At just 29, Charlotte Feehan is possibly one of the youngest head brewers in the country, after joining Abandoned in Lower Hutt.
Feehan (find her @thebrewkidontheblock) has already crammed a huge amount of experience into her life — from gaining a BA at Victoria University, working at Garage Project in Wellington and then doing stints at Stomping Ground and Deeds in Melbourne. She’s also a Certified Cicerone and furniture mover.
Wait, what? Furniture mover? Hang on, and we’ll get to that.
“I’ve been able to work in some really amazing breweries in New Zealand and Australia,” she says.
Feehan started her beer career when she rocked up to Garage Project in Aro Valley to apply for a job working at their cellar door.
At university she lived just around the corner and would buy Garage Project beer whenever her student budget would allow.
Garage Project run a programme where all staff get a chance to do a brew day and Feehan didn’t take long to realise that was her calling.
“Halfway through my brew day I thought `hell yeah this is what I want to be doing’.
She did her brewer’s apprenticeship at Garage Project and completed the Certified Cicerone programme before “some personal stuff” prompted a move to Melbourne.
There she worked at two breweries, starting at Stomping Ground in Collingwood, where brewing dovetailed with some educational work with bar staff.
Her love of talking about beer took her to Carwyn Cellars, a bottle shop and bar where she worked in beer education — hosting events for punters and running internal training, including guiding other staff members through a Cicerone programme.
When that role ended, she took a job at Deeds Brewing — but that coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic and she was made redundant.
“As a New Zealand citizen in Australia I didn’t get any government support,” Feehan explains. So she took a job as a furniture mover — and the irony is that it was surprisingly busy through the middle of last year as Melbourne endured a super-long lockdown. Mainly, it turned out that people were moving to get away from people they’d been locked down with.
“We soon learned not to ask people is if this is a good move or not a good move. So many people were moving to get away from flatmates or others.”
That job ended when Feehan stepped off a truck onto uneven drain and broke her ankle. At that point she decided Melbourne was giving her a message: it was time to go home.
“I was a bit sad and desperate and feeling sorry myself but I thought I’d change the narrative and told myself: ‘I don’t think of it as running home to mum. More like I was fleeing a foreign country under the threat of a global pandemic’.
“After six months of lockdown and lack of support, it was so good to be back in New Zealand.”
Photos by Sophia Stace
When Tim Ward, owner of Abandoned Brewery, learned through a mutual friend that Feehan was back in the country he offered her a job — for the second time.
“Tim had previously asked me to be his brewer when I’d already accepted a position at Stomping Ground, and when he learned I was back in country he sent me a message.”
That message arrived on a Wednesday — the day after Feehan said yes to a summer job in Blenheim working for wine-making giant Pernod Ricard.
“I had never worked anywhere on a scale close to that. It was wine, not beer, but a lot of cellaring processes are similar enough. I wanted to see how you work things on such a momentous scale.
“I said to Tim ‘sorry I’ve got a contract until April’ and he said ‘OK, see you in April then’.
“I’d never been head-hunted like that before — it was quite a nice feeling.”
Ward says the brewer first came on his radar a couple of years ago when a mutual friend asked him if Feehan could have an Abandoned T-shirt.
“Then when I met her, I felt straight away she would fit right in with our culture. She’s a young punk with a real great attitude to life — she’s super keen to grow knowledge and is so great with people and relationships.
“I just spontaneously said to her ‘you should come work with me’ and I just kept following her progress and waited for the opportunity and struck.”
Feehan says her first week on the job was full-on, and included writing recipes for various IPA challenges and Beervana.
“I think the term ‘hit the ground running’ would suffice. I’m pretty excited to have more creative control to make beers that I really love.
“I’ll be doing some cool classic stuff, as well as some funky and new-age stuff as well.
“I have really strong appreciation for classic traditional styles — we’re so overwhelmed with new age craft beer we sometimes forget where beer comes from. There’s nothing wrong with those classic styles — they’re actually delicious.”
And this is where Feehan’s BA, majoring in anthropology kicks in — with an appreciation of the “cultural significance of beer”.
“Northing develops in vacuum and learning about the cultural history of how styles developed and how geographical regions influenced them — that really fires me up. When I teach about beer, I love showing people classic styles and talking about why they exist.”
In some ways, her journey in beer has brought her full circle back to her university studies and she loves exploring the connection between beer and our development as a species.
“Almost every facet of human culture has developed some kind of grain-based alcohol —and there’s the argument for whether beer or bread started human domesticated grains.
“You’ve got ale wives who ensured there was always beer as clean source for drinking, the way the industrial revolution crucially changed beer … it’s just everywhere.
“For me it’s awesome to become interested in beer separately from my degree and then re-find my passion for anthropology through beer.”