North Canterbury craft stalwarts Brew Moon turn 20 years old this month. The span of 20 years is a long time for anything, but for craft beer in New Zealand, that’s pretty well close to the beginning. I caught up with the Brew Moon team to try to understand what it was like in craft beer’s primordial days, and how the landscape has changed over that huge and vastly formative period.
Brew Moon was founded by (then) winemaker Belinda Gould and Kieran McCauley, who like many of our early craft brewers, had spent time working in America. The West Coast IPA boom was still in its nascent stages, but American craft beer was well established and ubiquitously available. Belinda recalls a craft beer scene in America that was at least a decade ahead of our own.
“Our time in America introduced us to craft beer as a part of everyday life. I already knew Richard Emerson (and loved his beers) but back then craft beer wasn’t readily available in New Zealand, but in America you could already buy it in any decent supermarket.”
After all those years in the land of plenty, the move back to New Zealand must have been a shock. But Belinda and Kieran didn’t just return with a taste for craft beer, they brought back the skills, capital and passion to make their own. Inspired by the legendary Sierra Nevada Brewery in California, and seeing what Emerson had built in Dunedin just a handful of years earlier, the first brewery was assembled just south of Amberley off SH1.
Craft beer in America may have been rapidly approaching the super hop-driven style of the modern West Coast IPA, but New Zealand tastes (and our hop varieties to a significant extent) just weren’t quite ready to embrace those beers yet. So, the Brew Moon beer was the easy-drinking Amberly Pale Ale, which still exists (with a few tweaks over the years).
Soon Dark Side of the Moon stout and Hophead IPA joined the range, the latter of which is a beer that I’ve thought about a lot over the years. I am guilty of calling it old fashioned by today’s standards, but at the turn of the millennium it was radically ahead of its time. Consider the absolutely fundamental effect Epic Pale Ale had on New Zealand craft brewing, and then realise that this (stylistically similar) beer came first. If Hop Head IPA had been pouring in downtown Auckland or Wellington, rather than sleepy North Canterbury, it could easily have been Brew Moon that was remembered as the progenitor of the hop-forward craft beer revolution rather than Epic.
Consider the absolutely fundamental effect Epic Pale Ale had on New Zealand craft brewing, and then realise that this (stylistically similar) beer came first. If Hop Head IPA had been pouring in downtown Auckland or Wellington, rather than sleepy North Canterbury, it could easily have been Brew Moon that was remembered as the progenitor of the hop-forward craft beer revolution rather than Epic.
Output continued to grow, and by 2015 was pushing the limits of the original brewery. Rather than trying to find a way to squeeze more kit into the space they set their sights on Amberley proper and secured the lease to an old warehouse just off the main road. The brewery, taproom and kitchen still occupy that site today.
Amberley can be thought of as the capital of the vast North Canterbury hinterland. It isn’t particularly hip or urban, but it’s a vital hub for the surrounding network of rural communities. Whether it’s for the school or the supermarket, everyone in North Canterbury is coming to or through Amberley eventually, and with Brew Moon’s fresh beer and renowned woodfired pizzas on offer, that turn onto Markham Street has become a familiar one for many.
While many brewers can be quite guarded when it comes to sharing opinions, Belinda is compellingly frank. She believes fiercely in truly independent brewing and what intrinsically defines the craft in beer. I could (and may yet) write another article, as Belinda is prepared to weigh in on everything from contract brewing to tied taps and the (lack of) legislation against the practice. For now though, I’m going to stick with some of the soft-balls, like how trends in consumer tastes had changed during her time.
“Trends come and go, I remember back in about 2011 I brewed a crazy, interesting sour beer. It had a few knowledgeable followers, but most punters didn’t understand and we ended up putting it down the drain because it put people off. Now all craft bars have a sour or two on tap. Some trends are rediscoveries of traditional styles with a modern twist —Berliner Weisse and Gose — and some, like hazies, are pretty much a new creation.”
These days our thirst for hops has well and truly caught up with America’s, and in recent years Brew Moon has been able to finally return those super hop-driven styles that first inspired them. Belinda remembers her first encounter with the experimental Hort 4337 hop, which would go on to become Nectaron, as one that drove one of her favourites the 2018 Fuzzy Cuzzy Single Hop APA.
Of course, I couldn’t resist asking if there had ever been a ‘Never again’ beer…
“Wild Cherry Saison … we spent a day in December 2017 picking wild cherries to add to a saison. It was a hot day and we were in shorts and tee shirts getting eaten by sandflies and trying to get enough cherries to fill our buckets with tiny wild cherries. The beer was kind of OK but because the pips to flesh ratio was out of whack it had a distinct cyanide/almond character. Definitely not worth all that effort!”
Coinciding with the anniversary, this is the year Belinda has finally decided to step back from her role as head brewer. That now passes to another former winemaker Rebecca ‘Becs’ Cope, who joined the team after returning from work in Japan. I asked how she felt about the daunting task of stepping up to become head brewer.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge of filling Belinda’s boots, and I am thankful that I have had such a great teacher and mentor. She has taught me so much, and although I know she will be enjoying sailing her boat, I know she will always be there to bounce ideas off and to collaborate with me on future brews.”
As much as a new chapter is about to begin for Brew Moon, the core ideas of “drink fresh, drink local and drink real” will continue to steer their vision. Following that, you won’t find their beer on a supermarket shelf, so anyone further afield who wants to explore the range will need to buy direct from their website, or keep their eyes peeled for something on tap.
I expect to hear many more stories from the annals of Canterbury craft when the Brew Moon 20th birthday celebration is held on the October 22, starting at 1pm right next to the brewery on 10 Markham Street, rain or shine.