Who better to answer the question of whether brewing is more art or science than a neuroscientist from Dunedin who was named New Zealand’s best homebrewer in 2016?
At the time of winning that award, Jamie McQuillan had been brewing for four years, and a year later set up Cell Division — a tiny brewery that specialises in farmhouse, sour, wild, funky and fruited beers. His exceptional, boundary-pushing brews (think loquat gose, quince sour, pear grisette) have since developed a cult following amongst beer aficionados throughout the country, with demand far exceeding the quantity he is currently able to produce.
Although McQuillan had a lot of success brewing more mainstream beer styles and won several awards for his IPAs at homebrewing competitions, as soon as he started experimenting with farmhouse, wild and sour brewing, he never looked back. “I just make what I like to drink. The experimental side of it is much more fascinating and unpredictable.”
Cell Division’s first beer was a sourdough Berliner Weisse, which was brewed using a sourdough culture from Pip Honeychurch, co-owner of Dunedin’s The Portsider pub, and a long-term supporter of McQuillan’s endeavours. “They’ve really nurtured what I do. I believe they’ve had every single beer I’ve ever made, quite a number of which have never gone on tap anywhere else.”
If you look through Cell Division’s back catalogue you’ll find an array of goses, grisettes, berliners, saisons and sours, with all sorts of unusual fruits and other adjuncts at play. Most of the beers are brewed with mixed ferments, rare and wild yeast cultures, and go through various forms of conditioning and barrel-ageing. At the core of many of these beers you’ll find McQuillan’s house culture, which he’s been nurturing for over seven years. When he speaks about this culture you’ll see a sense of pride and contentment in his eyes, akin to a parent whose child has just won a medal at sports day.
You’ll also discover a world of fun collaborations at the heart of Cell Division, including several with the late cider genius Alex Peckham. McQuillan first made contact with Peckham’s Cider when he was looking to sell them apples from his father’s Nelson-based orchard, but after meeting Caroline Peckham at an event in Dunedin, plans for a collaborative brew were put in place. “For the first one, Alex sent me down some cider apple juice and I blended it with a sour beer. We called it ‘Blend it like Peckham’.”
This led to a long and fruitful partnership, and in 2020, after McQuillan’s plans for a world tour were scuppered by the pandemic, Cell Division relocated to Nelson and brewed on-site at the Peckham’s cidery. “Alex was a very welcoming and open collaborator. We were always learning from each other, which is kind of flattering for me. He was always asking questions, sharing his samples and talking about things. It was great.”
Cell Division and Peckham’s have just released the last collaboration between Alex and McQuillan. It’s a wild-fermented, oak-aged, single varietal cider with the added twist of Cell Division’s house culture. It captures their shared vision of experimentation with the aim of making something unique and delicious.
Think orchards in autumn, spiced apple, oak and funk with a super dry, tannic finish.
The more you learn about Cell Division, the more you realise that every beer released has an interesting tale to tell. There’s a phenomenal level of depth and detail that goes into every brew, along with copious amounts of time and care, resulting in beers that would be almost impossible to replicate if brewed on a large commercial scale. Just like a novel, these beers have well developed characters, settings and plots — they are directly connected with the land where they’re created, and with the people who work the land; very much in keeping with the tradition of farmhouse brewing. “All my beers have a bit of a story because that’s the way I work. They represent a time and a place — where I am and what’s available.”
When I recently spoke with Lee-Ann Scotti of Oamaru’s Craftwork Brewery, another frequent Cell Division collaborator, she compared wild and spontaneously fermented beers to old school photography on film, in that you don’t quite know what you’re going to get until the final unveiling of the developed print. This comparison with photography can be stretched further, in the context of beer being able to capture moments in time and space. McQuillan is very much creating a liquid diary, and brewing is the artform with which he expresses his life experience. “People always talk about brewing being a mix of science and art, but I think it’s more of an art. Although my science approach probably plays into it quite a lot.”
As a consumer it’s a privilege to enjoy this level of craftsmanship, but behind the scenes there are financial and logistical drawbacks to working on such a small scale, and with such time-intensive processes. “Cell Division needs to grow,” McQuillan acknowledges. “It’s not a huge money earner, and everything costs more on a small scale. But more so, it’s tough being able to give my product to only so many people. People are clamouring to get it.”
With a fast-growing market for farmhouse and sour beers, there’s undoubtedly potential for such a niche brewery to expand, but for now the future of Cell Division is far from certain, and McQuillan’s main focus is returning to his full-time career in neuroscience. There are definitely ideas to grow the brewery, but when, where and how are yet to be decided. Being aware of all this seems to enhance the enjoyment of these ethereal beers, and their scarcity adds a little spice to the act of hunting them down. Those who seek them out will be rewarded with fleeting snapshots of a beautiful world.
You can occasionally find Cell Division at specialty beer venues in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. Follow @celldivisionbrewery on Instagram if you’d like to find out more.