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Exploring New Zealand’s Craft Beers

Tuatara PilsnerAfter an evening spent exploring beers from five of New Zealand’s craft breweries at The Commons Brewery in Portland, Oregon, the Kiwi State just moved up several notches on my travel bucket list. It didn’t hurt that each beer was accompanied by a culinary feat from a favorite Wellington chef.

New Zealand brewers

This event included some of the best craft brewers in New Zealand.

The brewers included: Jos Ruffell from Garage Project: Mike Neilson of Panhead Custom Ales; Matt Warner of ParrotDog; Carl Vasta of Tuatara Brewery; and Stu McKinlay of Yeastie Boys. They came to Portland for the Annual Oregon Brewers Festival, joining more than 100 craft brewers from around the U.S. The festival draws more than 85,000 beer lovers, half of whom are out-of-towners.

Portland’s Festival organizer, Art Larrance, is one of Portland’s craft beer pioneers. In 1986, he co-founded Portland Brewing Company and was also a founder of the Oregon Brewers Festival, which is held for five days over the “last full weekend in July.” Wearing his New Zealand Beervana T-shirt, Larrance warmly welcomed the New Zealand contingency as the featured international brewers. He shared how he sees parallels with the growth of Portland’s own craft beer industry and New Zealand’s more recent, but rapid, growth, and raised a glass to toast the brewers.

Beer, the Most Popular Beverage

braised brisket burgers

Braised brisket burgers proved a great pairing with NZ beers.

Beer is by far the most popular alcoholic beverage in New Zealand, with beer consumption making up about 63% of all alcoholic beverages consumed. New Zealand imports a lot of beer, with American beers being the most popular (with a special affinity for hoppy Northwest beers.) Since the 1970’s, large scale Lion Breweries and Dominion Breweries controlled the market. But since 2010, the craft beer sector has been taking a larger and larger market share. There currently are 100+ craft breweries and brewpubs in New Zealand, including more than a dozen in New Zealand’s Craft Beer Capitol, Wellington.

NZ brewer Jos Ruff

Jos Ruff came all the way from New Zealand to show off his Garage Project craft beer.

The Industry is Hoppin’
GrowWellington, devoted to business growth in Wellington, hosted the evening’s event. Recognizing how important this burgeoning industry is to their city and to New Zealand, they eagerly support the brewers in showcasing their beers. The event allowed for great conversations with the brewers. Repeatedly, the brewers expressed how exciting it is find themselves doing something they love, working hard, and seeing great success at it. They appreciate the creativity, enjoy the work environment and culture they’re creating—and somehow are managing the myriad of duties new enterprises require.

Matt Warner, a co-owner of ParrotDog admits with a smile, “And the awards…the awards feel good, they come from your peers and they help confirm you’re going in a good direction.” He was also quick to appreciate the help for this event from Grow Wellington and Chef Sheperd “Shep” Elliot.

Tempura fish

Tempura Fish? Why not add New Zealand craft brews?

David Cryer, “Mr. Beervana” himself, organizes Beervana, New Zealand’s largest annual beer festival. His company supplies malts to the breweries and he’s another big-picture supporter of the industry.

New Zealand craft brewing gets a leg up because hops grow so well in New Zealand. CEO of New Zealand Hops, Doug Donelan, is at the event and tells me, “New Zealand Hops is a cooperative of 18 hops farmers. They export their hops world-wide, but it’s been a boom to be able to sell more locally. They currently grow 23 varieties of hops, with 15 varieties being unique to New Zealand.”

The Beers and the Food
Each round of beers poured throughout of the course of the evening was introduced by the brewer, and accompanied by a tasty dish created by Chef Shep Elliot, co-owner (along with broth Jesse Simpson) of the popular Wellington Ti Kouka Café and Leeds Street Bakery.

We were introduced to:

preparing food

Craft beer and food is the newest pairing craze. Photo courtesy GrowWellington.

Yeastie Boys. Stu McKinley shared how he was working on a beer that included coffee, but wasn’t satisfied with what he was coming up with. “Then I thought, what am I doing, I’m more of a tea drinker anyway. So I started working on what resulted in our Gunnamata IPA, made with Earl Grey tea.” The beer has a great Earl Grey scent, with a top flavor of hops; really nice. We enjoyed this with an Earl Grey smoked cod salad of fennel, capers and chives and tartare sauce.

Tuatara Brewery. Their Pilsner is crisp, hoppier and more bitter than many pilsners. It’s a great go-to beer with food because it isn’t overpowering, yet it’s full of refreshing, full flavor. My food fav dish of the evening was the Turducken toasted sandwich filled with bacon and gruyere and mozzarella cheeses. Turducken, if you haven’t had this dish, takes incredible skill: it’s deboned chicken, stuffed into a deboned duck, which is then stuffed into a deboned turkey. Yes, kudos to the Chef on this one. He accomplished this feat outside of his own kitchen! The pairing with Tuatara’s excellent Pilsner was spot on.

beer drinkers

This event introduced many of us to New Zealand craft beers. Photo courtesy GrowWellington.

Garage Project. Garage Project brought along their Garagista IPA, Sea of Green, and Sauvin Nouveau. The fruity and crisp aromatic Sauvin Nouveau was paired with a fish tempura slider with pickled cucumber, cilantro and a lime mojo aioli on a homemade steamed bun. The Sauvin Nouveau uses a fresh press of sauvignon blanc juice added to a pilsner wort, both of which keep this beer light and great with food.
Parrot Dog. Bitter Bitch, a reddish-brown hued IPA with both hefty hops and malt flavors, was served with a unique sandwich combination of slices of beef brisket and smoked beet, pickled red cabbage, mayo, lettuce and a chef-made BBQ sauce. The IPA was perfect for “big” foods.

Panhead Custom Ales. We tried their Hardtail Henery Oaked Stout and the Herman Holeshot hefeweizen. I’m a big fan of stouts and Panhead’s did not disappoint. Their hefeweizen rounded out the evening well with Chef Shep’s beer poached summer fruits atop salted caramel brioche with mascarpone and rosehips. Only two years old, Panhead apparently has been too busy brewing excellent beer to get their website out the door. I have to say that their “Canhead” can design is just the coolest.

Panheads cool can design

Panheads created some totally cool can designs.

Whether or not you’re able to hop a plane and visit the Southern Hemisphere, take the opportunity to seek out and explore New Zealand’s craft beers!—by Nancy Zaffaro, RFT Northwest Wine, Brews, & Spirits Editor

Editor’s note: The annual Oregon Brewers Festival is held in Portland, Oregon, the last weekend in July. Mark your calendar now.

Learn More:

100% Pure New Zealand (official New Zealand tourism site)

Garage Project,

Panhead Custom Ales,


Tuatara Brewery,

Yeastie Boys,

Wellington, the Craft Beer Capital,

Ti Kouka Café and Leeds Street Bakery,

Oregon Brewers Festival

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Nancy Zaffaro

Nancy Zaffaro is a travel and food writer based in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys travel, writing, good food and drink (of course!), cooking, yoga, kayaking, and photography. She’s a long-time writer and editor who has had interesting and varied careers in the arts and in business, and is thrilled to be able to travel the world and write about her adventures. Nancy is also the Editor of