Brewer Eugene Black and his partner Olivia Ryan had just landed back in New Zealand after a few years in Canada and wanted to try country life, rather than returning to Wellington.

They had a place on Olivia’s parents’ property in Masterton and Black was wondering about work when the perfect advertisement turned up: Martinborough Brewery was looking for a head brewer.

“We came back from Canada and didn’t want to to slot back into to our old Wellington lives — we wanted to give country living a go.

“For me it was perfect timing, when we arrived back I heard there was a job on offer at the only brewery in the Wairarapa.”

Black has a degree in medical chemistry and pharmacology and is a former home brewer who once had a contract operation, Webb Street Brewery, which was named for the street in Wellington where he and his brother-in-law used to home brew in a garage.

The Webb Street beers were brewed at The Occasional Brewer in Wellington, where Black worked for five years before moving to Vancouver, where he was head brewer at Streetcar Brewing.

His new gig at Martinborough came as the brewery moved into new ownership after it was started almost 10 years ago by Stephen Fox and Hayden Frew, who is still a small shareholder.

“I’d come back home to New Zealand with a lot of energy and wanted to experiment a bit more, brew beers that are not as mainstream as the original ones that were brewed here.

“We’re keeping those mainstays, every time we take one off tap a few people will complain. So, it’s about striking a balance of trying to keep the loyal followers happy and adding new taps to put on sours and hazies and modernise it a little bit.”

Martinborough brewing
Eugene Black of Martinborough Brewing

Ironically the beer that earned Martinborough it’s first Top-30 award is one that has been brewed for a few years, but which Black has tweaked over the past year.

Hop Elixir, described as a Bright IPA, used to feature different hops with each batch brewed but Black, on his first brew day was working alongside Frew and the pair came up with a hop combination they liked and have kept it that way ever since.

Since then Black has focused on the quality side of the production, changing processes to improve quality.

He’s found working on the 1200-litre kit at Martinborough a pleasant change from the 200-litre kit he brewed on at Streetcar.

“In Vancouver I was brewing three or four days a week. We were doing lots of experimental beers, including what my boss called ‘popsicle slushie sours’. But being the one and only brewer was really hard. I felt I was always chasing my tail.”

In contrast at Martinborough he brews once a week and as a result, he’s “being more considered and precise with my brew days”.

The result of that precision is on show with Hop Elixir, an elegant, bright IPA.

“If you tried Hop Elixir four years ago it would be totally different.

“While you could take the hops from it and brew a hazy, I called it a Bright IPA because it’s not a West Coast IPA and I didn’t want people to think it’s bitter and resinous, but I wanted to tell them it wasn’t a hazy either.”

Black said his main reason for entering the competition was to get feedback and was “shocked” to get a Top 30.

He said the timing is great for the new majority owner, Pankaj Patel, who returned to New Zealand a couple of years ago after more than 20 years in California working in the hotel industry. Black said Patel was keen to push the brewery beyond the local area.

“It’s very well established in Martinborough and has a devoted following here, but the new owner wants to push the beer further afield — mainly into Hawke’s Bay and Wellington — and the New World promotion will help with that.”

Apart from New World supermarkets for the month of the promotion, you can get more of Black’s beers at the brewery taproom in Ohio Street and they are also available at a number of wineries in the Martinborough area.