From the easygoing rural town of Waipu to the emerging breweries of Waiheke Island, this hoppy journey in and around New Zealand's most exciting and cosmopolitan city is the perfect introduction to the country's excellent craft beer scene.
Located in a restored heritage post office, New Zealand's most northerly craft brewery may celebrate a Scottish name recalling the 19th-century colonial settlers who settled this rugged, coastal farming region, but the beers produced by American-born head brewer Jason Bathgate are anything but stuffy and old-fashioned. Try the Longboarder lager after an afternoon bodysurfing the waves at nearby Waipu Cove – the refreshing and crisp brew is even better with a wood-fired pizza from McLeod's onsite restaurant – and ask what local ingredients are currently being harnessed for seasonal brews. Especially good is the use of indigenous horopito 'bush pepper' in the brewery's rich and malty Trader's Scotch Ale.
Heading south from Waipu to Matakana, you've got a couple of options. Either zip down SH1 to the junction town of Warkworth, or take the coastal scenic route around the sleepy coves of Langs Beach and Mangawhai Heads. After about an hour, both routes will reveal the rustic Sawmill Brewery's rural location. Settle on a five-beer tasting paddle – the zingy XPA (Extra Pale Ale) is packed with zesty New Zealand hops – and definitely order food from the excellent menu of shared plates. Loyal locals ensure signature dishes like barbecue goat with hummus and flatbread are mainstays, but the savvy chefs also play around with seasonal flavours and ingredients. There's good cottage accommodation around Matakana, and the town's Saturday morning riverside farmers market is one of New Zealand's best.
Named after the Maori word for 'one', Warkworth's Tahi Bar was one of New Zealand's first craft beer bars, and opened back in early 2008 after co-owner Ian Bruce returned from lots of in-depth 'research' in the bars and pubs of Germany, homeland of his wife Silke. Check out the cool beer taps crafted from gleaming engine manifolds – including one from a suitably Germanic Porsche 928 – and chill in the funky garden bar filled with rustic wooden furniture and quirky art and design. Ian's a big supporter of local brews, so you'll usually find a McLeod's beer from nearby Waipu on tap, and there's always a few top drops from Warkworth-based 8 Wired Brewing. Their exceptionally well-travelled beers are regularly featured at the planet's hippest beer bars from San Francisco to Singapore. Nice work, Warkworth.
There's more subtle German influence around 45 minutes south at the Hallertau Brewery in Riverhead. The brewery is named after Bavaria's prime region for growing hops, and the bustling bier garten is a brilliant place to while away a few pleasant hours on a weekend afternoon – especially if there's live music or a DJ adding to the occasion. Hallertau's another well-regarded pioneer of Kiwi craft beer – the brewery was first established in 2005 – and their core range conveniently labelled Hallertau 1 to Hallertau 5 is popular in the restaurants of nearby Auckland. While you're at the brewery though, take the opportunity to team a seasonal or one-off brew with the excellent wood-fired flavours emanating from Hallertau's open kitchen.
With four excellent beer bars within a small radius – also check out the Uptown Freehouse and Hopscotch – the area around Galbraith's and Brothers Beer is a great place to stay for craft beer visitors to Auckland. Check in to one of the neighbourhood's excellent heritage B & B's before making the pilgrimage to Galbraith's, housed in a former library, and a hub of independent brewing since 1996. The emphasis at Galbraith's is on classic beer styles, including New Zealand's favourite English bitter and Czech pilsner, but they also have some of Auckland's best pub food including great Sunday roast dinners during the cooler months. Check out what's on across the road at The Power Station, and you might get lucky and see your favourite UK or American New Wave band from the 1980s in concert. If they're in town, that's where they'll be playing.
With three locations around the city, Brothers Brewery is a real Auckland success story, and their Juke Joint location in a former leather factory is a firm favourite with the residents of the leafy inner suburb of Mt Eden. Brothers' own beers are brewed on site, but they're also big fans of other New Zealand brewers. Grab a spot amid the retro lounge furniture – mainly from the 1970s – and order food from the adjacent American-style barbecue Juke Joint eatery. Of course the deep-fried tater tots are ridiculously addictive, and other menu highlights include smokey brisket and unctuous pork ribs. If you're travelling with children, Brothers also has a popular sandpit and kids' playground for them to let off steam in.
Another Auckland success story, Deep Creek have expanded from their North Shore roots in Brown's Bay, and now have three bars around town. Catch a car ferry either from Auckland's Wynyard Quarter or the eastern suburb of Half Moon Bay, and set sail for Waiheke Island. Just an hour from Auckland, Waiheke's irresistible combo of coastal walks, vineyard restaurants and art galleries has now been joined by a hoppy collection of craft breweries. With ocean views, located in the island's main settlement of Onetangi, Deep Creek's Cove Bites & Brews attracts Waiheke locals (and their well-behaved dogs), and a growing array of Aucklanders on relaxing escapes from the big smoke. Innovation rules at Deep Creek, and there's always an interesting selection of seasonal and experimental brews.
Sorry, there are no ocean views at Boogie Van – Waiheke's smallest brewery is located in prosaic surroundings in a light industrial area – but the bold and hoppy brews crafted by former San Francisco and Colorado resident Rick Paladino are well worth seeking out. Because of licensing laws, Rick's not allowed to sell beer over the bar, but free tastings (and subsequent tips) are encouraged, and visitors are able to buy full bottles to takeaway. Befitting Rick's US West Coast roots and his love of music, standout brews include Paranoid Pale Ale and Tres Brujas IPA, named respectively after heavy metal songs by Black Sabbath and The Sword from Austin, Texas.
It's a safe bet big guitar riffs and even bigger vocals from Ozzy Osbourne have never featured at Tantalus Estate, just a short drive from Boogie Van's rocking location. But it does have a speakeasy style with old world charm and new world brews. One of Waiheke's newest vineyard restaurants is also one of the island's most impressive, and the stunning dining room is excellent for trying beers made onsite by the Alibi Brewing Company. Don't expect the big and bold flavours along the road at Boogie Van, but Alibi's range includes a food-friendly NZ Pale Ale packed with tropical fruit flavours, and a cleansing Pilsner that's perfect following a day at the beach, or after riding the exciting zipline at nearby EcoZip Adventures. And in the spirit of innovation forever washing over New Zealand craft brewing, Alibi's past seasonal beers have included a soured watermelon brew infused with oysters from Waiheke's Te Matuku Bay.