Credit: © 8 Wired Brewing

Despite its 3,400-plus breweries, America isn’t alone in embracing the beer boom. On a recent trip to New Zealand, I found elite, hand-crafted beer alive and well in the Southern Hemisphere.

Driving the excitement around beer in New Zealand is a bit of agricultural serendipity. As in America’s Pacific Northwest, the climate and environment are ideal for growing hops. Just as the West Coast IPA came to dominate American craft beer thanks to hops grown there, New Zealand is gaining momentum thanks to its highly sought-after Nelson Sauvin hops, with other varieties like Motueka and Pacifica growing in popularity all the time.

But you can’t drink great hops; you need great brewers to turn them into great beer. Here are five fantastic beers worth drinking, as well as the bars where I found them, in case you’re looking for a place to stop.

1) Behemoth Brewing Company Tasty Beverage Extra Pale Ale

My first stop in New Zealand was in Auckland, and it wasn’t long before I fell in love with a light, hoppy brew at a cozy, dark wood-adorned pub on the waterfront called Brew On Quay. Tasty Beverage Extra Pale Ale is a new offering from Auckland's Behemoth Brewing Company. Unlike many of the country’s pale ales and IPAs—which tended to land on the maltier side—Tasty Beverage was true to its name: a light, easy-drinking ale with delightfully citrusy hop flavors dancing on top of an unassuming pale malt base. At only 4.5 percent alcohol, this tasty beverage would easily be my go-to over most of today’s hip session IPAs.

2) Emerson’s Brewery 1812 Hoppy Pale Ale

Over on Waiheke Island, I stumbled into a beachfront restaurant called Charlie Farley’s for little reason other than the amazing view of Onetangi Bay, but I was pleasantly surprised to find another gem on their small draft menu. Darker in color than the Tasty Beverage, the Emerson’s Brewery 1812 Hoppy Pale Ale has a piney, bitter finish but still had enough tropical fruit hop character to make for a solid oceanside drinking experience. Emerson's, which was established in 1993, bills this beer as “one of New Zealand’s first new-generation pale ales.” It seems to be holding up well.

3) 8 Wired Saison Sauvin

Back in Auckland, I took a tip to check out a place billed as a proper beer bar with dirt cheap but delicious pub food called Vulture’s Lane. It was there that I got my first chance to try beers from the fantastic 8 Wired Brewing Company, which recently moved from Blenheim on the South Island to Warkworth on the North. 8 Wired has many standout beers, but their Saison Sauvin was of particular interest. A bold 7 percent ABV beer brewed with French saison yeast but liberally flavored with Nelson Sauvin hops, it's a perfect beer for hopheads who have trouble getting on board with the saison style. The assertively floral and fruity hops help temper some of the funkier, yeasty elements, leaving a crisp drinking brew with a spicy finish.

4) Anything from Garage Project

No beer drinker’s trip to New Zealand would be complete without a stop in Nelson on the South Island. Not only does it bill itself as the craft brewing capital of New Zealand, it is also home to New Zealand’s famous Nelson Sauvin hops. I hunkered down at The Free House, a truly world-class beer bar serving up a constantly rotating list of 10 draft and three cask lines in a picturesque old church. It was here that I first really dove into beer from a Wellington brewery known as Garage Project.

Named after the room in which it was originally founded, Garage Project has maintained that backroom experimental ethos as they’ve grown into one of New Zealand’s most talked-about breweries. Currently, Garage Project lists more than 30 different beers on their website, many of them quirky plays on classic styles. Whether you’re into the idea of a “reverse IPA” (their API), a pale ale brewed with mango, Vietnamese mint and chile (their Death From Above) or a sour brewed with honeydew and yuzu (their Wabi Sabi Sour), you’re bound to find something to entice your palate. It just may take you a few tries.

5) Mike’s Chocolate Milk Stout

Wrapping up my trip back on the North Island in Wellington, I dropped in at Hashigo Zake , a serious beer stop featuring a surprisingly swanky bright red interior. This basement bar was more than happy and prepared to sell us a very reasonably priced tasting platter of 10 beers. The standout came from an organic brewery called Mike’s Premium Organic Beer in New Plymouth about a five-hour drive up the coast. Their Chocolate Milk Stout went down smooth and easy for a beer with such big chocolate and coffee flavors. And at 5.5 percent alcohol, it didn’t come on too strong. This creamy, drinkable stout served as a perfect sweet note to end my trip through these South Pacific islands.