Phil Hamilton meets the husband and wife team behind the Greymouth brewery pitting themselves against Monteith’s
When Jason and Sarah Johnson were considering starting a craft brewery in Greymouth they were told the same thing again and again.
“The Coast isn’t ready for craft beer.”
But more than two years on from setting up Hopaholics the couple continues to increase production as it turns out plenty of West Coasters are ready to give their tastebuds a workout.
The Johnsons, who moved to the West Coast for Jason’s teaching job in 1998, had long been keen homebrewers, beginning when they were students.
They were regulars at the various beer festivals and that gave them the first inkling that perhaps there was more appetite for craft beers on the West Coast than people thought.
“I can remember wandering around a beer festival thinking this would be a really cool thing to do,” Sarah said. “Then at festivals we kept bumping into Coasters but there was nothing to drink over here but Monteith’s.”
After doing a brewing course at Massey University, they started a small beer club, Bad Ass Brewing and Drinking, to gauge interest and decided to take the plunge in October 2019. Sarah quit her job as a science teacher to brew fulltime and they set up their operation at their lifestyle block in the native bush just outside Greymouth.
Initially they planned to distribute beer to other retailers but soon realised that they needed their own taproom to spread the word.
Colin Cutler from Woodstock Brewing offered them the use of an old bar in his building, initially letting them have it for nothing as they tried to get established.
“At the moment it’s cheap and cheerful,” Sarah said. “People really love it because it’s homely and has a really good vibe – we get such a range of people.”
The bar comes with its own backstory. It used to be nicknamed the Crime Bar because of its proximity to the port on the Grey River and upstairs was a brothel (the doors still have peepholes).
The couple has played on some of that West Coast history, making a beer called Black Out Stout (5.8%), that harkens back to a series of police house bombings a century ago when a new superintendent tried to close down the district’s bars.
But just two weeks after opening the taproom, Covid hit and they had to close down, although Sarah has taken a glass half-full approach to looking at that setback.
“It meant we got a soft start and we never relied on tourists because we never had any,” she said. “The local market is what we’re looking at.”
And the local market has responded well, filling the taproom and taking to their beers.
“We used to have people who would say ‘give me the closest to Speights,’ but those same people now see everyone drinking hazies so they try that and now they’re asking what is new,” Jason said. “It’s really satisfying to see.”
They do their best to satisfy that desire for something new, offering a weekly weird and wonderful brew along with the standard fare of IPAs and hazies.
One of their recent hits was Black Chilli Saison that had a lovely smoky flavour.
At the moment, they’re only open three nights a week but that’s enough when they both have fulltime jobs – one brewing and one teaching – as well as working the bar.
“It’s hard because people want us here especially the craft beer nuts who want to talk beer.”
They brew at least 500L a week and demand is such that they have just bought a 350L system second-hand from Hallertau so they can increase production.
With the imminent closure of Monteith’s brewery (though the restaurant and bar remains open), Hopaholics could be well positioned to take advantage.
“That loyalty to Monteith’s is definitely waning now,” Jason said. “We’ve had a bit of an influx of people feeling miffed and looking for something local.”
The dissatisfaction is heartfelt based on the evidence of a couple of bumper stickers seen around town.
One in the style of a Tui ad reads: “Monteith’s is brewed on the West Coast. Yeah Right!”
The other: “DB TAKING THE PISS OUTTA THE WEST COAST SINCE 2001.”
That closure of the Monteith’s brewery will also pay further dividends with Monteith’s generously giving their bottling machine to local brewers.
“The bottling machine will be relocated and then we’ll have access to it which will be a game-changer,” Jason said.
“We bottle by hand at the moment and can’t keep up with demand. We were in the process of looking at buying something so this is great.”
As a former science teacher, Sarah is all about sustainability. The bottles they use are 80 per cent recyclable, they use paper stickers that come off easily and also refill 2L growlers. And the water they use for brewing is pure distilled rainwater that comes from the roof of their house in the bush.
Their malt comes from Canterbury and they have tried to move away from American to Nelson hops.
Recently they picked 1.3kg of Old Golding hops at Waiuta, near Reefton, to make a small brew that proved popular, selling out quickly.
Now they’ve established themselves in Greymouth they hope to start distributing their beers to towns further afield in the South Island.
“Our plan is for both of us to be able to brew fulltime,” Jason said.
“If we can have a lifestyle and sustain ourselves in fulltime work that would be perfect.”