Beer is a big deal in New Zealand and even as we drink less, its contribution to our economy grows. Simon Day spoke to the Brewers Association’s Dylan Firth about the industry’s growth.
New Zealand loves beer – it’s been a constant and colourful part of our colonial history since the arrival of Captain Cook. The great explorer was the first to brew beer in New Zealand when in 1773, on Resolution Island in Fiordland, he experimented with a brew of young rimu branches and mānuka leaves as a treatment against scurvy.
From this first brew, the beer industry has grown into a huge and diverse sector that makes a significant economic contribution to the country too. The Brewers Association of New Zealand, the advocacy group for Lion and DB breweries, contracted the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research to quantify beer’s contribution to the New Zealand economy in the year to March 2018. The report showed the industry was worth more than $2.3 billion in beer sales alone; it was responsible for $645 million in GDP; and brewing directly employed nearly 2000 people.
The report also revealed significant growth in the craft beer industry and the number of boutique breweries in New Zealand. Independent breweries have increased by 16% since 2008, and last year craft beer represented 10% of all beer sales.
But if you’re drinking a brew in New Zealand in 2019 it’s pretty likely that it’s been created by one of two companies. Approximately 82% of all the beer brewed in New Zealand is produced by Lion Breweries and DB Breweries. They’re responsible for making everything from our local reproduction of legendary Dutch beer Heineken, to the current version of New Zealand’s first commercial craft beer, Emersons.
The Brewers Association represents DB and Lion and their interests across the sector. I caught up with Dylan Firth, executive director of the Brewers Association, to discuss the growth of New Zealand’s beer industry, what makes our beer special, the role of the big breweries in the sector’s development, and beer’s contribution to the economy.
What makes the New Zealand beer scene unique? From a flavour perspective and an economic one?
New Zealand is a young country filled with innovative and driven brewers and like many industries, we love to try new things. While we often take cues from other countries and classic styles, our small and agile beer community really can move in a new direction quickly, with new varietals and flavours coming out all the time. Our uniqueness comes from this – our beer drinkers love supporting local and appreciate having access to a hugely diverse range of beers.
We are also lucky to have a significant hop growing region in Nelson which provides us with some amazing, world-renowned, varieties that produce very distinct flavours that brewers appreciate internationally. Not to mention some quality malters. Our raw ingredients are truly at the highest level and, as they say, the better the input the better the output.
What does “New Zealand beer” taste like and what does that say about our industry?
It’s hard to define just one flavour as ‘New Zealand beer’ with so many varieties available. But over the years we have developed one style that is uniquely New Zealand and is recognised around the world as Kiwi. The New Zealand Pilsner has come to prominence in recent years. With traditional neutral malt flavours and slight bitterness, it is similar to the style’s Northern hemisphere origins but, unlike its German and Czech counterparts, leans heavily on tropical and fruity hop flavours and aromas, such as Riwaka, Nelson Sauvin and Motueka, that New Zealand hops are well known for.
Why do you think we’ve seen such massive growth in beer? What has encouraged the New Zealand beer industry to be so innovative?
While it’s important to recognise the growth in varieties and the number of breweries over the last few years, it should also be noted that we haven’t actually started to drink any more. In fact, we are drinking much less than 30-40 years ago. Part of this comes down to the maturing of peoples understanding of the product, their desire to know about how it is made, what’s in it and then exploring the options available to them.
We have really seen the shift in the last few years from volume to value, where people are looking to spend more for better products, but buy less. This is a positive trend reflected worldwide which continues to underpin the moderation movement. That focus on value has driven the industry to experiment more and give beer drinkers a greater choice and more exciting range of beers.
Is beer’s contribution to New Zealand’s economy underrated? What needs to happen to allow the industry to keep growing effectively?
I think for a long time the economic contribution has just not been discussed. There have always been a lot of people employed in brewing and the brewing supply chain and we have for a long time contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in excise tax and GST. We should be spending time on focusing on the positive elements beer can bring to society and the contribution it makes.
We have seen a rapid period of growth in terms of the number of breweries, and the focus now should be on maintaining this and growing the quality of what’s on offer.
How can big breweries like Lion and DB support the development of independent breweries?
There is a lot of brewing knowledge that sits within the larger breweries, you often see ex-employees and brewers going out on their own to start something themselves. So, I think the role of these breweries can be to help build industry best practice when it comes to things like sustainability in brewing, building a healthy and safe working environment and working with other breweries to ensure we all operate in a sustainable regulatory environment.
What makes our hops special and valuable? How is that built on brand New Zealand?
New Zealand has had hops continuously growing for more than 150 years, predominantly in the Nelson region – ever since the early settlers from southern England and Germany arrived.
We have a unique set up in New Zealand with most hops grown through a grower co-operative called NZ Hops. NZ Hops spends a significant amount of time on research and development and New Zealand has around 16 of its own unique hop varieties.
New Zealand’s advantage is its continued development of unique varieties in a disease-free environment. This also enables the production of organic hops, with the world’s largest organic hop garden located at Tapawera.
As well as our unique hop styles with high alpha acids creating desirable bitterness for brewing, Nelson’s southern hemisphere position means the industry can supply the northern hemisphere in its off-season, with 80% of New Zealand’s hops being exported.
Can hops become an important economic export?
A high percentage of hops are already exported overseas. It takes a lot of time to forecast what future demand will be to ensure we have the capacity to meet this and our own domestic requirements, so the NZ hop industry has a lot on its plate. The unpredictability of weather also plays a significant role. However, depending on international trends and the growth of other beer markets there could certainly be further growth for the industry I’m sure.
What is the Brewers Association? And what does it do?
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The Brewers Association is a trade association representing its members DB and Lion in areas of government regulation, media, undertaking research and working with other non-Government organisations to promote our members’ positions and activities.
Our mission is to promote the brewing industry and support the responsible enjoyment of beer. Through relationships and collaboration with others, we’re committed to supporting a balanced regulatory, ethical and legal environment. Our vision is that the brewing industry is celebrated by New Zealanders and recognised as a responsible, sustainable economic and social contributor to New Zealand society.
Like any other trade association, The Brewers Association exists not only to work with regulators and Government who make decisions affecting the whole industry, but to also provide information to its members on possible changes in the business operating environment and to conduct overall promotion of the category.
This content was created in paid partnership with the Brewers Association. Learn more about our partnerships here.