Conversely, legions of English tourists and ex-pats have derided our colonial brews as freezing, fizzy lemonade. There is clearly a yawning cultural gap here which I shall attempt to bridge in a single blog post.

The way to begin the healing process, as Oprah would probably say though I personally can’t abide her, is to acknowledge that both sides may have a point. Traditional English ale is served at around room temperature though this is by no means warm. Because the carbonation is entirely natural, it has sparkle rather than fizz in terms of bubbles. Finally, classic English ales are indeed relatively moderate in strength with 3-4% quite common.  In combination, these factors mean traditional real ales are often considered the benchmark for session beers. 

In contrast, New Zealand bars tend to serve their beer at a universally cold temperature as Kiwi drinkers largely expect them to. Our beer almost always has added carbon dioxide to increase the bubbles and, as a rule, New Zealand beer has tended to be on the sweet side by international standards. Customers from the Motherland have been known to frequently point out that even today our beer is too cold, has too much head and is “not like they make at home, by thunder.”

While neither side is completely correct in their criticisms, there are clearly different expectations at work about what constitutes a good beer. The way the beer is dispensed at the bar can make a big contribution. Today, the vast majority of taps in New Zealand use gas pressure to force the beer from the keg into the waiting drinker’s glass. This style of pump is easy to use – it is either on or off.

A more old-school dispenser is the beer engine – also known as a hand-pump or hand-pull.  When the long, often ornate handles are pulled down by the pourer it creates suction which pulls the beer from the cellar to the pint with no added gas or air. As a result, the beer arrives at a moderate temperature, has a creamier texture and showcases the full natural flavours of the brew. For the traditionalist, if you can’t get proper cask real ale, this is how a good beer should be served. It avoids what they consider the excessive froth and sharp bite associated with the modern taps.

This style of pouring tends to suit beer styles such as porters, stouts and IPAs.  It does not work for lagers or wheat beers at all.  The Malthouse is one of the few bars in the country to have two working beer engines and these serve a constantly changing range of beers.  In most case, the beers on hand-pull will have been especially brewed with a lower carbonation to suit this particular pouring method. 

One of the serving hazards of a hand-pump is that it does require two to four vigorous pulls to fill a pint. Staff in busy British pubs are often reminded to alternate arms so as to avoid having one arm become noticeably larger than the other. In politically incorrect times this was referred to as “barmaid’s bicep”.

Tuatara Porter and Invercargill Pitch Black are on the Malthouse hand-pumps right now. They taste quite different to the same beers from the bottle or even from tap and are well worth a try.

Invercargill brewer and all-round nice guy Steve (Huggy Bear) Nally has produced his Pitch Black Stout (4.5%) at very low carbonation particularly for beer engine use. Pouring it this way accentuates its already full and creamy body. The nose remains a gorgeous mix of chocolate, toast and smoke. Pitch Black is rightly famous for its depth of flavours which include caramel, chocolate, smoke, liquorice and burnt toast.  It is always a marvellous drop and a real experience off the hand-pull. One opportunity to try it is after the New Zealand Beer Festival at Waitangi Park on Saturday 28 February 2009 from noon to 9pm. There will be over 20 breweries offering over 70 beers including some spectacular craft offerings.  The Malthouse is definitely on your way home if you want to try more great beers. Mention you went to the Beer Festival first and the staff may give you a free impressed look.  Then again, they might not. There are no guarantees in this modern world.


Beer Writer
Real Beer New Zealand
Beer and Brewer Magazine


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