Tucked away on the gloomy industrial fringe of Christchurch’s central city you can find 12 Bar – a craft beer and live music venue all about the blues.
An apt choice maybe, as when they finally opened their doors earlier this year the city around them was about to close down. They made it through, but in the true spirit of the blues it will forever be a place born out of adversity and dark times.
Publican Matt Kamstra’s second establishment in the city, and the first one converted completely from scratch, was always going to be a big undertaking. He was skeptical when offered the old engineering workshop on the bleak St Asaph street, in the shadow of the (finally) demolished stadium, formerly known as Lancaster Park. But when he saw the ramshackle interior something clicked “When I saw the space I fell in love with it – you know when you walk into a room and you start to visualise everything in your mind’s eye and your brain just goes into overload? That was 12 Bar.”
Kamstra’s lifelong passion for blues made the theme an easy choice, as well as a good fit for the setting. Inspired by the great American dive bar, 12 Bar was designed to reject the tidy neat-ness of the reconstructed central city. It’s hoped that when the stadium is eventually rebuilt, the area can resist any creeping gentrification that might spread out from it. Personally, as someone who has always lived in Christchurch, I think he’s safe there. It would take a force beyond human means to get the grunge out of St Asaph street.
Jamie Trebilcock was coaxed over from his former role at the Volstead Trading Company to manage the venue and being involved early in the process allowed him to have a hand in designing the bar that he would manage.
Construction began in October of 2019. A couple of budget blowouts, some DIY waterproofing and a noise requirement regulations resulted in the entire premise having to be sealed (and consequently ventilated). And just as the delayed construction neared completion, the spectre of the COVID-19 pandemic was rising. 12 Bar opened its doors on February 7, literally weeks before lockdown.
Business was good initially, but as the pandemic fear rose, patrons stopped showing up. For the next few weeks 12 Bar (along with premises across the nation) stood silent.
With little opportunity for a publican to work from home, income ceased overnight, while building leases and other costs continued to tick over. Kamstra describes his method of dealing with the uncertainty: “I just kinda screwed everything in my head into a little ball and threw it on the corner of my brain to deal with later on. Not exactly healthy, but it stopped the stress from getting on top of me. We came pretty close to going to the wall.”
Over those uncertain days the stress and anxiety mounted and was shared by hospo up and down the country. Like many proprietors and employees, Kamstra faced the question: is this going to be the end?
Thankfully, the answer came relatively quickly as lockdown ended, though the restart of business was slow. Reopening at level 2 under heavy restrictions saw little traffic through the door, and it was only after the comparative normality of level 1 that people were returning in force.
Now, as the country seems close to being on the other side of the pandemic (spoiler: it isn’t), the crowds and music have returned.
St Asaph street has itself grown into a small community of craft beer and music focused venues, with indie grungeatorium Darkroom and omni-event venue Space Academy just a few steps away. You can also find two fridges stocked with beer from Garth Peterson’s Beer Library within 12 Bar itself, which can be enjoyed on site or taken to go.
12 Bar is thriving now, with a regular scene brewing around the place and custom continuing to increase. It would be tempting to say the hard times are over, but really this might just be the first hurdle, and could say as much for New Zealand itself. So, if you come here now and listen to the Blues, spare an ear for the silence that played here over those long, uneasy weeks.
12 Bar is open Wednesday through Sunday. Check the Facebook page to see when the next live band or jam session is cracking off (you won’t have to wait long). https://facebook.com/12barbrews/