My first visit to New Zealand last month was an illuminating experience, with the city of Wellington and small south island town of Nelson exemplifying a diverse and integrated beer culture that has not yet been fully realised in Australia. Throughout central New Zealand we found beers from small and local craft brewers sitting comfortably alongside the beers of large multi-national companies in almost every bar, restaurant or retail liquor outlet.
Across Wellington and Nelson a growing number of specialist craft beer bars are loudly and proudly flying the flag for flavoursome and innovative beer of the 21st century. However, it’s the unexpected availability of a local independent craft beer on tap at any regular pub and sports bar that makes New Zealand a highlight of craft beer progression. I noticed a level of integration across the beer market that has been glimpsed in Perth and is certainly more prevalent in North America. However, the much younger nation of New Zealand, along with its significantly smaller population, displays an advanced coalition of beers from all ends of the brewing spectrum in hospitably and trade, trumping the occasional bubbling hot spots for craft beer on Australia’s east coast. Even in the thriving craft beer scene of my native Melbourne, one doesn’t have to walk too far to be overwhelmed by bars that offer only a blinkered tap beer choice of eight lagers and one foreign stout from a single large brewer’s portfolio.
The influence of passionate and proactive brewers and drinkers, through organisations such as SOBA (Society of Beer Advocates) and the Brewers Guild of New Zealand, is evident when drinking in NZ. From free literature and tourism resources to point-of-sale advertising and displays, educational and conversational information about New Zealand beer is never far away.
The Craft Beer Capital website and guide is a beer loving tourist’s best friend whilst visiting Wellington, providing maps, venue details, beer news and even live tap lists. Small bar Hashigo Zake rewards beer geeks with a smartphone app that ensures your know everything possible about the bar’s current and upcoming beer list before stepping inside. If you are within range of the bar (i.e. if you are in Wellington) the app sends tempting notifications about every beer they tap from the moment it is pouring. You can explore each beer’s style, origin, size options, price, alcohol volume, and even discover more through links to Untappd and RateBeer.
Showcasing and assisting New Zealand’s progressive beer industry each year is Beervana, with the 6th incarnation held last month in Wellington.
Living up to its name, Beervana displayed a level of enlightenment when providing the country’s capital with a taste of the nation’s beers, again with small craft brewers and multinational brewing enterprises standing side by side. Over two days, the annual beer festival connects drinkers with beers and brewers from all corners of the country and beyond.
Conveniently located in the concourse of Westpac Stadium, the indoor location protects festival goers from Wellington’s wind and rain, and the facilities are well suited to staging a large beer event. The stadium’s capacity to accommodate crowds in the tens of thousands for major sporting events results in fast moving queues for the several thousand patrons entering Beervana, as well as a plentiful supply of amenities. An army of friendly and efficient volunteer staff ensure the smooth passage of festival goers in, out and around the event.
This year saw a significant increase in stallholders involved. Both sides of the stadium concourse were lined with brewer and food stalls, along with brewing and equipment suppliers and sections for live music and brewing demonstrations. The 31 featured brewers predominately showcased their core range of beers and current seasonal releases. Vibrant hops tended to dominate brews from New Zealand, with strong IPA styles featuring heavily.
Festival director, David Cryer, noted that a number of small changes were made this year to tweak the smooth running of Beervana. New bars were included, with a Brewers Bar for smaller producers and the Australian Bar, where BrewCult’s ‘Acid Freaks’ balsamic Baltic porter proved hugely popular. Australia was also represented by Mountain Goat, who recently entered a distribution arrangement with New Zealand’s Handcock & Co, and Lion Co’s James Squire and Little Creatures brands.
Also added this year was more seating and tables throughout the venue, and the Oasis bar, which provided a chill-out zone to escape the hustle and bustle around the brewers’ stalls. The hallway space of the festival, affectionately known as “Cryer’s Concrete Love Tunnel”, did become very crowded at peak times. Nonetheless, the need to occasionally squeeze through static punters did not seem to dampen the atmosphere and enjoyment of the event.
For many, Beervana was a kid-in-a-candy-shop scenario. Even when the festival was at capacity the queues for beers moved in a timely fashion as every stall thrived with interested drinkers, although the Stella Artois/Hoegaarden stall seemed to be the quietest of the festival.
Session times were extended by an hour this year, providing attendees with ample time to experience a wide range crafty and thirst quenching offerings, as well as gourmet snack food from stalls that showcased Wellington’s many beer loving restaurants.
The number of non New Zealanders in the crowd was clearly noticeable, confirming Beervana’s reputation as worthy pilgrimage for beer tourists. Among the many Australian visitors were travellers from the United Kingdom and United States who had sought out this increasingly renowned event.
Craft beer innovation was showcased by the festival and media brew competitions, both of which divided drinkers. For the Festival Brews, the Brewers Guild of NZ set the theme “3 out of 4” with the challenge to brew a beer without one of the four key ingredients of water, hops, malt or yeast. Most went without hops, with highlights including the Twisted Hop Cheery (cherry porter) and the Hopmonger Jaffacino (stout).
This year the public were provided with access to the Media Brews at a dedicated stand for the first time. This competition pairs a journalist with a craft brewer to create a one-off beer, which this year was won by Luke Nicholas of Epic Brewing and Sarah Harvey of the Sunday Star Times for their 66 Jet Plans, an India ‘Plane Ale’ brewed with 66 Pascall Jet Planes jelly lollies and 48 bottles of Steinlager beer used as water in the sparging process. In equal second place was Just Desserts, a curious green beer that quickly caught many drinkers’ attention. It was essentially a pavlova in a glass, created by Shane Cowlishaw and Michael Forbes of the Dominion Post and Mike Nielson from one of Wellington’s newest breweries, Panhead. Second place was shared with a chocolate orange “Jaffa Stout” by Don Kavanagh of the NZ Herald and Hamish Ward from Deep Creek Brewing of Auckland’s Browns Bay.
The rock stars of Wellington craft brewing, Garage Project, proved the main attraction. Their opulent concert stage stand, the largest stall of all breweries, provided a selection of 8 beers from their dynamic range, accompanied by a workshop that manipulated several of their beers, creating brand new concoctions in front of your eyes. Long queues quickly formed at Garage Project and remained throughout all sessions as captivated drinkers watched the Garage Project staff transform their beers with hot pokers, nitro slushy machines and jelly shots. Aside from the Festival and Media Brews competitions, the barely two year old brewery was the only brewer to explore the outrageous edges of beer at Beervana. Garage Project’s Phil Cook later remarked that their brewers seemed to be the only ones “who really knew how to do a festival”, in regards to providing punters with a truly unique beer experience for the special occasion.
Aside from the overload of hop-centric NZ ales, my festival tasting highlights included a 3.7% Amber Ale from Good Gorge Brewing; the Saeson (Chardonnay barrel and brettanomyces aged Saison) from 8 Wired Brewing; a nitrogenated milk stout poured by local brewing legend Richard Emerson; and the Celia Wade Brown Ale, a 5.5% brown ale with an intense but smooth coffee kick, named in honour of Wellington’s mayor, Celia Wade-Brown, who was in attendance at the festival. The beer was brewed by Andrew Childs, who only recently made the leap from home brewer to craft brewer through his new brand Behemoth Brewing Company. We may soon be seeing Andrew in Australia, having hinted at a possible collaboration with brewers from Matilda Bay.
We departed Beervana with a strong sense of New Zealand’s growing beer industry, along and an appetite to discover more of the beer soaked stories and flavours that are advancing a satisfying appreciation and culture for good beer in our neighbouring island country.