New Zealand’s craft beer battle

With ready access to some of the world’s finest hops, brewers in Nelson and Wellington are staking a claim in the global beer scene.

With ready access to some of the world’s finest hops, plus an increasingly discerning consumer base, New Zealand’s craft brewers are staking a claim in the global beer scene. Just 10 years ago the country had 30 microbreweries; today there are more than 100, and craft beer consumption increased 30% from 2012 to 2013.

Fuelled with world-class ingredients and driven by experimentation, New Zealand brewers are going from strength from strength. And championing their efforts are two cities that straddle the Cook Strait – Nelson and Wellington – both of which are vying for the title of Craft Beer Capital.

The home of hops
Arriving in the 1840s, European settlers found the Nelson region at the top of the South Island perfect for the propagation of hops. Their legacy was an enduring industry that thrived under the sunshine and healthy growing conditions around the town of Motueka. Yet for the best part of the 20th Century, the nation’s beer-drinkers were subjected to domestically mass-produced bland brown brews with names like Red, Green, Brown and Double Brown.

Then in 1981, along came Mac’s Gold – a naturally brewed lager produced by the country’s first microbrewery. Established by the McCashin family in a historic cider factory on the edge of Nelson city, Mac’s would lead the craft brewing revolution for the next two decades. Not only passionate about the use of local hops, the company employed traditional batch-brewing methods and ingredients, eschewing the shortcuts of the mass-market continuous fermentation process. Gold’s bolder flavour  challenged the palates of the nation’s beer drinkers – but it caught on. Today, McCashins remains a mainstay of the Nelson scene, brewing under the Stoke brand in the same cider factory, hosting daily tours and tastings, plus live music and a Saturday market in their bar and cafe. A smoky ale and chocolaty oatmeal stout show how far they’ve come.

McCashins has also joined forces with a raft of pubs and bars to form the Nelson’s Craft Beer Trail, which includes stops at the Free House, an old wooden church turned craft beer bar; two Sprig & Fern taverns, outposts of Nelson’s second-largest brewery; and Founders, a brewery that’s laid claim to six generations of beer makers in its 160-year history. Situated amid a mini-village of preserved colonial buildings, Founders welcomes visitors for tastings, tours and meals; make sure a malty Red Ale – their signature brew – is in your round.

More stops on the Nelson beer trail can be found out in the sticks, including the Moutere Inn, one of New Zealand’s oldest pubs, located in a tiny rural settlement 35km west of Nelson city. Built in 1850, this charmer dishes up home-cooked, pub-grub favourites such as burgers and ribs, and 16 taps of local goodness, including ales brewed by Moutere Valley traditionalist, Martin Townsend. Try his sessionable, biscuity Sutton Hoo American amber ale.

A trip to the Moutere Inn can easily be combined with a visit to Golden Bear brewery and its LA-inspired Mexican restaurant, situated on Mapua Wharf halfway between Nelson and Motueka. Making full use of the nearby Motueka hop gardens, American expat Jim Matranga produces around a dozen beers, including the Seismic IPA hop-bomb, best enjoyed in the sunshine with a burrito in hand.

The hop-town of Motueka, 46km northwest of Nelson, is the gateway to Golden Bay, an idyllic rural enclave beyond the big Takaka Hill. Not content with two national parks (Abel Tasman and Kahurangi), the bay is also home to the beloved Mussel Inn brewpub. Located in the middle of nowhere with a fashion sense to fit, this is rustic New Zealand at its most genuine, complete with creaking timbers, a dusty porch, compost toilets and a rambling beer garden with a brazier. The likes of hearty homemade pies and mussel chowder go down a treat alongside a pint or two of Captain Cooker, an all-malt low-hop ale infused with manuka, a native tea tree.

New Zealand’s crafty capital
No Johnny-come-lately, Wellington joined the craft beer bandwagon in the late 1980s, led by the pint-sized music venue Bar Bodega, an early supporter of independent breweries. Bodega’s collaboration with local brewer Carl Vasta and allied bar The Malthouse eventually led to the birth of Tuatara, one of the country’s most awarded and widely distributed independent breweries. Make a beeline for the Aotearoa Pale Ale, Tuatara’s take on a US West Coast pale ale using a cocktail of New Zealand hops.

Two decades on, The Malthouse remains one of the city’s must-visit beer bars with 30 taps, cellar selection and a resident contingent of Society of Beer Advocates members. The city’s drinkers, however, now have many places to indulge, with 20 craft beer-dedicated establishments springing up in the last decade – seven in the last two years alone. Many source supplies from Hashigo Zake, a zealous Wellington craft beer bar and importer that injects a stimulating mix of big-flavoured modern brews into the local scene, including those from San Diego brewstars Ballast Point and Green Flash.

Further encouraging this reciprocity is Beervana, New Zealand’s largest beer festival held in Wellington each August. Although dominated by national brewers, Beervana showcases select international brands and lures in superstar brewers and associates. The 2013 festival was attended by Matt Brynildson of California’s Firestone Walker brewery, a judge in the Brewers Guild awards that run alongside the event. “I didn’t know what to expect. But the flavour of New Zealand beers literally blew my mind. It was beer after beer more wonderful than the next,” Brynildson said.

Ready access to fresh imports and a proliferation of craft bars has given Wellingtonians access to the widest and most interesting range of beers in the country. Adding grist to the mill is the city’s own burgeoning brewing industry, with 10 microbreweries in operation, many of which can be found within walking distance. Among the Fork & Brewer’s 40 taps is their own range brewed on site; try the Base Isolator pale ale with its citrus punch.

Less than 1km south in the Te Aro neighbourhood is pint-sized ParrotDog, which opened for tastings and flagon-fills in 2012. This student-flat home-brew project burst its bung when their first commercial brew, the aggressively-hopped Bitter Bitch, stormed the ramparts. Demand necessitated their upscaling to an industrial brewhouse, complete with cellar door.

The city’s hottest ticket, however, is the hyper-productive Garage Project, located in an old gas station in the bohemian suburb of Aro Valley. Their combination of novel brews (try the outrageously hoppy Pernicious Weed) and cultish branding has seen this one-year-old brewery rocket to the top of the hops. Their tasting lounge lures a constant stream of curious types eager to taste the latest creation and browse the merchandise for the new must-have T-shirt.

With such quality and largesse comes the inevitable indulgence, with Wellingtonians drinking one of every three pints of craft beer consumed nationwide, despite having less than 10% of the country’s population. Perhaps the craft beer battle has already been won.