The Island of Beervana
Exploring the Capital City of New Zealand
WELLINGTON, NZ—As you step from the gate of the main terminal into the waiting area of the airport here, Gandalf soars overhead on a great eagle, his right arm outstretched, staff in hand. This is, after all, Middle Earth, and the direction the wizard points is squarely toward an adventure.
In a very short time, the island nation of New Zealand has become a beer destination. Thanks largely to hop farms that are producing in-demand varieties, along with a growing number of national breweries, beer adventurers are flocking here in droves, and the Kiwis are eager to welcome the travelers.
New Zealand’s capital city and region is home to just over a dozen breweries, and the sense of pride this industry brings to residents is palpable, even if it’s still in the early years of a new era.
It’s possible to hit all the city’s premier beer spots in just a few days, and Wellington, despite weather that changes by the minute, is easy to navigate on foot, on a bicycle or in a car.
Golding’s Free Dive is a great place to start and get acclimated to the capital. Tucked down the alleylike Leeds Street, it’s chocked full of “Star Wars” memorabilia, from a Millennium Falcon above the hand pulls to Yoda over the entrance, and a painted mural along one wall proclaims that “beer is love.” It’s the rare kind of bar where a first-time visitor can feel immediately at home and treated like a long-standing regular.
There is little denying that the American beer influence plays a big role in the country, with refrigerated containers arriving by ship on the shores here, largely filled with hoppy West Coast ales (and a few Midwest offerings as well). At Golding’s a cooler is full of offerings from Ballast Point Brewing Co., Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, Lakefront Brewery and more. The United States is a large importer of NZ hop varietals—which are harvested annually in the spring. As such many American beers that come back to New Zealand have native ingredients.
“The scene is going to change from import to local beers,” said David Cryer, the festival director of Beervana, which celebrates the Kiwi beer culture.
That festival, held annually in August, is the premier spot for the locals and visitors alike to get a taste of native beer. Held on the concourse of Westpac Stadium, home to several rugby teams, the festival draws nearly all of the country’s brewers together to pour their wares. With roughly 100 breweries in the country at this point, it’s a manageable way to survey the scene.
However, locals and visitors alike will be forgiven if they occasionally confuse this Beervana with the one on the West Coast of the United States. There is a big connection between Wellington and Portland, OR. Lately, it’s not uncommon to find Rose City beers on tap throughout Wellington, and more and more NZ brewers are sending their ales and lagers north. A number of collaboration beers have also popped up, including Portland’s Gigantic Brewing Co. working with Fork & Brewer and 8 Wired Brewing Co.
Realizing the strong connection between the two cities, and the relative ease of a trans-Pacific flight (despite a 19-hour time difference), there are a number of unofficial partnerships between the pair of Beervanas, including support from government officials. Last summer Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown—who is an enthusiastic supporter of local beer—welcomed brewers from Portland to her city, sampling that city’s ales during a reception at the United States Embassy in Wellington. The mayor even had a brown ale aptly named after her by local brewers Yeastie Boys. Kiwi brewers have received similar warm receptions in the Pacific Northwest.
If you’re here, drink and eat local. Head over to the Fork & Brewer, a brewpub located on the second floor—brewhouse and all—of a commercial block downtown. It’s an eclectic space with Astroturf on the floor and stone accents on one side, and a more sleek wood- and metal-finished space on the other. Smack in the middle is a circular bar done in barrel fashion (that design continues to the bathrooms and the sink design) with 40 taps—20 of which are made in-house and continually rotate. Get several samplers. Try the burger.
Garage Project, a small but growing brewery housed in a former gas station, makes one of the more recognizable beers in New Zealand, thanks to sparse packaging: an all-white can with four, large, bold, black letters—BEER. This is the brewery’s 4.8% Czech pilsner.
Garage Project also has a strong working relationship with one of the country’s better-known businesses, the Weta workshop, a special effects company that did much of the work on the Lord of the Rings movies. Weta frequently loans out props to be displayed among the fermentation tanks during big events. Take, for example, the life-size statue of space explorer Lord Cockswain, a Weta creation that adorned the brewery last summer to commemorate the release of a double bourbon barrel-aged porter named after the character.
The Garage Project ales and lagers are found alongside offerings from other commercial breweries, like Epic of Auckland and the audacious, style boundary-pushing Yeastie Boys. Stop in a bar like D4 on Featherston Street, the Malthouse—the city’s original beer bar—on Courtenay Place, or the Hop Garden, a beer-themed restaurant on the outskirts of town, and you won’t be thirsty after leaving.
If there is one business that outnumbers the bars, it would be coffee shops. Kiwis love their coffee, and the national caffeinated drink is the flat white. It’s steamed milk over a shot or two of espresso, close to a cappuccino, but with a greater concentration of coffee. It is perfect for before, during (many bars serve coffee) and most certainly the morning after a solid drinking session.
Culturally, there is much to do in the city. It’s worth taking a day to explore the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. There, you can explore native Kiwi culture and even check out a preserved giant squid. For a taste of the island, book a private tour that explores the museum’s garden, where you learn about local ingredients, capped by a meal that includes the same. It’s a wonderful local experience.
Looking to get out of the city for a bit but still on the hunt for beer? Take a train to the Upper Hutt region to the north and visit the Kereru Brewery, just a quick walk from the rail station. There, brewer Chris Mills, who was raised in Brookline, MA, is making beers derived from and inspired by native ingredients from manuka wood to NZ-harvested hops.
Of course, if you’re making the trip to New Zealand, there should be more to your itinerary than just Wellington, but no visit is complete without a few days in the Southern Hemisphere’s Beervana.
John is the editor of All About Beer Magazine and the author of three books, including The American Craft Beer Cookbook. Find him on Twitter @John_Holl.