showcasing the dimensions of flavour and the variation that make Indian food so interesting, using classic French cooking techniques, and New Zealand produce like pumpkin, kale and kumara.

“If I’d opened Cassia before Sidart, it might not have been as big a success as it is now, although it’s hard to say,” Sahrawat says. “We’ve had a lot of people come here because they trust what we’ve done in the past. There’s a great sense of positivity in Auckland diners at the moment. People are very accepting of everything going on here. Half of our diners let the front of house pick for them.”

Siostra, Auckland. Photos: Rebecca Thomas
Deep-fried apple pie, left, and devils on horseback at Siostra, Auckland. Photos: Rebecca Thomas

4. Food your grandmother would recognise

A couple of years ago, a decorated food writer skewered the trend for highly innovative, highly finicky food, painstakingly compiled with tweezers by young men seeking to push culinary boundaries, in the footsteps of Rene Redzepi.

“This is the first food development in America that exists not because customers are eager for it but because chefs insist on doing it,” sniped food writer Alan Richman, labelling the style ‘New Nordic Dude Food’ and “Egotarian” cuisine.

This struck a chord with chef David Bach. He’d been cooking at places like Lyles in London (reviewed as “disgustingly cool” by The Telegraph) and Le Chateaubriand in Paris (credited with establishing Paris’ ‘neo-bistro’ trend). When Bach returned home this year, he wanted to work at Siostra in Auckland’s Grey Lynn, run by Esther Lamb (front of house) and her sister Beki Lamb (head chef).

Siostra is a pretty straightforward neighbourhood restaurant, but often there are small but appreciable flourishes of nostalgia on its menu. A popular entree there is devils on horseback – tea-soaked prunes wrapped in bacon – which dates back to Victorian times and, I can attest, was still a smash-hit party snack in Northcote in the 1980s.

Other retro gestures have included a gribiche sauce (you’ll find a recipe in Elizabeth David’s 1960 classic, French Provincial Cooking), scallops served on the half-shell, slow-cooked classics like veal ossobuco, and old-school ingredients like brussels sprouts and crab meat.

The devils were inspired by April Bloomfield, a British expat and traditionalist who cooks Michelin-starred gastro-pub fare at The Spotted Pig in New York, and Esther says they’ve become an unalterable part of the menu. “People are kind of amused and pleased,” she says. “They’re quite affectionate about that dish.”

With arcane and tricky dishes on the rise amongst Serious Young Chefs, perhaps now more than ever there’s an increasing appetite for food that doesn’t exhaust the intellect.

Although you’d think there’d be less glory for a chef who refrains from putting their own ‘modern twist’ on classic dishes, serious reviewers have been unstinting in their praises of new restaurants cooking retro food.

In New York earlier this year, two chefs who’ve won Michelin stars for their Thai food opened Mr Donahue’s, where you can eat roast beef with onion rings and ranch dressing, rotisserie chicken, or shrimp cocktail at a doily-lined table, on plates “happily crammed with food, as if composed by someone who cares less about presentation and more about how much you’re getting to eat.”

“We’re not supposed to want to eat this way anymore,” the New York Times confided, describing the sensation evoked by this kitschy food as one of “gratitude”.

The same month in Sydney, a big hospitality group opened Restaurant Hubert, a brand new venture with food and décor that mimics a post-war French bistro, serving chicken fricassee in tarragon gravy, oeufs en gelée, and creme caramel, which you eat surrounded by wood panelling and red velvet drapes. The only thing that feels genuinely new about Hubert is how faithfully it follows tradition. The Good Food Guide, which gives out the chef’s hats that are Australia’s answer to Michelin stars, actually went all caps for its review: “I LOVE THIS PLACE”.

“People respond incredibly positively to that Michael Pollan thing of food your great-grandmother would recognise,” Esther says. “It’s not about trying to make us look good, it’s trying to deliver something to the customer that makes them feel restored and nourished and welcome. I think those old standards are appealing to people for that reason.”

Chef Michael Meredith (whose Whatsapp status is “Hold the piko piko”) makes a salad of chicken thighs and hearts, broccoli and edamame in a miso wasabi ginger dressing at Laffare Melrose in Auckland. For every salad sold, a hungry kid gets a lunch via his charity. Photos: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
Chef Michael Meredith (whose Whatsapp status is “Hold the piko piko”) makes a salad of chicken thighs and hearts, broccoli and edamame in a miso wasabi ginger dressing at Laffare Melrose in Auckland. For every salad sold, a hungry kid gets a lunch via his charity. Photos: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

5. Behind the smiles: service with integrity

One feature of working in the hospitality industry is being treated to an endless parade of hedonism on the restaurant floor, seeing a constant flow of perfectly good food wasted in the kitchen, while knowing that 29% of New Zealand kids are growing up in poverty, homelessness is on the rise and climate change is going to do us all in if we don’t get it together soon.

Happily, some of the most successful people in hospitality in New Zealand are coming up with ways to offset the industry’s innate extravagance. This, more than anything else, is the most significant trend to have emerged in service lately.

It was only a year ago that one of New Zealand’s greatest chefs, Michael Meredith, and partner Lisa King launched Eat My Lunch, a scheme whereby a lunch bought means another lunch is donated to a hungry schoolkid. Today, Eat My Lunch makes close to 1,300 lunches a day for Auckland schools. (Meredith was there at 5.30am making sandwiches the morning after his restaurant won Metro’s Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year award). In June, a crowd-funded social bonds scheme was launched to raise money for the next phase, which will involve launching operations in Wellington.

At his super-fancy restaurant, Meredith also supports charities for two-month stretches, raising tens of thousands of dollars by offering a weekly 4-course degustation menu for a donation.

Meredith sees this flow of support from a fine dining restaurant to the wider community as entirely natural. “People want to help,” he says. “Giving from our hearts is a big thing for most people. That’s how it works: Eat My Lunch works because people want to do something.”

At Coco’s Cantina, initiatives that serve the wider community are baked into the business. On Fridays, they take a cooked meal to the NZ Prostitutes Collective nearby, and unsold food goes to the City Mission.

“There are people who do way more than us but we’re a busy restaurant, so we have just incorporated systems into our own,” Renee says. “Instead of making one staff dinner on Friday, we make two.”

“Running a business like that is more time-consuming. Boxing up all the stuff to take down to the Mission is an added cost that people don’t put into their business model, but we do, because we hate waste and we hate inequality,” Damaris says. “I’m amazed at people who just look after their own lives. What a fucking luxury – to just go to work, get paid and look after you and your family. To me, that’s unbelievable luxury.”

That hatred of inequality can also be seen in how Coco’s staff relate to customers. Extremely popular with a young, lively, occasionally messy crowd, with long wait times for tables on some nights, a style of service has evolved that’s more casual, more genuine, and more empowered, with a non-traditional assumption of equality between staff and customers.

Damaris (left) and Renee Coulter of Coco's Cantina. Photo: José Barbosa
Damaris (left) and Renee Coulter of Coco’s Cantina. Photo: José Barbosa

In the ’90s, when both sisters first began waitressing, Damaris explains, the style of service was “a lot more pretentious, but not as knowledgeable or sophisticated”.

“Back in the day, if you were serving a table, you sort of had to laugh at their shit jokes, you had to go along with their conversation, you had to ignore racist comments. You even had to ignore hands on the small of your back or lower down,” Damaris says.

“Here, if you wanna come out for dinner and get into conversation with our waiters, be prepared to hear their opinion. They’re not gonna give you something regurgitated. They’re definitely not gonna have one hand behind their back. And if you are racist, you have to go.”

“The whole ‘customer’s always right’ thing doesn’t apply here,” Renee says. “On every situation, it’s equal. Something’s happened? Let’s fix it. I don’t care who is the problem. I’ll just fix the problem, and we’ll split the mistake, or, if we completely dropped the ball, I will own it.”

This ethos might sound alienating for customers, but Coco’s has attracted a like-minded and loyal clientele, which just goes to show that New Zealanders are getting better at accepting a restaurant on its own terms, whatever they might be.

Staff are supported to be themselves, but they’re also trained in the kind of imaginative empathy that keeps them grounded.

“You have to drill this into staff, and remind them: how would I be serving my Poppa, who can’t hear?” Renee says. “Would I turn the music down for him? How would I be serving my parents who are a bit awkward and don’t go out that much? My Dad can come across gruff. He’s the loveliest man in the world – so generous, so honest, so hard working – but he can come across gruff, and he might not say please or thank you. When something becomes confusing, my Mum might get a little bit defensive and that’ll come across as rude. You have to train staff to recognise that hey, no one is instantly rude. You have to give them leeway.”

This is something that’s hard to judge, unless you are that rare thing in hospitality: a highly experienced waiter. It’s often assumed that New Zealand needs more long-term hospitality staff to establish a more professional service culture. Renee doubts that’s attainable or even desirable.

“Everyone has a timeframe where they can be in hospo and then you get burnt out. It’s hard being a waitress 10 years later, 20 years later, polishing cutlery at two o’clock in the morning, cleaning up vomit, dealing with customers… We could ask ‘how do we get the professionalism and retain long term staff’, but then again, you don’t want grumpy waiters.”

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

6. Beer drinking: will craft go mainstream?

New Zealand’s beer industry is going through an intriguing growth spurt. Overall, we’re drinking less beer than we used to – a paltry 64 litres per capita, which is a lot less than Australia. In bars and pubs, owners say the lowered drink-driving limit has affected sales, and other looming legislative changes threaten to kill nightlife in key inner city precincts.

But there are way more people making beer than ever before. Incredibly, New Zealand now has 130 breweries. There’s been a 63% increase in home brew equipment listed on TradeMe in the last 12 months, while in the past two years, New Zealand-made craft beer has experienced its first big boost in sales, expanding by more than 40%.

And while the traditional middle New Zealand brands are in decline, premium beers are growing strongly – up $35m in five years – which suggests that everyone is getting a little more fancy-feast in their beer choices. We’re becoming a nation of beeries!

Nowhere is this more apparent than the new Brothers Brewery in Mt Eden. A brewery and bar with a narrow and basic but delicious menu, the place is rammed with young families on weekends. It caters for both the emerging craft beer nerd market, wanting to sample experimental limited runs, while also selling many jugs of more sessionable lagers and pale ales from Brothers and others.

The thing with craft is it’s a continuum – all those deeply serious conversations about flavour profiles and hoppiness, and all the cool new specialist craft beer bars opening tend to mask the fact that craft beer is still a small segment of the total market: shockingly, all of New Zealand’s craft beer sales put together is less than the sales of DB’s Export Citrus alone.

But even big breweries like DB, who commissioned this story, are excited about it. It’s gotten people talking about beer, it’s improving customer knowledge. Most importantly, it’s driving the average punter out of a rut.

“When I was a kid, you’d walk into a pub and there’d be six beers on tap,” says DB’s Auckland beer ambassador Steve Fabrello. “I’m currently putting in a bar in Hamilton that will have 18 brands on tap. The consumer’s palate and interest has grown so much that they want to experiment. Generally, they go back to what they know, but people are being adventurous, when, for such a long time, people would buy what they knew.”

John Frith, DB’s South Island ambassador says this can be a blessing and a curse for small brewers. “One thing craft breweries struggle to do is get past the third batch, because the craft beer drinker is not as loyal, because they want to try different things. The volume will stutter as the craft drinker waits for the newest release.” Other tiers of craft beer fan are closer to mainstream beer fans in their behaviour, resulting in craft breweries adding more-sessionable IPAs and lagers to their line-up to maintain their initial growth. It’s a trend seen in New Zealand’s flagship new generation craft breweries, with Tuatara, Liberty and Garage Project releasing more accessible beers in price-pointed six packs over the past year.

In this respect, they’re starting to meet bigger breweries in the middle, as the likes of Monteith’s release higher alcohol and hop-heavy APAs in 500ml bottles, along with a greater range of limited and seasonal releases. And nearly all breweries, from the cultiest craft to the traditional giants, are bringing new lower-alcohol beers to the market which try to not sacrifice flavour on the way.

For hardcore craft beer drinkers, the most exciting trend on the horizon is sour beers, lambics and salt and coriander-inflected gose (pronounced more or less like the demon goddess Gozer at the end of Ghostbusters), which is even more challenging on the palate. But New Zealanders are increasingly used to encountering sour, tangy flavours in Korean and Malaysian food, and in probiotics like kombucha and Greek yogurt.

And anyway, it’s not like you’re going to have a six-pack of gose. You’re more likely to taste it, talk about it, and go back to your mainstay.

“At the biggest craft bar in Auckland (Brew on Quay), they have 100 beers, but the most sold, by volume, is Monteith’s Golden,” says Alex Biedermann, a master brewer at DB whose German accent makes his observations sound like a visiting professor’s field notes.

In the US, where the craft beer industry has had a couple of decades start on ours, flavoured beers are huge, with 80% more of them being launched over the last five years, as brewers look to convert more women to beer drinking. (Clearly this works: about a third of DB Export Citrus drinkers are not usually beer drinkers.)

Americans are also drinking five times as much cider as they did five years ago, New Zealand’s consumption is up too: amongst millennials, around 40% of women and 20% of guys are now drinking cider.

I was oddly relieved to hear that in back-country pubs, they’re still loyal to their local beer, and when they walk into a pub, the only decision they have to make is bottle or jug – with maths as the most critical driver.

“You enter Tui country and go into a pub which has a dozen beers on tap, and people are sitting around a table with a Tui quart bottle because they know that a quart is cheaper than the same volume coming out of the tap,” Biedermann says.

In Tui country, they may be less eager to try a gose, which I’ve seen described as tasting “like it had been squeegeed off the back of a German day labourer toiling in a coriander processing plant”. But as Steve Fabrello says, “There’s a process we’re going through, and it’s a staged process.”

The offbeat take on a Northern Thai streetfood market that is Kiss Kiss, Auckland. Photos: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
The offbeat take on a Northern Thai streetfood market that is Kiss Kiss, Auckland. Photos: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

7. Interiors

Restaurants and bars change their menus and cocktail lists every three months or so, but their interiors hardly ever, making the emergence of style trends more gradual.

Even so, hospitality fit-outs offer designers a chance to cut loose, and create something truly cutting-edge. Interior designer Paul Izzard, whose Auckland practice created the spaces for Woodpecker Hill, Baduzzi, Cassia, and The Blue Breeze Inn, says the most significant trend of the past decade was the rise of open kitchens. These can contribute a sense of buzz to an otherwise-empty space, they’re more aligned with the sort of transparency that consumers are increasingly demanding of producers, and they elevate the status of the chefs and kitchen-hands from sweaty nobodies to rock stars on stage.

They might also make the food taste better. A Harvard experiment found that chefs cook better when they can see their customers, and when customers and chefs can both see each other, customers are happier (by 17.3%) and service is faster (by 13.2%).

“Obviously when your kitchen is open, it’s going to be more expensive, because you’ve got to design it,” says Izzard. “The walls need to be tiled. You can’t just use grey lino everywhere. It’s a commitment, but it’s a commitment to quality, to customer service, and to design.”

Chefs aren’t the only ones being flung into the spotlight. In serious beer-worshipping bars like Black Dog Brewery in Wellington or Auckland’s Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen and Brothers Brewery, storage tanks, brewing equipment and beer taps become the focal point of the interior, creating the feeling that you’re drinking in a brewery. It’s not exactly industrial chic, but bars and restaurants are increasingly stripping back their decor to lay bare what it is that’s going on.

Izzard thinks the rise of single-proposition, low-cost venues and dining precincts will mean design can get more genuinely idiosyncratic. (Great news for anyone sick of that forcibly quirky, tryhard-homely aesthetic that overtook a lot of gastropubs and cafés over the past few years.)

“People can specialise and do one thing really well, and the guy next door is doing his thing, so in a space where you might have had something boring, you can have all this diversity.” This niching of the market will mean that, in design terms, anything goes. “You can open a restaurant using wheelbarrows for tables or have people sitting on old beer crates.”

You can glimpse this sort of DIY-madness-run-amok at Kiss Kiss, a new suburban restaurant in Auckland’s Balmoral that its owners designed to look like a Northern Thai streetfood market, but indoors.

The walls are marshmallow pink, there are big potted palms and giant green parasols that look like oversized cocktail umbrellas, and all of the tables are 10-seaters that, by night, are covered in a bright, kitschy plastic floral tablecloth. The cocktail menu is read off old Viewfinder toys, and the walls are accented with hot pink neon tubes and Illuminati-ish triangular mirrors.

Owner Celeste Thornley says she and her chef partner saved up to afford the construction. She sourced a lot of the fixtures and fittings online, asked builder and architect friends to help out, and drew design ideas from watching episodes of Vice Media’s cooking show, Munchies.

“We wanted it to feel quite clean and crisp when you’re eating café food during the day time, but at night the lighting is a lot different. It has a lot more impact.”

The response has been mainly positive. “Some people have said the interior feels cheap and nasty. I’m like ‘Well, it was not that cheap, let me tell you…”

Deep-fried apple pie with dulce de leche at Siostra, left, and rum and orange-soaked brioche French toast with banana and coconut dulce de leche at Kiss Kiss. Photos: Rebecca Thomas
Deep-fried apple pie with dulce de leche at Siostra, left, and rum and orange-soaked brioche French toast with banana and coconut dulce de leche at Kiss Kiss. Photos: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

8. Looking ahead: in praise of adventurous eaters

While working on this story, I daydreamed about pranking The Spinoff’s editors by spending weeks doing copious reporting, then filing a one-word document that reduced all trends to a single, epiphanic buzzword. Turnips, it would say, with all the gravitas of Mugatu unveiling Derelicte, and they would think I had finally lost my mind, but also wonder whether, just maybe, I’d stumbled on something big.

While it’s possible to get too invested in what’s trendy at the expense of what’s tasty, some trends take hold because they represent a big leap forward. More restaurants are putting cheap or underused cuts of meat on the menu, which is great because it means less waste and because it gives us ideas to try cooking at home. Our increasing willingness to embrace sour flavours suggests we’re getting less hooked on sugar, salt and fat. More drinkers my dad’s age are joining the younger generation and happily embracing low-alcohol beers, with minimal nagging. These are probably advancements as much as trends.

The funny thing is, many trends are actually painfully slow to take hold. And despite our appetite for feeling cool and trendy, innovation usually happens in spite of, rather than because of customers. Most people don’t like their food too spicy or their meat on the bone or anything with an ingredient they’ve not tried before. “Your most interesting dish is going to be the least ordered,” one chef confided.

Plenty of us have been burned by chefs who overestimate their abilities or who just don’t care about customers enough, but if you want our hospitality industry to thrive and our food and beer culture to keep growing in new directions, don’t be that guy.

Next time you’re going out, choose a restaurant or bar which is embracing risk, from interior to drinks to menu, then order the most bizarre-sounding thing you can find. It’ll probably be amazing.

Keep going!