Book Review: Beer Nation, The Art & Heart of Kiwi Beer by Michael Donaldson

Reviewed by guest blogger: Dylan Jauslin

Beer Nation: The Art and Heart of Kiwi Beer
Published by Penguin Books (NZ) 25/07/2012
Format:Misc., 240 pages
RRP:$44.99

I was quite surprised when Malice from the Thirsty Boys asked me to review this book for their blog.  On reflection though, it made sense: none of them had read it or owned a copy.  Talking to a few more people in the beer community, something became very clear: damn near nobody has read it.

Beer Nation: click for publication details

This really is a shame because both as an introduction to and a history of New Zealand beer, I can’t recommend it enough.  Surprisingly little has been written about the New Zealand Beer industry, particularly in recent years and the beer community has been in need of a book like this.

Donaldson takes the reader through the history of beer in this country, starting in the nineteenth century and tracing its growth and evolution (or frequently de-volution), right up to today.  The history is perhaps what I enjoyed the most.  Having come-of-age during the craft beer revolution, I am more than familiar with recent history, but I gleaned many interesting historical facts.  For example Spieght’s was once a strong, bitter, and dry-hopped ale.  Who’ve thought?  Or that Tui, or as it was once known, “Wagstaff’s East India Pale Ale” genuinely was an IPA (albeit a long time ago).

What really struck me though, was how refreshingly partisan the book’s tone was.  Donaldson is clearly a man who enjoys good beer and is not afraid to call out the big breweries (and the Temperance Movement) on their role in blandifying New Zealand beer.  The chapters on the rise of Lion and DB paint a rather unpleasant picture of their history (Doug Meyers I’m looking at you).  Certainly I understand better why Dominic Kelly erects razor wire fences around Hashigo Zake when reps from either of the conglomerates come knocking.  I also have a new-found respect for the likes of Terry McCashin and the like, who dared wave their willies in the face of the corporate duopoly.

Perhaps the most telling sections though are the interviews with contemporary Lion and DB representatives.  Words like ‘beer’, brewing’ and ‘flavour’ conspicuously disappear in favour of terms such as ‘brand’, ‘label’, ‘marketing’ and once, scarily, ‘intellectual property’.[1]  My own views on these matters aside, Beer Nation is a joy to read, particularly the later chapters on the rise of craft beer; and these are the chapters where Donaldson’s passion for good beer really shines through.

If I had to criticise, and I do;[2] I’d say that these later chapters can be a little brief.  In particular, I found the section on Women and beer to be rather, well, cursory.  I got in touch with a few female beer-geeks (a higher proportion of whom had actually read the book unlike their male counterparts), and they said much the same thing, albeit in much stronger language.

This is however, a small fly in an otherwise excellent ointment.  If you or someone you know are looking to get into this craft beer thing you’ve been hearing about then Beer Nation might well be for you.  Certainly it made me thirsty.

**Dylan Jauslin is a bartender at Wellington cult beer bar Hashigo Zake. He writes The Bottleneck beer blog and co writes the Beer Column for Victoria University of Wellington’s student magazine “Salient”.


[1] Also, the word ‘premium’ features heavily in these sections, usually applied to green-bottle shite.  I’m going to start a vendetta against that word by labelling anyone who uses it to describe beer as cretin.  You have been warned.

[2] Seriously, my need to do so is almost pathological.  Just look at my blog.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Beer Nation, The Art & Heart of Kiwi Beer by Michael Donaldson

  1. Dylan J says:

    Reblogged this on The Bottleneck and commented:
    THE THIRSTYBOYS are a mob of Wellington beer enthusiasts often seen at local beer events, usually tucked away in a corner composing Haikus. This is the post I wrote for them as a guest blogger.

  2. […] a more complete history of Sunshine Brewery, I recommend reading Michael Donaldson’s Beer Nation, which has most of a chapter devoted to the brewery. As far as my history with Gizzy goes, five […]

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