Christchurch has always had a reputation for quality craft brewing, but historically the criticism could have been fairly levelled that our beer was a little old fashioned. I’ve been in the craft scene long enough now to have come back around on the importance of maintaining the old styles, but I’ll admit in a second that if you want to rise above the noise in the judging competitions then you need beer that pushes the now.

For the Beer Baroness that’s their wheelhouse, and it’s reflected in the modern and furiously eclectic styles they produce as well as their dedication towards moving brewing itself forward. That attitude combined with the ever-increasing quality of their beer has seen them become a regular name in competition results. They won a Brewer’s Guild Awards trophy last year for Dare To Diva, a berry sour, and now they’ve broken into the New World Beer & Cider Awards Top-30 with a hazy IPA.

With the awards attention over the last couple of years, some outside Christchurch might be forgiven for assuming that Beer Baroness is a new enterprise, but it’s actually one of the more established breweries in the city — in fact, it’s been a decade since Beer Baroness was founded by Ava Ngakagawa, who is a prominent advocate for both better beer and a better beer industry.

With her mum Victoria and stepfather Steve Pomeroy being the owners of the legendary Pomeroy’s Old Brewery Inn, Ava has always had a deep connection to beer. Managing the pub for over a decade, she saw (and tasted!) the changing tides of beer in Christchurch over a formative period, post-earthquakes, for craft in the city.

Pomeroy’s is steeped in brewing history — originally it was the site of the Wards brewery and malthouse established there in 1860. In 2012 when a new brewery was commissioned for the rear of the building, Ava decided it was time to make her own mark on the brewing world.

“It was a ‘why not’ moment. I wanted to use the brand to learn how to brew and collaborate with some legends in the industry. My first ever beer was a garam masala stout that Joe Wood from Liberty helped me with and then soon after that came Lady Danger which was originally an Epic collab.”

So, who are the Beer Baroness team today? Shareholder and brewery/sales manager Andi Hickey came on board in 2016, and though that may be her official title, in reality she has a hand in almost every part of the operation. She may own a desk somewhere, but I’ve always found her out back in the brewery on my visits.

Head brewer Damian Treacher joined the team just three years ago from The Laboratory in Lincoln. He credits Lady Danger as the beer that inspired him towards craft in the first place, so it’s a remarkable full-circle for him to now be the one who brews it.

Beer Baroness
The Beer Baroness team: Damian Treacher, Andi Hickey, Ava Nakagawa, Josh Nakagawa.

Ava herself remains the face of the company, quite literally in the case of the early branding. When not directing the brand she describes her role as offering support and acting as a sounding board for the rest of the team. Her husband Josh very much shares the passion for quality beer, and he rounds out the crew as assistant brewer.

It’s a small, close team, and while that might result in a stacked workload sometimes, it allows them to stay true to their roots and keep brewing the beers they’re passionate about.

Passion for better beer, in all meanings of the word, remains at the heart of the Beer Baroness ethos. Not all beers are going to be for everyone, and some beers are special because they’re not (Rex Attitude anyone? No? Me neither. Someone out there loves it though!). But beer is always better when everyone has the same opportunity to explore it. From the beginning Beer Baroness has been a focal point for supporting women in the brewing industry, both through the Pink Boots Society (of which Ava is the regional coordinator) and projects like the Good Fight series of collab brews that saw profits go towards building educational resources and further support for women in the industry. Ava and Andi are the co-owners of the Beer Baroness label, and lay claim to being the only fully female owned craft beer brand in the country.

As a very occasional beer critic (but mostly just a Christchurch craft beer drinker) I had over the years started to shuffle Beer Baroness into the ‘not quite there yet’ bracket of craft breweries. They were making excellent beer, just not all the time, and that occasional inconsistency seemed difficult to shake. But more recently I’ve had to walk back that impression, and fast. Something must have clicked into place once Damian got his hands on the brewery. The quality, vision and precision of their beer has done nothing but evolve over his time there, and it’s still getting better.

It isn’t just the Beer Baroness range that’s benefited either. Along with the Pomeroy’s house beers, the brewery also supplies the contract capacity for Burkes, who have themselves broken into major awards over the last couple of years with their Brewer’s Guild champion beer Unforgiven Porter and a second New World Top-30 for #FakeNews Hazy IPA.

Beer Baroness joined Burkes in the Top 30 with Sunshine & Spaceships, a hazy IPA showcasing Strata, an American hop variety whose character is described as “passionfruit meets pot”.

Damian’s concept for the beer started with Strata and getting to stratosphere.

“I hadn’t used Strata hops before so wanted to make a beer showcasing the variety. We added Galaxy to make it ‘out of this world’. We then used spelt as it felt cool to use an heirloom grain with these stratospheric hops — it earthed it!”

Using an unfamiliar hop as well as an atypical grain might seem like a risky number of unknowns, but sure enough the beer landed perfectly.

With awards comes attention, and predictable questions from writers like me about plans for future expansion. Presently the plan is very much to keep their team small and focused, but inevitable growth is hard to fend off in the face of success. A tasting room is definitely on the way, and while there were musings of a new bar, that’s a project on a more distant horizon for now. One thing I can guarantee is that we’re going to hear more about Beer Baroness in the future, and I’ll be among many watching out for them in the upcoming Brewers Guild Awards with great interest.

Beer Baroness is available in cans nationwide, and you’d be hard pressed to walk into any craft beer bar in Christchurch and not find at least one of their kegs on tap. For anyone wanting to taste the widest breadth of their range, Pomeroy’s is the place to go.