Beer trends

Come into the dark

Craft beer lovers have a new dating profile. And just like in the movies they want to meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger. Preferably one who smells of vanilla, chocolate and coffee. We talk to beer writer Michael Donaldson

Beervana may seem like a distant memory, all the way back in August, but - says beer writer and regular Beervana attendee, Michael Donaldson - there are lessons from the festival we can learn for the summer.

"For the past decade the craft beer narrative has been about hops," says Michael. "Snappy pale ales with crackling bitterness, American-style IPAs bursting with pine sap, cut grass and citrus, Kiwi versions of the same redolent with tropical fruit salad aromas wafting over a luscious bed of caramel malt. These beers have dominated the dialogue".

And not without good reason.

"A juicy, fruity IPA is a thing of beauty, with an addictive bitterness that turns ordinary beer lovers into dedicated hop-heads."

But as flavours go, it's not for everyone, and there have been mutterings of a rebellion for a while in the craft beer community. This year's Beervana witnessed that sea-change, largely due to the introduction of a new app for voting. 

"In years gone by Wellington’s annual August Beervana festival has featured a hotly contested “people’s choice” for the most loved beer," explains Michael. "But a feeling lingered that the award owed more to a “vibe” and the view of a select few passionate enough to bother texting in a vote. This year’s festival featured a great app, linked to Untappd (a social media app for beer lovers), allowing anyone and everyone to lodge a record of not only what beers were sampled but to allocate each drop a star rating from zero to five."

The leaderboard told an interesting and decidedly dark story. In fact, the top ten was dominated by deliciously dark, toffee-like beers, save only for Emerson’s Two Hopsters imperial IPA – a 9 per cent “hop bomb”. 

"On the whole we New Zealanders seem to prefer sweet over tart," says Michael. "This is especially true when it comes to beer; if there’s an anti-hop sentiment about in sugar-toothed Aotearoa, it leans firmly in the direction of sultry, lush beers – preferably aged in an oak barrel with vanilla, cacao and coffee."

In at number one was Van da Tzar by Wellington’s Baylands Brewery which had an average score of 4.39 out of five based on 103 reviews. A Russian imperial stout aged on vanilla pods and weighing in at 10 percent alcohol by volume, it was described as tasting like Tia Maria. Next was Cocoa Wonderland from Thornbridge in the UK, a porter made with cocoa beans. Lakeman Brewing’s Black Jack Stout – aged in rum barrels with the addition of raisins – came third. The trend was clear.

"I’m not for one minute suggesting the golden age of hops is over," says Michael. "But what we’re seeing is a broadening of the beer spectrum towards styles that suit the Kiwi palate. For a long time, many drinkers downunder have associated dark beers with Guinness, which compared to most of the brews discussed here is a light, charry, relatively tame drop. Just as hop-high brews moved the flavour pendulum away from middle of the road, these decadent drops are doing the same for dark beer: from charcoal to chocolate if you like."

So why not switch your allegiance and see the sundown this summer with a sweet, dark delight. 

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