Book Review: Beer Nation: The Art and Heart Of Kiwi Beer (Michael Donaldson: Penguin: ISBN: 978-0-143-56800-1)

While I normally stick to reviewing the beer and whisky themselves I recently was given this book over Christmas by my sister and thought it may be a good idea to expand my range and try some book reviews.

This book covers the history of New Zealand beer and does so with quite impressive range, covering everything from macro to nano breweries. It covers the varied characters that make up the brewing team, the legislation, culture, advertising, beer styles, home brewing and more. As a one stop overview of NZ beer it is comprehensive.

The writing style is very informal, with the emphasis being often on interviews and opinions. Generally tales of a brewery are told in relation to the tales of the owners or the brewers which give a very chatty and easy to read style, which is emphasised with a large amount of photographs over the pages. Also I noticed amongst the actual hard numbers one distinct oddity. Under a heading “A Rough Guide To Market Share” with a breakdown of each groups market share we see a source listed as “Author’s guess”. While I appreciate the honesty it does make me wonder for any numbers given where the source is not listed.

This emphasis on the personalities does sometimes lead to the peoples opinions coming through unchallenged. Notably in the chapters on the larger companies you see tales of the owners taking action for increased profit which are opposed by the workforce and the viewpoint given is that of the owner without a counterpoint. This does seem however to be self aware. In once chapter amongst a description of Myers’ varied business dealing you have a quote on his opinion of the working class as “losers” which does more to bring the rest of his quotes into perspective than a whole page of counterpoints could.

So I would not recommend treating this as a textbook style for reference but on the beer itself the knowledge seems spot on. There is breakdown’s of malt and NZ hop styles, yeast characteristics and discussions of the beers themselves which all seem to match what I would expect.

Where this book shines though is its treatment of beer in relation to the surrounding NZ culture. The most fascinating part of the book for me what a discussion of what was called “The Six O Clock Swill”, back when bars could stay open only an hour after the end of the working day. Combined with various pro temperance groups’ lobbying this had a tremendous effect on the beer and the environment of the beer culture of the time which is described in intricate detail.

As someone who keeps an eye on alcohol legislation this section and later ones on current NZ pricing and legislation wars was fascinating and showed the potential unexpected ramifications that should be of interest to anyone in the beer scene today. One stand out moment was a discussion of Speights – a beer I know only by its poor reputation today. The book shows how in early days the brewery’s beers were very different and experimented in a way comparable to the craft scene of today, and shows how many factors over the years led to the far worse beer we have now. One example, the limit of max abv, and the effects it had give more reason why I oppose any legislation that seeks to affect the brewers and make them more likely to brew within a set abv range.

On the craft scene there are several chapters on the smaller brewers from Epic to Yeastie Boys with a lovingly detailed history of each groups start up, struggles and successes. If nothing else this book will give an idea of many more breweries you wish to sample to see if the beers are even half as characterful as their brewers.

There is a chapter on Women in beer,which I applaud, but half way through the chapter it turned to beer and food. Glancing back I realised that this already small chapter was shared between the two subjects which did seem to undercut its attempts slightly. It does however have the important quote “Breweries don’t want to advertise to women…because they don’t want men to think they’re drinking a girls beer”. A problem that reaches far past NZ, or in fact beer.

Overall a fascinating read which I applaud for it’s emphasis on the culture and personalities of the beer world from advertising to the reputations and influence of beer regions. Its writing style is laid back and very easy on the eye. While it does have the issue slant and statistic issues mentioned before it shows a varied and deep range of knowledge as long as you are willing to keep a critical eye. I would whole heartedly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the NZ beer scene.