Introduction –
In the run into Christmas, we reviewed a number of beers appropriate to the winter season – Winter beers are usually a bit above average in strength, and usually a bit fuller in body.

For a change of pace, this week’s beers are a little different – in fact, one is about as different from Winter Warmers as we can get.  This week’s two beers are from the Southern Hemisphere – New Zealand, to be precise.  The first – Monteith’s Original Ale, is a pale ale at 4.0% a.b.v.  The second – recently sampled over the last few days as I sat in my Bermuda shorts and t-shirt on a deck chair on my front lawn – is Monteith’s Summer Ale.

Big, Little Beers –

Craft brewed beers has been a ‘buzz-word’ in brewing circles in the last twenty years or so.  The term ‘Craft Brewing’ refers to the size of the batch of beer, and the amount of beer that is produced by the brewery in question.  In Ireland, an ‘upper limit’ of 20,000 hectolitres (2,000,000 litres of beer per annum – 4,000,000 standard 50 litre kegs, or about 250,000 cases of 24x330ml bottles) on craft breweries.  In England, a ‘small’ craft brewery is considered to be one with output below 5,000 hectolitres, but breweries up to 60,000 hectolitres still technically qualify as craft breweries.  While this sounds like a lot of beer – definitely more than you would go through in a party over a weekend!! – in the scheme of things, compared to global breweries, the above figures would represent a small fraction of a percentage of a large breweries annual output.

Craft brewing has also become a term for a category, or ‘mother style’ of beer.  Typically, craft brewed beer is more flavourful and more distinctive in character.  There are two reasons why this has come about.

The first reason is an inevitability – what happens when a small brewery becomes successful?.  Either it gets bigger, in which case defining craft brewed beer by brewery output means that the same beer would no longer ‘qualify’ as being craft brewed beer, even though the recipe may not have changed.  Otherwise it refuses to sell beer to demanding and loyal customers.  The only breweries that I can think of that have opted for this option are Trappiste breweries, where the ethos of production is driven more by religious considerations than commercial considerations.  In reality, in most cases, successful small breweries become bigger.

The second reason why the term ‘craft brewed beer’ has emerged as a style rather than a reference to scale of brewing is a marketing reason.  Some breweries – most notably, Samuel Adams, in the U.S., have marketed their beer as being craft brewed, even though, when they started, the Boston Beer Company did not own a brewery, and all Samuel Adams was brewed in a number of larger regional breweries across the U.S.  These beers were designed and styled to have more flavour than the average mass market beer – hence the justification for calling them craft-brewed beers.  However, in the case of some successful ‘craft brewed beers’, they were never brewed on a craft scale, except, perhaps, in a new product development laboratory.

Looking at the history of brewing, originally, all beer was craft brewed.  It was only when the Industrial Revolution took hold that brewers realised that brewing on a large industrial scale would significantly reduce costs of production.  Progressing as all things seem to do, Industrial brewers pursued their goal of cost reduction to the ‘nth’ degree introducing chemicals into the brewing process to improve efficiencies, yields, process times, and to, ultimately, to continue to reduce the cost of brewing beer.  Moving forward, these brewers also came to realise that there was an opportunity in reducing flavour in beer – removing flavours which statistical market research indicated were undesireable from the mass market’s perspective.  Systematically, they brewed beers at the lowest cost, with limited flavour, and increasingly clever marketing methods were used to secure loyalty to their beer brands.

Is the above a criticism of large breweries?  No.  It is an interesting observation as to how things have developed over the last few hundred years.  To propose the above as a criticism would be to suggest that the millions of people who have displayed loyalty to mass market brands over the last number of decades were not entitled to choose the beer that they wanted to drink – this is an absurdity, as the best person to judge what is a good beer to them is the person themselves.

However, as mass market beers continued to proceed in the same direction, and as the limited size of shelves and bar counters meant that the beers available were increasingly similar, a demand emerged for something different.  In countries with a long, historic beer culture, such as England, this demand remained as a background loyalty to regional breweries in the face of continuing advances of global brewing giants.  In the case of countries with a relatively new beer culture – such as the U.S., the demand for unusual, and more distinctive beers emerged in the form of the Craft Brewing Movement.

As craft brewed beers proceeded to establish themselves in markets across the world, taking initially (for example) a few percentage points of the U.S. market, and ultimately moving on to service double digit percentages of the entire U.S. market, big brewers stood up and took notice.  Initially, they tried to brew their own ‘craft brewed’ beers – initial attempts at this proved to be unsuccessful, as the big brewery culture did not allow for the eccentricities that are sometimes required to brew more creative beers.

The next step was to attempt to take over successful craft breweries, and run them the ‘big brewery’ way.  After all, if big breweries were as successful as they were, surely when they showed the small breweries how to do it, they would make them more successful too?  Wouldn’t they?  The reality was that big brewery culture tended to dominate and overwhelm the small brewery, and the ‘essence’ of what made the small brewery successful was often lost as a result.

The third approach was to take a large (but not controlling) stake in the small brewery, and to trust that the brewery would continue to be successful.  This has had some success, but takes a quantum leap in the thinking of the average publicly quoted company.

Monteith’s –

Monteith’s brewery in New Zealand was originally established in 1868.  In 1969, the brewery was taken over by DB Breweries in New Zealand – one of two key players in the brewing market in New Zealand.  DB Breweries was, in turn, taken over by Asia Pacific Breweries in 2004.  Asia Pacific Breweries is a joint venture with Heineken International as the main partner (42%).  Asia Pacific Breweries is quoted on the Singapore Stock Exchange.

Given its parentage, Monteith’s definitely falls into the classification of being a ‘Big Little Beer’.  The Monteith’s range of beers is brewed to be flavourful, and distinct from mass market beers.  Their web-site is subdued in any reference to the involvement in the ownership of the brewery by global multinationals.  It would appear that the goal for Monteith’s is for it to maintain its own identity and personality, and for the beers to be brewed to support this goal.

As can sometimes happen when large corporations become involved in ‘small’ breweries, Monteith’s is no stranger to the conflict that can arise between the corporations Finance and Accounting departments, and the loyalty and sense of identity that the people who live locally to the brewery associate with their brewery.  On March 22nd 2001, DB Breweries, having completed a cost assessment, came to the conclusion that it was not viable (cost effective) to continue to brew Monteith’s in the Monteith’s brewery in Greymouth, New Zealand.  The brewery was closed.  There was an immediate public outcry – so significant that the Corporate owner of Monteith’s reversed the decision only four days later, and re-opened the brewery.  Monteith’s now continues to be brewed in Greymouth, but also in Auckland and Timaru.

Interestingly, this is not the only instance where this has happened in a brewery strongly associated with a particular town or region – when Inbev (the world’s largest brewing conglomerate) decided that it was no longer appropriate to brew Hoegaarden in the town of Hoegaarden, the public outcry was such that they had no choice but to reverse the decision, and re-open the brewery.

Monteith’s Original Ale –

Beer Style -  Pale Ale
Alcohol by Volume -  4.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by -  Monteith’s Brewing Company
Brewed in -  Greymouth, Auckland and Timaru, New Zealand.

Described as a Pale Ale, this beer presents in colour more as an amber – a touch darker than what one would expect from a pale ale, and verging on red / brown in colour (the darker end of the amber spectrum).

On the aroma, the most notable feature is a brown or burnt sugar note on the nose.  This is quite distinctive in the aroma, and as one smells the beer some more, it develops into caramelised sugar or burnt toffee – all part of the same aroma family, but each one layered on the next in a most interesting way.

Monteith’s Original is relatively low in a.b.v. at 4.0%.  As such, one would not expect an over-poweringly flavourful beer, or a rich, full bodied beer.  Original Ale is neither of these – easily drinkable, but with its own distinctive character on the palate.  The brown sugar flavour comes through on the palate, but the aftertaste leaves a subtle, dilute blackcurrant character – probably developed during the fermentation.

Overall, Monteith’s Original Ale is superbly drinkable, and, while light bodied, must be described as an easy-drinking beer with its own distinctive character.  This is an example of how flavour can be built into a relatively low a.b.v. beer, resulting in a beer that is in no way over-powering, but still with its own pleasing character that sets it apart from mass market counter-parts at the same alcohol strength.

Monteith’s Summer Ale –

Beer Style -  Summer Seasonal Ale / Honey Beer
Alcohol by Volume -  5.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by -  Monteith’s Brewing Company
Brewed in -  Greymouth, Auckland and Timaru, New Zealand.

Monteith’s Summer Ale is a seasonal beer from the Monteith’s brewery.  As the name would suggest, it is the perfect beer to enjoy in the months of December and January – maybe more so, if you are in the Southern Hemisphere rather than in Ireland!!

Summer Ale presents with a distinctly golden colour.  The aroma, however, makes this beer stand out quite significantly.  Notes of perfume, sweet grapefruit, spicy ginger sit on a backrground di-methyl sulphide (DMS) beer aroma character (cooked corn / creamed corn).  This aroma is quite clearly evident – the complexity of aroma may make it difficult to segregate the constituent parts, but overall, one can’t deny that this is an aromaful beer, in a most distinctive way.

In keeping with the ethos of craft brewed beers, the flavour of Monteith’s Summer Ale is distinctive, and clearly designed around the idea of a summer beer.  Honey notes (from rata honey used in the beer) combine with a distinctive background ginger character.  On the palate, these flavours develop as being the base for the perfume character of the aroma.  A slightly acidic aspect to this flavour combines with a mouthfeel of sweet honey syrup.  DMS (creamed corn) is present in the background behind this honey character – not unusual, as this particular flavour is a flavour that can be prevalent in many lighter coloured beers, and most people have a very low flavour threshold (it can be detected at concentrations as low as 20 to 150 ppb – parts per billion) for this quality.

There is no doubt that the character of this beer will divide people – exactly as beers full on character should do.  It is perfectly suited to summer month drinking – no surprise given that it is a summer seasonal.  Summer Ale also completely side-steps the temptation that some brewers brewing summer ales might have to reduce flavour, and to focus on drinkability and refreshment.  Lovers of Summer Ale sing its praises, but the perfume character of the aroma is something that drinkers need to expect, as it is unmistakeably distinctive.  Overall, a beer with a range of complexity that works well as a summer beer.