Tuatara Pilsner’s new origin story

Tuatara 'Mot Eureka' (Pōneke, 26 October 2017)
Tuatara Pilsner — I still can’t quite bring myself to say the other name

I had three beers yesterday — all of them pilsners and two of them that one right there from Tuatara. Shortly before they were bought out by DB / Heineken, they changed its name to ‘Mot Eureka’ and gave it a new look. I’m not at all a fan of either move,1 but it was still tasting lovely and it was nice to get reacquainted with what once was the default beer of Wellington.2 I couldn’t help notice, though, that the new blurb on the label was complete bullshit and shamelessly revisionist nonsense.

I’m not sure exactly who wrote it — it probably predates the buyout, but I haven’t had one for a while and so haven’t been reading the labels very often3 — but it says:

Long ago in 2001, we had a eureka moment. We’re miles away from Europe down here, so why copy their beers? Using all local hops from the Motueka area, we perfected this 100% NZ pilsner. Crisp, firm bodied with notes of citrus, is spawned a whole new style of beer, now proudly sent offshore to faraway places like Europe.

Tuatara 'Mot Eureka' blurb (Pōneke, 26 October 2017)
100% your RDI of nonsense

And that, quite frankly, is wall-to-wall bollocks. First, there’s the minor point that Tuatara can’t seem to figure out how old they are: 2000 and 2001 both get used occasionally, and it doesn’t seem a good sign that they can’t decide. Worse is that they’ve forgotten — or, you know, chosen to lie about — the fact that their entire ethos at the outset was to look to Europe and “copy their beers”. Tuatara was famously all about faithful recreations of classic styles with their core range of Bohemian Pilsner, Bavarian Hefe, London Porter, and India Pale Ale.4 There’s not a damn thing wrong with that, either; they were all reliable, frequently fantastic, and deserve huge credit for opening up the minds and palates of a generation of New Zealand beer drinkers — including me.5 How could you forget that? Or why would you lie about it?

The internet always remembers, anyway. It’s trivial to bring up Tuatara’s website as it was in early 2010 and see them still banging on endlessly about tradition and the overseas origins of ingredients suitable to each style. It was only around then — with the brewery a decade old — that things started to shift away from that model; their APA was given an NZ-hopped “Aotearoa Pale Ale” twin during the US hop shortage and the brewery got more comfortable with the “putting a local spin on x” way of talking about things. With very little effort, you can watch that happen right in the way they talked about the pilsner, online: from it being all about history and calling it ‘classic’ in 2010, to dropping the backstory and listing local hops in 2012.

Things get unforgivable, though, when the blurb presumes to give Tuatara credit for “spawning” the “whole new style” of New Zealand Pilsner. That honour is usually given to Emerson’s Pilsner, first brewed around 19956 and so predating Tuatara’s mere existence, nevermind exactly when they changed their mind about brewing ‘true to style’ or with a local twist. Plenty of NZ-hopped pilsners existed between Emerson’s original and Tuatara’s revamped recipe; Three Boys and Croucher come immediately to mind and almost certainly weren’t alone. There’s a nicely tangled bit of big-brewery politics going on here, too: Tuatara, recently acquired by DB, are stealing glory from Emerson’s, now part of their arch-rival Lion, while also papering-over the work of Mike Neilson, who’s widely credited with the ‘modernisation’ of Tuatara’s beers — including exactly that move away from “copying” styles so faithfully — and would later go on to start Panhead, now also a Lion subsidiary.

The beer was good. And the brewery who made it deserves its place in local brewing history. Is it really so much to ask that they just focus on that, rather than making up bullshit and annoying me while I’m trying to have a nice pilsner in the sunshine?

  1. The new name (like most of the others they changed) just sounds clunky and awful, and it makes no sense to give up the position — which they won by getting in early, and sheer longevity — of having your brand nearly-synonymous with dominant beer styles like pilsner and APA. The redesign isn’t to my taste at all, either, but DB were apparently fond of it since they recently relabeled the Monteith’s beers to look weirdly similar…
  2. That’s probably now Panhead Supercharger, if anything, though Garage Project ‘Beer’ must be getting close as they further ramp up production.
  3. I do admittedly pay abnormal amounts of attention to beer labels because a) that’s just how I roll, and b) I write these things, sometimes: I’ve been writing all the label text for ParrotDog for a while, helped Garage Project with theirs when I worked there, and am about to complete a rewrite for an Australian brewery. Take that both as my disclaimer and my credentials, if you like.
  4. Their point of difference and tagline back then was “Brewed Locally”, which obviously gets increasingly awkward as you expand and export. They switched to — ugh — “Hand Crafted” for a while and no longer bother with a slogan at all.
  5. A tasting tray of those four, at the original Malthouse on Willis Street and with commentary from a food-scientist friend, was sufficiently formative for me that I can still remember details like the weather and the glassware.
  6. See, for example, Michael Donaldson’s Beer Nation (1st ed, p131 or 2nd ed, p157).

One thought on “Tuatara Pilsner’s new origin story”

  1. On Twitter, Kieran Haslett-Moore (brewer at North End and former blogger with a distinct history bent) made a response that’s worth referencing here — as social media responses take over the role of traditional comment-posting.

    He notes that Emerson’s Pilsner wasn’t NZ-hopped until 1998, and Tuatara Pilsner has had many recipe changes and was probably NZ-hopped before references to being so made it online or on to the label.

    But that just narrows the timeline slightly (priority still seems to lie with Emerson’s) and shows that they might here be trying to use one big lie (“we invented NZ pils!”) to dig themselves out from many smaller ones.

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