YOUR GUIDE TO NEW ZEALAND’S MOST POPULAR UNPOPULAR BEER STYLE
This article was originally published in the September issue of the Shout NZ.
For a beer style that is responsible for more sales-by-volume in New Zealand than any other style, New Zealand Draught certainly has an underwhelming reputation. In fact, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) – the internationally recognized cataloguer of beer styles – doesn’t even acknowledge New Zealand Draught as an established style. A surprising omission, given that even the infinitely younger and less established style “New Zealand Pilsner” has made the BJCP’s “provisional style” list.
One can almost understand a certain degree of craft beer snobbery when it comes to the way we view many popular styles. Especially when it comes to the overtly bland American Light Lagers of the world, which are (arguably) designed to be as pale and flavourless as possible. But New Zealand Draught is a completely different beer, and though it would still be fair to say that it is not exactly a challenging style, it is by no means a flavourless brew. Moreover, it is a true beer style that evolved over time due to conditions specific to New Zealand, which – in this author’s opinion – makes it a unique Kiwi beer style that is worthy of a certain appreciation.
The actual origins of the style are a bit murky, and there are a few different origin stories floating about, including one belief that the NZ Draught is a descendent of the English Mild. However, what seems most likely is that New Zealand Draught began as the much stronger and more flavourful, Burton Ale and was slowly stripped of its malt flavour and bitterness until it became the beer that we know it as today.
To understand New Zealand Draught, we must first look at what we know about some of New Zealand’s most historical brews. Speights is New Zealand’s oldest brewery, and we know that in the early twentieth century they were known for producing a Burton-style ale that was lauded as being a “beer as fine as those from England”.
In the 1965 book “The Froth-Blowers Manual”, Pat Lawler recalls that “in the early part of the twentieth century there was a time when beer drinkers were divided into two camps of intense rivalry, those who drank Speights and those who didn’t. I remember the time when it was held in awe as a mighty and mystic brew, that’s alcoholic strength was considerable. At first I did not like it. It was too bitter for my young untried palate. When I made a grimace the barmaid told me that I should have it as a Shandy. So next time I called for a Speights I asked for a glass of lemonade with it. Only too soon however, I grew to hate the sweetish, destroying flavour of lemonade, and always called for a Speights straight.”
However, austerity measures during both World Wars, as well as increasing pressures from the temperance movement drove the alcoholic strength of New Zealand’s beers down to approximately 4% ABV. The same pressures resulted in New Zealand’s hotel bars closing at 6pm which led to the infamous “Six O’clock Swill”. Six O’clock Swill was a one hour period between the end of the work day and each bar’s closing time, in which hard working Kiwis would rush to the bar and consume as much beer as possible within this narrow span of time. This restriction was first adopted in New Zealand in 1917 and was not abolished until 1967. The practise would have a profound effect on Kiwi drinking culture as well as New Zealand Draught.
By reducing the amount of malt used to make beer, you don’t just reduce the amount of alcohol in the beer; you also reduce the amount of flavour, body, and colour. As such, many New Zealand breweries began adding caramel for colouring as well as sugar to increase body. Both are practises that are still common today. And with New Zealand’s drinkers forced to throw back as many glasses of beer as possible during this short hour-long drinking session, a smooth, easy drinking beer with a low degree of bitterness and malt flavour was much preferred over other darker, maltier, and/or more bitter options. The advent of the uniquely Kiwi brewing process known as “continuous fermentation” and the eventual addition of lager yeast would lock in the surprisingly consistent parameters for the style. Thus the modern New Zealand Draught was born.
To this day, many New Zealand Draught beer drinkers embrace the style because it was the beer that they developed a taste for all those years ago. Others have perhaps inherited brand loyalty from their fathers. The style also remains popular with many hard-working and sports-loving New Zealanders, for whom the beer’s inherent quaffability makes for a perfect thirst-quencher after a long second half of Rugby or a hard day on the farm.
When it comes to the different brands of New Zealand Draught, preference often has more to do with region and brand loyalty than the minute differences of flavour between each brand, as they are all quite similar beers. That said, there are certainly differences between them and no two New Zealand Draughts are exactly alike. Let us take a look at three of the most popular brands of New Zealand Draught and the unique qualities that set them apart.
Speight’s Gold Medal Ale
Despite the “ale” in its name, Speights Gold Medal Ale is in fact a lager, as virtually all modern New Zealand Draughts are. The story of this beer – or so the bottle reads – begins back in 1880 when New Zealand’s oldest brewery entered their flagship ale (at that time it almost certainly was an ale) into the Melbourne Exhibition where it won two gold medals, earning it the new name of Speight’s Gold Medal Ale. This was likely a Burton Ale-like beer more akin to the one described in Pat Lawler’s Froth Blower’s Manual.
Today, Speight’s is a lovely version of the style, and certainly one of the standards. A crystal clear, light copper beer with a tight white head, the aroma offers subdued notes of honey, bread crust, and very subtle herbal and floral hop aromas. While it’s fair to say that the flavours found in any New Zealand Draught are on the subtle side, notes of soda crackers, bread crust, hay, and a hint of sulphur can be found in Speight’s Gold Medal Ale. While the beer has the characteristically sweet finish one expects in the style, what sets it apart from other examples (at least for this author), is that it has a greater degree of balance between malt sweetness and hops than other examples of the style.
While it’s not clear which brewery first coined the term New Zealand Draught, Dominion Breweries has certainly played an important part in the growth and enduring popularity of the style with their DB Draught and their advent of the continuous fermentation process, which is still used to produce DB Draught to this day.
Slightly darker than Speights and Lion Red, DB Draught is an equally crystal clear, copper beer with the tight white head typical of the style. DB Draught has relatively subdued malt and hop flavours, however its fruity esters, caramel notes, and characteristically sweet finish make it stand out from the pack. It’s easy to see how it earned its reputation as a working-man’s beer.
Said to have first been brewed in 1907 by Lion Brewery, the beer was later christened “Lion Red” by the public due to its red label. Lion Breweries responded by officially changing the beer’s name to Lion Red in the 1980s.
In a pint of Lion Red you can expect to find the clarity, copper colour, tight white head, and the signature sweet finish typically found in other examples of the style. In the aroma you will find pleasant notes of biscuits as well subtle grassy hop aromas. Though the flavours found in any New Zealand Draught are subtle, those found in Lion Red are markedly complex for such a simple beer, with notes of bread crust, caramel, and a hint of chocolate, making Lion Red this author’s favourite example of the style.
New Zealand Draught is unquestionably a uniquely Kiwi brew. It may not be the hippest kid on the block, or the show-pony that so many popular craft beers strive to be. However, for those same reasons it is the favourite drop of many hard working New Zealanders, both young and old. That said, the style is at a transitional point. As one liquor store owner I spoke to explained), “its fans are beginning to literally die off.” However, at the same time, a few nostalgic craft brewers (Fork Brewing and Kainui Brew Co) are – at least occasionally – reintroducing the style to modern beer drinkers, insuring that New Zealand Draught will always have an enduring place in the hearts – and pint glasses – of New Zealanders.