Way back in 2019, when stepping into a restaurant didn’t require proof of a minor medical procedure and you could fearlessly lick a door handle, I started a PhD. My thesis aimed to understand the relationship between geographic proximity and craft brewery innovation in New Zealand. Over a series of articles, I shall be delineating what I found while conducting my research, and maybe making a few suggestions for industry practitioners.

The first step in many PhDs is to tightly define your topic. For me, that meant defining what a craft brewery is. In New Zealand, we don’t do a great job of defining a craft brewery; there is no rigid industry standard. Though, I notice in online beer groups that some people are comfortable claiming certain breweries aren’t craft. Breweries set up or acquired by Lion, DB or Independent are usually at the receiving end of such an argument. And just recently I noticed someone suggest that Moa isn’t a craft brewery. Towards understanding what it means to be a craft brewery in New Zealand, I spoke with 24 brewers from 21 breweries, across six regions. In this article, I discuss how those brewers perceived a craft brewery.

As with many things in craft brewing, looking to the US is a good starting point. The American Brewers Association uses four characteristics for determining the craft status of a brewery. The first is independence – when more than 25 per cent of a brewery is owned by a corporation, it cannot be considered craft. The second is size – if a brewery produces more than six-million barrels (700 million litres) of beer per annum, it cannot be considered craft. The third is innovation – craft breweries brew without precedent, and continually produce new beers. And fourth is community – craft breweries engage in local philanthropy and sponsorships. Broadly, the brewers I spoke with agreed with this position but expressed more nuance.

For example, most brewers considered independence to be a defining characteristic of craft breweries in New Zealand. For some, independence is strictly defined by the absence of corporate ownership, meaning breweries such as Mac’s, Monteith’s, Boundary Road, Tuatara, Panhead or Emerson’s would be prohibited from the craft designation. The said corporate ownership diminishes craft status for two reasons: 1) New Zealand’s corporate breweries are owned overseas, meaning a portion of generated profits are expatriated into other countries, and 2) Corporate ownership diminishes agency, meaning acquired craft breweries are less flexible and innovative. I have seen little evidence of the latter, but it is a perception that exists in the industry.

Emerson's tasting flight

Is Emerson’s a craft brewery?

Other brewers took a softer approach to independence. They argued a corporately-acquired craft brewery could retain the craft designation, if the original brewing team was preserved. That suggests the craft designation is associated with the brewing team, rather than the brewery itself. If the original brewing team were to leave the brewery following a corporate acquisition, then the craft moniker may be lost. I imagine if Richard Emerson had left Emerson’s following the acquisition by Lion in 2012, the brewery would be viewed rather differently today.

The third perspective on independence was voiced by only two brewers: they argued that corporate acquisition itself does not prevent a brewery from being able to identify as craft. But if the quality of beer produced diminished post-acquisition, then the craft designation becomes less tenable.

Brewers I spoke with also defined craft breweries by size.

Size is easily defined in the American context by a production ceiling of six million barrels per annum (adjusted for New Zealand’s population, that’s around 10 million litres per annum). We have no such ceiling in New Zealand, meaning brewers I spoke with defined craft breweries as small without an indication of what small means – only that craft breweries are typically smaller than corporate ones. As a result, this is a meaningless comparison, though there is some authority on the issue from the Brewers Guild. Scaling their membership types based on production levels, the Brewers Guild states a brewery that produces fewer than 50,000 litres per annum is classed as a micro-brewery. Between 50,001-200,000 litres is considered small. A medium-sized brewery will produce between 200,001 and 2 million litres, and anything greater than that value is considered a large brewery. Stringently applying these production markers to the craft beer industry would create a clear divide between small and large breweries, which could be used as a proxy for craft. However, it would likely render high-volume breweries such as Garage Project and Good George as non-craft. Besides, using volume as a marker for determining craft status doesn’t hold up internationally. If we take a quick jaunt over to my motherland, we can see that BrewDog is considerably larger than most (likely all) corporate breweries in Europe. Even so, they still enjoy the craft status in the eyes of beer consumers.

It was also expressed to me that craft brewery smallness is reflected by an absence of automation in the brewing process.

In a corporate brewing environment, virtually every stage of brewing is automated. Whereas in a craft environment, there is considerably more ‘hands-on’ work. This is a kind of romantic view of a brewery where you can imagine beer being produced in a manual and analogue way. It also gets to the nuts and bolts of what craft means – skilled production using your hands. Yet, in my travels around New Zealand, I noticed that automation is creeping into many craft breweries. Almost everyone I spoke to was in the process of buying a centrifuge. Automation is a necessary consequence of growth, and I don’t castigate any craft brewer for introducing automation. What is unclear is when, or if, too much automation diminishes the craft designation.

Brewers in New Zealand also resonated with innovation.

Virtually everyone I spoke with considered their craft brewery to be innovative. Innovation takes on a few different forms, with the most obvious to consumers being the swathes of new and interesting beers that appear on bottle shop shelves each week. But innovation also represents new processes and brewing techniques at the backend of the brewery. Those innovations are geared towards improving beer quality and lowering the cost of production.

Craft brewery innovation is also represented by collaboration. Again, as consumers, we are familiar with collaboration beers. I will discuss collaboration brewing in an upcoming article but, in short, collaboration brewing isn’t always especially collaborative. Several brewers I spoke with aspired to deeper levels of collaboration, including sharing marketing resources and campaigning for legislative change. Unfortunately, the same brewers explained they lack the time necessary for such collaboration.

Interestingly, two brewers I spoke with went against the grain and argued that craft breweries aren’t innovative. Instead, they said craft breweries are good at quickly replicating beer styles, and replication is not the same as innovation. Looking at the meteoric rise of the hazy IPA, we can see that mimicking trends is common in the craft brewing space. In my opinion, mimicry can be innovative, so long as a brewery puts its own twist on a beer.

Ideas of being community-oriented are viewed differently by brewers in New Zealand.

A couple of brewers I spoke with resonated with the American Brewers Association’s view of the craft brewery in the community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those brewers were US-born. Contributing to a local community can be a charitable act, but it also makes sense from a commerce perspective; craft breweries, especially in the early years of operation, depend greatly on local commerce, so it does well to be a good neighbour and contribute to the community. For Kiwi brewers, community focuses mainly on the idea that craft brewers exist in a professional community, a community that is centred on cooperation and support, giving the craft brewing industry a kind and friendly appearance, in my opinion.

But, as I shall explain in the next article, that sense of community would likely not exist if it were not for corporation breweries.

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