Getting to grips with Kiwi beer

Macs gold New Zealand beer

Regular readers (well, two of them at least) have been badgering me for some time to get onto the serious subject of New Zealand’s beer situation. For them, tales of walks and photos of bubbling mud pools hold little interest. No, they read the site with the vain hope that I might get round to actually talking about a subject which they hold dearly to their hearts, that being beer.

It took me over a year of research in Australia to come up with my definitive guide to Australian beer and beer drinking habits. I’ve only been in New Zealand for three months now, but, well, I’ve been researching hard, and here are the fruits of my labour.

Beer and a sunset

To start with, I have learnt that drinking in New Zealand is not a cheap affair. Tax on alcohol is high, and beer, even when bought in supermarkets on “special offer” generally turns out not to be so special. Particularly if you have gotten used to buying crates of German beer for six euros apiece.

So, beer is expensive, with a box of 24 330ml bottles costing at least thirty New Zealand dollars a pop (around £15). And that’s the cheap stuff. If you want to drink anything with an interesting looking label and promises of exotic flavour, then you’re looking at at least twenty to thirty bucks for a case of twelve. Budget minded beer connoisseurs beware!

So, cost is out the way. Let us assume it is no longer an issue. What are the actual beers of New Zealand, and more importantly, are they any good?

Selection of New Zealand beers

Beer in New Zealand falls distinctly into two categories: that which is produced by one of the two major breweries, Lion Nathan and DB Breweries, and that which is produced by microbreweries. Between them the two big players account for around 90% of beer sales in New Zealand, with Lion Nathan holding the lion’s share. (Sorry.)

This hasn’t stopped a serious explosion of micro breweries from selling beer, with that 10% of the market occupied by, at last count, over thirty producers.

Which has made the task of beer sampling somewhat tricky. Most of the microbreweries produce a variety of beers, and most supermarkets carry a wide range of options, making a choice of beer pretty darn difficult (certainly no bad thing!). For today’s post I am focusing on the beer produced by the two main players, Lion Nathan and DB Breweries, as they account for so much of the beer consumed in New Zealand. Further research into the microbrewery options is ongoing.

Tui’s East India Pale Ale

Tui’s is owned by DB Breweries, and this is perhaps their best known beer in New Zealand. Despite the name, it is most definitely not an East India Pale Ale, and is in fact just a lager. A perfectly drinkable lager, I’ll give you that, best served chilled and on a sunny outdoors afternoon.

Can of Tui Beer

It doesn’t taste of too much, and only has an alcohol percentage of around 4%, so I can’t really wax too lyrical about it. On the plus side, it is one of the cheapest beers out there. For a reason I suspect.


Steinlager is possibly the only beer that you would be familiar with, being New Zealand’s main beer export. As is the case with many export beers (Fosters being a great example), it’s not as popular in its home country as it is overseas.

Still, it isn’t shunned (as Fosters often is in Australia), and is a very drinkable international style lager, rocking in at 5%, and somewhat reminiscent of Heineken. It is, as with the rest of the beers I will be telling you about on this page, brewed by Lion Nathan.

Speight’s Gold Medal Ale

Speight’s Gold Medal Ale, whilst being a dark and rich colour as it swirls around the glass, is also not actually an ale. I know, I have no idea what’s going on here either. This one is also a lager, although it does at least have a slightly more interesting flavour than the Tui’s. It is my current regular beer of choice, mostly for budgetary reasons. It’s a light four percent also.

Bottle of Speights Gold Medal Ale

Speight’s, which is owned by Lion Nathan, also produces a number of other beers with tempting sounding names, including Speight’s Old Dark, Speight’s Porter and Speight’s Distinction Ale. Don’t be taken in. They are all lagers. Still, they don’t taste that bad, so don’t dismiss them out of hand for a confusing naming style.

Lion Red
Lion Red is another major beer from Lion Nathan’s. As well as Lion Red, you can get Lion Brown and Lion Ice. The latter is an ice brewed beer - a fairly popular style in New Zealand.

Lion Red isn’t anything special to be honest. It’s perfectly drinkable, but I’d challenge anyone to tell the difference between it and a generic mid strength lager from anywhere else in the world.

Ok, so I’ve ploughed through four of the top beer brands in New Zealand, which, by no co-incidence I imagine, contain three of the cheapest beer options – Steinlager, as a premium beer, costs more.

The story so far, for the most part, is of beers that are good for a spot of sunny afternoon drinking . Beers that fill a need, but that you won’t necessarily be writing home about. Is there anything from the two major brewers that you would write home about then? To answer, here’s a tiny bit of New Zealand brewing history.

Mac’s Gold
Mac’s Gold was created by McCashins brewery – the first microbrewery in New Zealand and the place where the microbrewing craze started back in 1981. Of course, since 1981 things have changed somewhat, and whilst microbrewing is going from strength to strength, the big guns wanted a piece of this action. So the beers that McCashin’s originally produced, sold under the Mac’s brand, were all licensed to Lion Nathan in 1995.

Macs Gold beer bottle with Tongariro National Park in the background

I can’t comment how this changed the taste of the beer, but I am pleased to report that the Mac’s line of beers, despite being owned by a global beer making empire, still have that interesting microbrewery vibe, from quirky packaging through to a full flavour. Classed as a lager, Mac’s Gold has a pleasant malted taste which reminds you that you are actually drinking something memorable.

The Mac’s line of beers comes in six variants, great white, black, sassy red, hoprocker, gold and spring tide. The last of these is a low carb purely organic beer which is delightfully refreshing.

Something for everyone then, from Mac’s, which is available, like all the other beers on this page, pretty much right throughout New Zealand.

In another post I will look into the admittedly more interesting - if somewhat more niche - microbrewing industry in New Zealand. Until then, it’s going to be a combination of Mac’s Gold and Speight’s to see me through. Cheers!

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  1. You can tell you've been gone a while... 24 bottles of beer for £15 is cheap!!!!!

  2. Finally a post I can really relate to!

    So what you're essentially saying is cheap beer is the same no matter where you are?

    May I recommend maybe trying one or two of the more expensive ones (not in crates of 24) to get a real flavour of the NZ beer industry? Imagine you're back in Beer Wharf looking at the menu of what to sample next!

  3. Love the shots with Mt Ngauruhoe in the background!

  4. Sure! I'll send you my bank account details for the sponsored beer
    research ;)

    But seriously, I do intend to try out more of the options, but I think I
    need a pub, ideally attached to a microbrewery, for the full experience.
    And there's a shortage of those round here!

  5. Cheers Matt! I did a special expedition up to the nearby Maori redoubt
    for the shoot ;) No beer was harmed :) Tonight I'm working my way
    through some Mac's Hoprocker, which is a wonderful Pils number. Lovely
    citrusy notes with a Pils bitterness...


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