Beering up for total immersion at Wellington’s Beervana

Wellington's Beervana offers total immersion in one of the most exciting brewing scenes on the planet.

Think London, think Porter. Think Bamberg, think Rauchbier. Think Pilsner from Pilsen, Kölsch from Cologne, and Berliner Weisse from – you guessed it – Berlin. Think Wellington and you may wonder, what next?

It’s a good question, one that is best answered at Beervana, New Zealand’s biggest beer festival held in Wellington on 11 and 12 August.

This frisky annual event musters 70-odd brewers for a moreish mash-up of beer, food, music and amusement amidst a 12,000-strong crowd. Held in four sessions over two days at the Westpac Stadium, Beervana offers total immersion in one of the most exciting brewing scenes on the planet.

There’s a lot to get your head – and lips – around, with more than 400 beers to try. Traditional drops tussle for position with the totally mind-bending in an array that this year is likely to include plenty of sours, sweet stouts and the barrel-aged, plus the murky world of East Coast IPA. Full-flavoured, low-alcohol brews should also be out in force.

What makes Beervana particularly special is the large number of small breweries and the personality they bring to the party. Since Nelson’s McCashin family kick-started the craft beer revolution back in the 1980s, New Zealand brewing has undergone a thrilling transformation – eschewing tradition and throwing all sorts of creativity into the mix – and emerged as an inspirational player in the global scene.

Wellington’s own Garage Project epitomises this spirit. Famous for style-bending flavour bombs and uber-cool packaging, it recently partnered with California’s Sierra Nevada on its Beer Camp project – a 12-pack of one-off brews, six Stateside, and six from abroad. With hints of highly prized manuka honey, their Camp Out Porter lines up alongside the likes of Kiuchi of Japan’s White IPA with Yuzu Fruit, and Mikkella of Denmark’s Thai-style Iced Tea ale.

And in a world first, this year’s Beervana will host Beer Camp Around the World, with Sierra Nevada crossing the Pacific Ocean to present all 12 beers. Some of their other collaborators are tipped to fly in for the occasion, joining the New York’s Brooklyn Brewery, and Stone & Wood and Mountain Goat from Australia as part of the festival’s ever-popular foreign contingent.

Since it started in 2001, Beervana has been pivotal in fostering the international friendships and collaborations that have helped the New Zealand scene mature. This year that maturity is celebrated in a festival competition entitled A Sense of Place, in which brewers are asked to bring their focus back home. Interpretations will probably be as bonkers as they are broad, but the bets are on for some wood smoke, seaweed, and Kiwiana kick.

The competition for this and the People’s Choice award will be hotly contested, but brewers will also try to outdo each other in the display stand stakes. Evermore outlandish and smelling strongly of man-shed – we’re looking at you, Panhead – the best will halt even the most addled festivalgoer in their tracks.

Adding to this visual feast is food that prides itself on being way, way better than that of your average beer festival. Yes, the possum scone is ousted by the pithivier in a range of fresh and refined fare prepared by a dozen so of Wellington’s best restaurants. Each dish is perfectly proportioned for grazing and paired with a particular beer. 

The sensory overload reaches its crescendo courtesy of a roving musical extravaganza featuring a classic Welly line-up of minstrels, folkies, poets and rogues – the New Zealand equivalent of an oompah band, but with bolder beats, more colourful outfits and funkier facial hair. 

Needless to say, befuddlement is a distinct possibility at Beervana. Those wishing to avoid it are advised to take the festival tour, free on the hour. Led by the Beer Diary’s inimitable Phil Cook, each will have a different focus such as the weird and wonderful, and brewers from abroad. 

Even with guidance and good planning there’s a lot to pack into a five-hour session, but luckily there’s heaps more going on around the edges. In the week leading up to the festival, The Road To Beervana whets the whistle with tastings, tap takeovers, games nights, pop-ups and other events taking place in nine towns and cities across New Zealand.

But a big part of Beervana is just being in Wellington over the weekend. With more than a dozen good-beer bars fizzing with festivalgoers, volunteers, brewers and other beer-lovers, it’s a great place to celebrate the art and craft of delicious New Zealand brews.