The beer trends bubbling away in NZ: From the hazy craze to the misunderstood

Here are the trending beers you need to give a crack, at the very least.
Here are the trending beers you need to give a crack, at the very least. Photo credit: Supplied

New Zealanders have been indulging in ice-cold pale ale for nearly 150 years and, while still immensely popular, maybe you're like me and looking for a change.

What better way to put my tastebuds to the test than the 2023 New World Beer and Cider Awards, while one of the country's top beverage pundits talks me through each offering and why they're trending in New Zealand?

The beers I tasted were all entered in the awards, but neither I nor my resident beer expert - chair of judges Michael Donaldson - had any idea what brands they were.

But what we did know was the type of beer we were indulging in so I could get a sense - and taste - of why they're trending and how they're making Kiwi consumers tick.

From the hazy craze to the drop that surprised me the most, here are (in no particular ranked order) the trending beers you need to put your stale, pale, mainstream lager down for and give a crack, at the very least.

Trend 1 

"You're getting [an] understanding of techniques, lifestyle and a demand," explained Donaldson as I took in the aroma of the first beer I was about to sample.

That beer, it turns out, is non-alcoholic.

Non-alcoholic beer, which has evolved in New Zealand over the past couple of years, is actually "really hard" to make, Donaldson said.

The trend largely took off when global giant Heineken unveiled its 0.0 percent beer in 2019. One US brand, Athletic Brewing Co, solely sells non-alcoholic craft beer.

New Zealand names have caught on, with even our beloved Speight's producing its own 0.0 percent Summit range. Kiwi craft breweries to have jumped on the bandwagon include Garage Project, Sawmill and Bach Brewing.

It's a bit easier for the big players, Donaldson explained. They can afford the expensive equipment that strips the alcohol from the beer.

But the smaller breweries have become more equipped to produce non-alcoholic beer through newer, more natural methods. Thus, non-alcoholic beer is beginning to boom amongst Kiwis brewers - and the consumers continue to lap it up.

"It used to be the domain of the Heinekens and the Peronis and those big European breweries," said Donaldson. "It really is a global trend now and this move to zero and non-alc… you're out, you don't want to drink and drive so you drink a 'zero'. And they're slowly moving to the, 'Actually, I don't mind having a 'zero' because they taste a little better'."

Growing health consciousness has also led many New Zealanders to reach for a beer they consider a better choice, Donaldson said - sans alcohol. 

As a result, the trend is set to gain even greater prominence over the coming years, he said.

"It's this, 'Hey, you can drink beer and enjoy your life'. You don't have to worry about being hungover… this fits my lifestyle.

"Craft breweries are now in a space where they can achieve the result that the punters want."

Michael Donaldson.
Michael Donaldson. Photo credit: Supplied

Trend 2

Speaking of another beer that fits a particular lifestyle, the low carb - a personal favourite of mine and making up about 5 percent of entries at this year's awards - presented itself to me at the tasting table.

According to Donaldson, people often choose this option because they still want to enjoy an alcoholic beer - but they could be on a keto diet or have a serious health condition like type 1 diabetes.

Therefore, the low-carb option can give people some pleasure in what otherwise might be a challenging lifestyle, Donaldson said.

"It's also giving people what they want… people want reduced sugar in everything so why not beer?"

Technology has also allowed low-carb beer to evolve in New Zealand, he noted. "It's technology matching up to lifestyle."

Table captain Tracy Banner tastes an entry at the 2023 New World Beer and Cider Awards.
Table captain Tracy Banner tastes an entry at the 2023 New World Beer and Cider Awards. Photo credit: Supplied

Trend 3

Moving on to the next trend, a beer my acquaintances began indulging in at university (yes, students do drink beer that's not Speight's) that I couldn't quite get my head around is the hazy.

And making that move from a pale ale to a hazy can be a big leap to take, Donaldson explained - which is why my tastebuds possibly couldn't handle such a sophisticated drop while "studying". 

Hazy, which had 140 entries, is a flavour that continues to progress, Donaldson said. And it requires a bit of experimentation - for brewer and consumer alike.

So why do people love it so much?

"It's just flavour," Donaldson explains. "It's just really good flavour and it's about getting those qualities out of hops that have always been there but people didn't necessarily know how to extract them."

Getting the best out of the hops is what gives hazy flavours he likened to passionfruit, peach, pineapple and sweet citrus fruit.

For Donaldson, the aroma and texture are also attractions.

"[People] like the texture because it's sort of soft and creamy… as a rule, they tend to be more sweet than bitter. Beer has always been regarded as bitter - your classic 'English bitter' - but as a rule, humans don't love [the] bitterness."

The beer trends bubbling away in NZ: From the hazy craze to the misunderstood
Photo credit: Supplied

Now for trend 4: And what on Earth is this?

After all that hard work tasting three beers my tastebuds are pretty well accustomed to, it's now time to move on and enjoy (or hate) something I've never tried before. The… sour?

According to Donaldson, the fruit-flavoured sour beer is another growing trend, aiming to speak to a market that doesn't traditionally consume the brew.

"The whole thing with sours is they really appeal to people who may normally drink wine or cider… beer is traditionally bittersweet, is the combo, and this is sweet-sour," he explained.

So, how does this red-coloured beer taste?

"I don't know what to make of that because… It doesn't really taste like beer," I remark after losing my sour V-card. "I don't mind the flavour, though - I don't mind the flavour at all.

"It's almost somewhere between a beer, a wine and a cider."

Donaldson said consumers were also attracted to the slightly acidic taste of a sour beer.

"They layer it with fruit and you get that expressive colour - [it's] a whole other ballgame."

The beer trends bubbling away in NZ: From the hazy craze to the misunderstood
Photo credit: Supplied

Trend 5

Finally, what about dark beer? The kind folk at the New World Beer and Cider Awards handed me a "misunderstood" flavoured stout to sample.

"I think people have, as a rule, an aversion to dark beers for whatever reason. Historically, they think they're heavy, they think of Guinness which is a bit ashy, burnt… [and] bitter."

With all that being said, I - who has consumed very few dark beers in my almost 28 years - was pleasantly surprised by the stout's taste: sweet, fruity and smooth.

"What we're getting is the same trend that we're seeing in hazy's and it's a move to sweetness," Donaldson said.

"It's not bitter, not charry… So you're getting smooth, chocolate and raspberry [flavours] - who doesn't like that?"

About the New World Beer and Cider Awards

Twenty-nine elite beer experts converged on Christchurch last week for the awards, hoping to give Kiwis the answer as to what is New Zealand's best brew.

The judging took place over two days, consisting of up to 3000 glasses filled with 700 different beers and ciders.

Results will be announced in May and the highest-ranked entries will make the top 30 list, which will all subsequently make their way into New World supermarket chillers around New Zealand.

Another 70 "highly commended" brews will also be recognised, rounding out the top 100 list.