Craft beer – a capital idea

Lovers of liquid amber will have plenty of choice to get hopping mad in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital of craft beer.

Lovers of liquid amber will have plenty of choice to get hopping mad in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital of craft beer.

There are a growing number of people in New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington who are hopping mad – and with very good reason. The many exciting possibilities for transforming hops (plus malt and other fixings) into the full-bodied flavours of craft beer have prompted a “brew-ha-ha” right across the city. 

The craft beer movement, fuelled initially by a resurgent interest in home brewing, has overturned traditional and mainstream ideas about beer and brewing all around the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in Wellington, where more than a dozen craft and boutique breweries, nanobreweries (brewing just one batch at a time) and brewpubs (pubs that brew onsite) are based. At least as many others are located just beyond the city limits, among the hillsides and valleys of the Kapiti Coast and Wairarapa. 

Wellington’s brewers are driven by the same spirit of adventure and enterprise that infuse the capital’s celebrated coffee and dining scene. They’re enthusiastically supported by the many city bars and beer gardens that serve fresh, locally crafted brews by tap, bottle or barrel.

In Wellington, as in the rest of the country, the desire for quality beer now trumps quantity. A recent market update highlighted the rapid growth in the craft beer market, against a rising tide of figures showing people are drinking less beer than in the past. As overall beer volumes fell – by 10 percent between 2008 and 2014 – consumption of craft beer rose. Over the same period, the number of breweries more than doubled, from 39 to 96. 

The Garage Project

Jos Russell, one third of the brains behind The Garage Project, an innovative micro-brewery based in a former automotive garage, says the beer scene in Wellington has developed enormously since they started in 2011. 

“Wellington has always been the Craft Beer Capital with great bars throughout the city, though when we started there was no brewing happening in the city. That has changed greatly with an ever growing list of breweries operating in the city.”

Russell, along with brothers Pete and Ian Gillespie started Garage Project with a view to create beers that were different and would challenge people’s palates. In their first year of operation they brewed more than 40 different styles of beer and since then they’ve become Wellington legends. The Garage Project was named in the top spot on the 2015 Deloitte Fast 50 with a massive 664% growth making it New Zealand’s fastest growing business.

“We take inspiration from all areas, and fortunately being based in Wellington there is a lot to draw from … be it local chefs, musicians and artists,” Russell says. “The city is nicely compact so it makes these collaborations and partnerships easy to arrange and develop.”

Some of their quirkier style beers include the ‘Unami Monster’ using New Zealand grown kombu (kelp), Japanese Katsuobushi (dried fermented bonito flakes), smoked malt and seawater as well as the ‘Cabbage and Kings Imperial Oyster Stout’, brewed with 10 dozen fresh Te Matuku Bay Pacific oysters, and infused with the local flavours of horopito and manuka smoked malt.

All of their creations are canned or bottled in magnificent looking vessels designed by local artists.

“Our goal is for every beer to have a strong personality and distinct story behind it. We want the beers themselves to be the heroes and Garage Project just a small little team that helped bring them to life,” Russell says.

Russell and the Gillespie brothers have been friends for many years and the brewery runs like a small family. Pete is the brew master who, after an abandoned academic career, threw himself into the world of brewing and after years of working in breweries overseas returned to Wellington to start his own. 

Ian is the people’s man behind the brewery and an integral part of the operation. 

“He [Ian] just has the knack of being great at anything he sets his hand to. It’s Ian who is the glue which holds things together,” his big brother Pete says.

It is the history they have all shared together that makes The Garage Project what it is says Russell.

“It makes the little victories and celebrations along the way all that more sweet. You can't really ask more in life than to be able to work on and share the things you love with lifelong friends.”

A changing tide

In New Zealand, the trend towards premium brands and the higher alcohol beers typified by craft ales suggests drinkers are losing interest in mainstream brands. The market for craft beer, although still small, is expanding nationally by about 25 percent a year. 

Wellington’s confederacy of fearless young creatives, loosely bound by their love of beer, are leading the national charge to find new ways of brewing and producing bigger and better flavours. And patrons are lining up to sample the results, growing increasingly daring as their tastes shift from light, fizzy mass-produced beers to the more robust craft ales freshly brewed by small independent breweries. 

“We like nothing more than developing and creating new beers, and we have several waiting in the wings that we are looking forward to releasing.” Russell says.

The big operators have joined the party, producing boutique beers under their own brands, but the small players are holding their own in the market. Their scale gives them the agility to keep experimenting and creating, pushing craft beer in new directions and inspiring a new breed of beer drinker. New brewers are shouldering their way into this intensely competitive market, and established breweries are not only exporting their products but expanding their operations offshore as well.

Once considered the domain of manual workers and sportsmen, beer has been adopted by a new demographic of Wellingtonians. Bold and discerning in their tastes, these boutique beer enthusiasts are unashamedly disloyal, never hesitating to try something new and switch allegiance. As a social lubricant, craft beer has no borders – you’re as likely to see a smartly attired professional woman raising an amber glass as a bearded hipster or muscled tradesman. 

Beer themed events

For two days each August, about 10,000 people descend on Wellington for Beervana, the biggest event on New Zealand’s beer calendar. The 2015 festival offered patrons more than 200 different ales from about 60 breweries. They could see beer brewed onsite, meet the makers, learn the finer points of home brewing, and feast on seasonal dishes matched with specially selected beers.

“Beervana gives us an opportunity to really show case what the brewery is capable of, and to give people experiences they might not have had before with beer,” says Russell. “That could be flash-caramelising bourbon-barrel-aged beer with a custom built 500c red hot poker, or combining two different beers on the spot to produce a 'Flat White' coffee beer experience.”

Beervana is the biggest fixture of the fortnight-long Wellington on a Plate festival of food and dining. It is bookended by smaller-scale beer-centred events such as limited-edition beers, brewery tours, and tastings matched with coffee, chocolate, cheese or curry. Festivalgoers can vote for the best-matched beer and burger combo in the Burger Wellington battle, played out at 70 different eateries.

At Hopstock, held over four days in April, beers brewed from hops harvested just across the water in Nelson, are served at bars throughout the capital. In 2015, some 28 breweries produced 25 fresh-hopped beers for Hopstock. 

Among the best-known breweries are Black Dog, Fork and Brewer, ParrotDog, and Tuatara, on the Kapiti Coast north of the city. Most of the boutique breweries offer cellar-door tastings, sales and/or brewery tours. They work closely with specialty pubs and bars like Golding’s Free Dive, Hashigo Zake, Malthouse, Little Beer Quarter, Rogue and Vagabond, serving up good company and good old-fashioned hospitality along with their deliciously good award-winning ales.

“There are a host of new breweries opening and people coming onto the scene which is exciting and even for us, hard to keep track of,” Russell says. “We were impressed with what we saw from Choice Bros at Beervana this year and love the energy and enthusiasm they are bringing.” 

Wellington is justifiably known as craft beer capital of the South Pacific and has earned its place among the world’s best craft beer destinations. Figures show up to a quarter of all beer sold on tap in Wellington nowadays is craft ale. It’s clear that Wellingtonians’ thirst for small-batch brews is far from saturation.