Lemon-citrusy, floral, and often full of tropical and stone fruits, New Zealand hops have taken root with passionate devotees not only among the Kiwis, but across the globe. While some offshoot beer categories skyrocket to superstardom only to find equally quick backlash—hello, hazy—the rise of the New Zealand IPA has been a slower burn, perhaps signaling longer staying power. Now well established and with a growing contingent of brewers deploying them, it’s time to get acquainted with the New Zealand IPA.

What is a New Zealand IPA?

First and foremost, New Zealand IPAs are made—at least, in part—with New Zealand hops. They don’t need to be made in New Zealand. There aren’t yet any official standards for the category, leaving some flexibility in approach and flavor. “While the guidelines for New Zealand IPA category are still being written, brewers are experimenting and literally inventing the style,” says Jess Wolfgang, co-founder and brewer of Wanaka, New Zealand’s two year old Rhyme and Reason Brewery. She just asks one thing of all those who begin making it—don’t water down the category with a merely acceptable entrant. “Passable beers piss me off,” Wolfgang says. “I’m trying my hardest to make the best beer in the world, and I’m not going to stop.”

Indeed, there are more New Zealand breweries than ever—the latest tally puts the figure at 218, giving the country the highest per capita count of breweries in the world, at 4.56 breweries per 100,000 people. As such, not only are there differing quality levels, there are also differing, and even conflicting, interpretations of the New Zealand IPA. Still, there are some overall trends to note.

“New Zealand IPAs tend to be on the more sessionable end of an IPA compared to American IPAs, often being 6% ABV and under, with slightly lower bitterness, making them generally well balanced,” says Oli Boyes, the head brewer at Ground up Brewing in Wanaka. “They are maybe more comparable to the American Pale Ale.”

The original influence though was no doubt the American IPA, “with people visiting the states and coming back and putting their own twist on it,” says Joe Peach, a Christchurch, New Zealand native and head brewer at San Diego’s Kairoa Brewing, a New Zealand influenced brewpub. At Kairoa, Peach makes the Tasman Bay Nelson IPA, using a combination of Nelson Sauvin and Southern Cross hops, two New Zealand varieties. It’s an approachable lemon-forward IPA, showcasing white wine notes and gooseberry.

Over the past 10 years, I think we’ve gotten much better at using our local hops and the New Zealand IPA has become really integrated into our craft beer culture as people celebrate the quality of our local ingredients.”

“I believe the New Zealand IPA is more about showcasing the hops,” Wolfgang says. “I enjoy a clean malt profile to highlight the fresh New Zealand hops. I select a neutral yeast that performs well but produces next to no esters, again, I really want those hops to shine. Some brewers enjoy a more malt-forward IPA. A lot of the IPAs on the South Island have high additions of caramel malt.”

Case in point, while Wolfgang prefers a simple grain recipe, her neighbor in Wanaka, Boyes, believes New Zealand IPAs trend toward the usage of more complex malts. Simply put, it’s an evolving field.

The Rise of the New Zealand IPA

Sawmill Brewery, located in Matakana, north of Auckland has been open since 2004, with the brewery among the first 20-or-so craft operators in the country. That gives Sutherland a unique perspective on how the scene, and the New Zealand IPA, has evolved. “Over the past 10 years, I think we’ve gotten much better at using our local hops and the New Zealand IPA has become really integrated into our craft beer culture as people celebrate the quality of our local ingredients,” Sutherland says.

Boyes looks at three beers in particular which pushed the New Zealand IPA from the fringes towards the center of New Zealand craft beer culture around six to seven years ago. “I think the real industry changes we saw were due to three main beers: HopWired from 8 Wired, Sauvin Bomb from Liberty Brewing, and Pernicious Weed from Garage Project,” he says. “All of these are 100% New Zealand hopped, and up until that point people almost disregarded New Zealand hops as being any good for IPAs.”

Garage Project is widely regarded as one of the most experimental, and one of the leading, New Zealand craft breweries. Based in Wellington, the brewery released approximately 500 different beers in its first seven years. The brewery even hosted a hops bonanza this April, the Hāpi Festival & Symposium, which sprouted as an idea from their mission of building a direct hop supply in conjunction with Freestyle Farms in Nelson.

New Zealand Hops Production

New Zealand’s Marlborough region is noted for its wine, in particular its Sauvignon Blanc. The adjacent town of Nelson is the origin of the most widespread variety of New Zealand hops: Nelson Sauvin. “The Sauvignon Blanc of hops,” Sutherland says. “Big gooseberry aroma and flavor.” The hop variety is indeed noted to share characteristics with its namesake grape, perhaps owing to the terroir of the region, and a side-by-side sniff of a New Zealand IPA with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will quickly reveal as much.

Nelson Sauvin has grown so much in demand that the once accessible hop has become scarce. “They can’t grow enough of it,” Peach says, citing a waiting list that can be years in length. Breweries today are commonly tracking them down through a friendly fellow brewer’s supply rather than trying to go straight to the source.

Beyond Nelson Sauvin there’s a growing list of popular alternatives, such as Motueka, Riwaka, Kohatu, and Wai-iti. “There are multiple varieties being used in New Zealand,” Wolfgang says. “Citrus and pine are common flavors, with a lot of varieties showcasing different stone fruit and tropical notes. Some of the most popular varieties have citrus-lemon and lime.”

“We have an amazing array of bittering hops too, such as Dr Rudi, Southern Cross and Pacific Jade,” Boyes says. “All in all we have around 21 varieties, but we have new varieties coming on stream soon. A really exciting new hop, currently called HORT4337, is my pick to be the next big hop coming from New Zealand. HORT4337 is a classic display of New Zealand terroir, initially dank, leading into big bold passion fruit and citrus.” 

According to Peach, “They’re continuing to come out with new varieties. You’ll start to see more New Zealand hop varieties, and ones designed to be used in IPAs.” That’s good news for everyone. The aforementioned Freestyle Farms is the largest producer of New Zealand hops, and broke away from its farm co-op, New Zealand Hops Limited. It’s now been purchased by a La Jolla-based investment company, giving Peach, and the rest of San Diego’s bustling beer scene, a local pipeline to the good stuff.

The Future of the New Zealand IPA

While the first major movers and shakers among New Zealand IPAs may have been 100% New Zealand hopped, while, as mentioned, they don’t have to be. In fact, New Zealand hops and American hops tend to play quite nicely together. “US and New Zealand hops are a great marriage of flavors,” Wolfgang says. “The big resinous US varieties can be balanced with the cleaner New Zealand varieties and make interesting beers with huge, complex flavors. I believe using both US and New Zealand varieties in a creative way can bring some beautiful beers to life.”

One tried and true combination is Citra with Nelson. “Together it’s very tropical fruit forward, gooseberry, with the Nelson having the white wine character, and Citra making it a little bit piney,” Peach says.

“If hops are described musically, then a song—beer—must provide a well-balanced sound—taste,” Boyes says. “For me the Mt. Alpha hops display perfect ‘treble’ notes—lifted floral, citrus—while the American hops often display the perfect ‘bass’ elements—big and grunty, pine, resinous—for the song to be balanced.” Of course, the story of the New Zealand IPA—or the song, as it were—is still being written. “Our industry is growing extremely quickly, we have new hop farms coming on line, and exciting new varieties. All in all, this could become outdated very quickly! And that’s a good thing, we love change!”

This article was originally published on May 16, 2019 in the now defunct beer publication October, Oct.co.