It didn’t take me long to realise that trying to cover Beervana as an event, as well as Wellington as a beer-city, in under three days was probably far too much of an ask for just about anyone. Joy at the incredible amount of great beers and bars soon turned into panic as story angles and great beer giddied my brain.
The problem was how could I possibly talk about everything with the love it deserves? Do I half-ass it and talk to a few brewers and get some bog-standard quotes about craft beer – then ramble on about the new CBD breweries in Wellington and how Beervana has increased sales by roughly fifty per cent on last year? Crow about the return of Epic’s Hop Zombie, marvel at Stu Yeastie’s pants (Smurf blue and lime green for the record), or tell you how you can stumble from craft-beer-bar to craft-beer-bar with barely enough time to tweet in-between?
All of that is true and more-so – but you know that already. You’ve probably already read the winners of the Brewers Guild Awards and scrolled through endless tweets about the 271 beers from 96 breweries at Beervana.
Would that give you a sense of what is happening in New Zealand beer though? The more I thought about it the more of a disservice it would be to NZ, Wellington and the event itself. I drank, and I pondered, then I tried a new bar and some new beers, and pondered some more; but it wasn’t until we spent a morning at Wellington’s famous museum Te Papa that I was able to form any sort of real idea about how to present the scene and the weekend.
I first visited Te Papa about 15 years ago and while I remembered I loved it, I couldn’t remember what I loved about it. So as we dragged ourselves there, bleary eyed from the night before, all I could think of was how I was going to make it through without needing a nap in the bathroom.
The name Te Papa translated in English means “Our Place” and it’s an impressively large building on Wellington’s waterfront. It’s entirely free and nothing short of brilliant. As you wander from room to room you are encouraged to push buttons, crank levers, experience earthquakes, peer through windows, hunt bugs, and survive on new planets. It’s interactive, it’s hands-on, it’s fascinating and it’s fun. It’s everything education should be.
There was one series of short films on display that really stood out. It was a collection of stories told by people from different ethnic and social backgrounds, discussing how their surroundings have shaped their lives. From a courier-driver cum beat-boxer, who hangs out with his friends in an old army lookout, to a widowed photographer who risks her life to document coastal erosion.
One in particular got my attention. It was the story of a second generation Chinese cabbage farmer who spoke fluent Maori and in 2002 became Mayor of his town – the only Maori speaking mayor in the country. It showed him joining in on a hunt and helping prepare a traditional hangi, slathering the wild boar in soy sauce before it was buried in the ground for cooking. He was creating something unique in a country as isolated as almost any other in the world. A Chinese cabbage farmer hanging out with the local tangata whenua (“people of the land”) and putting his own spin on their traditional form of cooking.
Walking through Beervana and chatting to fellow drinkers or the brewers themselves, looking at the Black Rock Homebrew stand brewing beer at each session, attending one of the many seminars; such as beer and Cheese Pairing or Women of Beer, checking out the homebrew competition; or leaving to hop from bar to bar in Wellington’s CBD, you get the sense that like these stories at Te Papa, the stories of NZ beer are just as interesting and just as influenced by their surroundings. And like Te Papa, it’s all just as hands-on.
Although I’m sure it’s been said elsewhere, it was James Smith (the man behind the Crafty Pint) who I first heard say that beer needs to have a story to be successful, and visiting Wellington and Beervana it’s clear that NZ beer has stories in spades and the beers to back them up (I should also point out that James, along with Murray’s Brewing Co, won Beervana’s Media Brew competition with an oyster/mussel Imperial Stout – but that’s a story he can tell better than I).
One story that attracted me in particular was one that can be seen as a product of this environment. Four guys who met amongst the growing and varied Wellington craft-beer scene; drinking and working at local bars and winning local homebrew competitions, Funk Estate are some of the freshest faces on the NZ brewery landscape and having a beer at Beervana was a goal of theirs since their inception.
After getting to know each other at Hashigo Zake, a Japanese influenced craft-beer bar in Wellington’s CBD, the team behind Funk Estate; Dan Lord, Jordan Evison, Shiggy Takagi and Dylan Shearer, formed to bring the world their story and their beer.
“We would drink at Hashigo but it was also homebrew that bought us together… there seems to be a really big homebrew culture in Wellington and a bit of a community in terms of getting together and talking together and collaboration,” said Dylan.
Shiggy, says he was the one responsible for bringing the four together.
“I brewed a couple of beers with Dylan and done a few with Dan. Dan didn’t know these guys and I knew all of them and I was thinking in terms of forming a team and collecting different skills.”
The idea of collaboration is huge in NZ beer. Where contract brewing is the way many beers are brewed and regular collaborations and one-off beers are part of the landscape. While this isn’t unique to NZ; it seems to be more prevalent.
It’s in this environment where new breweries and interesting beers can be born out of and make sense to the world.
Launching with a Black IPA, which sold out in a few hours on it’s debut, Funk Estate are more than aware of the opportunity being part of a scene like NZ’s current craft movement gives them.
“All the craft beers that are available inspire brewers to come up with something more or something better,” said Jordan.
“I think it’s really exciting right now and come a long way in the last 12 months. Real exciting times and it’s only going to get bigger,” he added.
Like the NZ scene as a whole, diversity is also present in the beers that Funk Estate have released, with none being a straight-forward traditional style. There is the Black IPA with NZ hops, the Coconut Rough Stout, and a pumpkin amber ale called Jack Amber.
They are already seeing recognition from judges and the public too; with Jack Amber winning a bronze at the Brewers Guild Awards dinner and the Black IPA winning two sessions of the People’s Choice at Beervana. They were also runner up for the other two sessions.
The other People’s Choice winners this year were a coffee porter from Brewaucracy and an English style ESB from Schippers. Neither Brewaucracy nor Schippers, nor Funk Estate own their own brewery. Something that may raise eyebrows in other countries; while in NZ it’s barely mentioned. The beers of NZ are as much a product of the environment as the breweries themselves.
Like the continuously evolving NZ craft-beer industry, Beervana didn’t feel static, there were no glass divides for drinkers to peer through at the breweries on show. It felt tactile, with the public encouraged to get involved. Funk Estate personify this idea. Being inspired one year and inspiring the next.
Regardless if you were a brewer, a beer lover or just a curious customer, Beervana truly felt like “Our Place” and I can’t wait to return and hear more stories next year.
My Picks from Beervana and around Wellington
Yeastie Boys/Liberty Brewing – Motueka and Yakima Raven. Two Black IPAs with different hops. Motueka is full and creamy, like an orange and chocolate ice cream (cone included), while the Liberty Yakima was more vibrant and sessionable. Both remarkable and up for tasting at Slowbeer on Tuesday the 28th of August. Probably the only chance you’ll have in Australia to get a taste.
Brewaucracy – Bean Counter. A standout coffee porter with vanilla. A real easy drinker but still has a sense of rich luxury.
West Coast Brewing – Sour Berry Black. Another great beer from an oft looked-over brewery, from my hometown of Westport. Big juicy flavours but subtly sour with a lovely straw-like finish that dries up beautifully.
8 Wired – Bumaye. A 17% Imperial Stout. Rich, full and sublime. Søren, once again shows why he’s one of NZ’s finest.
Townshend’s – Blitzgrieg. American IPA poured from a handpump, this was lowly carbonated and bracingly bitter. Punchy rich hops displaying grapefruit, mandarin and kiwifruit flavours. Carbonation can reduce perceived bitterness, so the low carbonation makes it a real hop head’s delight.
Little Beer Quarter – A true standout. Great taps and handpumps, cigars and an amazing range of NZ and international beers. It’s cosy and effortless.