In Richard Brimer’s lovely 1995 photographic book Microbreweries of New Zealand there are portraits of 45 brewers/breweries, possibly the sum total of microbreweries operating at the time.
Today, only a few physical breweries (Galbraith’s, Shakespeare, Roosters, Sunshine, Mike’s, Mac’s/Stoke) still exist. And of the people portrayed in that book only five — that I can count — still actively work in the industry. Keith Galbraith, Richard Emerson, Paul Cooper (Wigram), the McCashin family — and Nigel Jerard.
Jerard has a long history in beer dating back to the 1990s when he started Milkshed Brewing in rural Christchurch. He left beer for a few years to work as an electrician but a move from Christchurch to Nelson re-sparked the brew bug.
Jerard’s career in beer is great reminder that Nelson and its wider region are deeply connected with the history of beer in New Zealand, dating back to when Germans settled in the area and planted the first hops.
Identities such as Jerard, Martin Townshend, Tracy Banner (Instagram handle @mamabeer says it all), the McCashin family, Simon Nicholas (Hop Federation), and American imports such as Jim Matranga (Golden Bear) and the Heynekamps, Mic and Molley (Eddyline) bring a real tradition of beer to the area. As well as the people there’s also the places: From The Free House to (arguably) the oldest pub in the land, the Moutere Inn, to the revamped Riwaka Hotel, Nelson has great venues at which to enjoy the local produce.
It’s why a few years ago, when Nelson and Wellington engaged in a friendly tussle involving the words “craft” and “capital” it was hard to pick a winner.
Nelson grabbed the tag Craft Brewing Capital to signal that, at the time, the region had a large number of craft breweries and — to an extent — to signpost the wider Nelson region’s rich beer history. Around the same time, Wellington created the Craft Beer Capital moniker to reflect the growing number of bars serving craft beer. Wellington then didn’t have the breweries to match Nelson, but the capital certainly drove the early 20th century interest in New Zealand craft beer.
Today, with an ever-growing number of breweries in the city, Wellington is undoubtedly the beating heart of New Zealand’s craft beer scene.
So, what, then, is Nelson?
Well, it’s something better than a capital. It’s the spiritual home of New Zealand craft beer.
It’s where 99.9 per cent of our hops are grown and it’s where the craft beer revolution began in 1981 when Mac’s fought tooth and nail to get into an industry heavily guarded by Lion and DB, the two powerhouse breweries who thought they’d ring-fenced New Zealand beer for themselves.
And every year, March is Nelson’s time to shine. It’s when the hop harvest is in full swing and fresh hops are literally flying out the doors of the major hop farms.
Each year, Marchfest celebrates all that’s great about the area’s beer culture — except, sadly, this year when Marchfest had to be cancelled because of the omicron outbreak.
But there’s still plenty of reasons to put Nelson on your beer-travel itinerary.
The Free House
The phrase “free house” is given to pubs not “tied” to breweries. For many years in New Zealand all pubs were tied to one of the two (now three) big breweries and it’s a still a widespread practice today albeit with more subtle methods than outright brewery ownership. A free house, in contrast, is independent.
Housed in an old church on the edge of the city, the vibe of The Free House is a mix of olde English pub inside and vibrant garden bar outside. The honey-coloured wood inside sets the reverential tone as you make your way to the altar of beer with its colourful taps.
It’s always busy but don’t be put off by a queue for the bar, the staff are excellent and it never takes long to get a beer.
Importantly, there’s always some cask beer on tap – the so-called warm and flat stuff – but the best ways to enjoy a well-balanced malty-hoppy beer like Townshend ESB.
Workshop / Test Lab
It’s a short walk around the corner from The Free House to New Street, to The Workshop. While the brewery is new, founder Nigel Jerard has been hammering away in beer since before it was cool. And that hammering is literal – he did most of the work on the brewpub himself – which includes a shipping container bar with a car perched on top, reflecting his other passion in life besides beer.
He opened The Workshop the yin to yang of the old church around the corner, aka The Free House. The Workshop’s is all industrial look (concrete, steel, shipping container with a car on the roof) but brings a warmth and an invitation to relax back on a Friday and enjoy the live music that’s on every week.
Jerard has also just started Test Lab brewery, a brewery with an alien-theme, and has a Pale Ale and Hazy in the line-up so far. The over-riding reason for the new brewery name is that there were two Workshops in New Zealand. Jerard’s in Nelson and the Raglan outfit, so Jerard though it best to end the confusion.
Sprig & Fern
If Richard Emerson is the godfather on modern New Zealand craft brewing (and he is) – then Tracy Banner is the godmother. From a brewing background in England, Banner worked for Mac’s and Speight’s – where she was the first woman to be appointed head brewer. She was doing all this before “craft” was even a term. She started Sprig & Fern in 2005 and – it’s fair to say – has built an empire. There are Sprig & Fern taverns throughout the wider Nelson region, as well as Wellington and Christchurch.
The beer is always excellent – the ethos is around drinkability: the kind of beers made for a pub where sociability and fun are paramount.
Whichever part of Tasman you’re in, you’ll not be far from a Sprig & Fern – the city, Richmond, Tahuna, Motueka, Mapua, Brightwater – but if you can find time to sit in the old suburban bungalow in The Wood on a sunny Sunday afternoon, you’ll know happiness. For the full Nelson experience this coming fresh hop season have a Harvest Pilsner, or try the Crème of the Hop – the original Nectaron-hopped pale packed with pineapple and citrus flavours.
The Hop and Beer Museum is located in Founders Park. To be fair, don’t get your hopes (hops) up – the museum will keep you occupied for a few minutes. The old brewing equipment is a curiosity and the posters on the wall make for interesting reading but it’s fair to say this is not what you’d call a deep dive into New Zealand’s brewing history. The wider Founders Park experience though is quite good fun and well worth the $10 entry fee.
Biking and beering
Beer and biking has a long, entwined history – after all the Germans invented a beer style called Radler (translated = cyclist) to describe a shandy-style beer designed to be consumed at the end of a long ride.
The Nelson Great Taste Trail is the ideal way to explore the region’s beer – and you don’t even need to be that fit thanks to electric mountain bikes.
The trail is nicely divided up into sections and you can join anywhere you like – or bravely do the entire loop. It’s best to talk to the bike hire company about options, but if you’re going from the city to Mapua it’s a relatively flat ride that might take you 2-3 hours depending on how fast you want to go and how many times you want to stop for a refreshment.
The suburb of Stoke is the home of the original Mac’s brewery – set up in an old cider factory by Terry McCashin in 1981 when he ended a barren post-war duopoly period in New Zealand brew history in which Lion and DB bought and (usually) closed dozens of regional breweries up and down the country.
Mac’s paved the way for craft wave that followed, and when Lion bought the brewery, the McCashin family went back to brewing on the original premises making their Stoke brand. They also make Wakachangi on behalf of Lee Hart as well some of the Moa range. The McCashin’s taproom is connected to the brewery but is run independently and is a great place to kick off your ride with brunch. There’s an ever-changing range of Stoke beers and Wakachangi will always be on tap.
Mic and Molley Heynekamp owned a brewery in Colorado called Eddyline. When they moved to Nelson they opened up another Eddyline — the New Zealand version. They’ve since sold the US business and are focused on growing the brand here. They started off with a brewpub and pizzeria in Richmond – and that’s still there and carries their branding – but they’ve moved and improved the brewery and are about to open a new taproom and taqueria. Since you’ve got some cycling to do, have a pizza and an Eddylite – a 2.5 per cent IPA that’s one of the best low alcohol beers in the country.
Continue riding out on to Rabbit Island and follow the route to Mapua, which you reach by ferry. There’s nothing glamourous about this little scoot across the Waimea Inlet entrance – it’s just a couple of minutes – but it’s simple, serene and gorgeous.
Hop out on the other side and have a lazy look around the wonderful Mapua Wharf – the home Golden Bear.
Golden Bear is the state symbol of California – the original home for Jim Matranga, who founded the brewery shortly after arriving from Santa Monica in 2005 after first travelling here in 1994. Back in 94 he was so appalled by the state of New Zealand beer, he decided to learn how to brew in order to move back here as a brewer.
Golden Bear are one of those under-the-radar – or hidden gem even? – stars of the New Zealand brew scene. A few years ago, you could get the occasional Golden Bear offering in the wild but the operation is now entirely focused on the local area making it a must-visit spot. If there’s a smoked IPA on tap, give that a whirl for a hint of something different.
If you don’t do the bike thing, make sure you catch the ferry when you venture to Mapua. It’s a very short jaunt across the Waimea Inlet from the Mapua side to Rabbit Island. You can go there and back in one go just for a laugh and some nice pics, or you can get out on the Rabbit Island and take a walk on the beach and catch the next ferry an hour later.
Motueka / Townshends
Martin Townshend started brewing in a shed Moutere back in 2005 as a one-man band. His eponymous brewery was crowned champion brewery of New Zealand in 2015. A few bumps in the road – too many to explain here – dented his progress for a while but the brewery’s relocation to Motueka has revitalised the brand.
Townshend is one of the great characters of the New Zealand brewing scene and his personality comes through in beers that are straight-up engaging and delicious.
The new brewery is located at the back of the famous Toad Hall café – on the left just before you hit the township of Motueka. Toad Hall gets extremely busy – and for good reasons, the brunch menu is one of the best in the country, so it pays to book if you want to eat.
But there’s nothing better than sitting out in the garden bar on a warm Nelson evening and having a beer that’s as honest as the day is long. The Blitzgreig IPA is a classic.
Riwaka / Hop Federation
Nelson brewing, it seems, is built on those who have come from elsewhere – England, America, Christchurch, Auckland.
Simon and Nicki Nicholas came to Nelson from Auckland in and took over the oddly-named Monkey Wizard brewery, creating Hop Federation. They recently sold the brand to Maori food and beverage company Kono but continue to work in the business, with Simon focused on brewing a tight range of high-quality beers.
If Hop Federation was in an urban setting, you’d call it a hole-in-a-wall type place – but in rural Riwaka it’s more like a beer version of a road-side fruit stall. It might be small – cute is a better word – but don’t let that fool you, they make some of the best beers in the country. And whatever is on tap for takeaway will be as fresh as it can be, served, as it should be, in the shadow of the brewery. Their Red IPA is arguably the best of its kind in New Zealand.
If you’re more inclined to sit down and rest your cycle- or walk-weary legs then just up the road is the revamped Riwaka Hotel, which is worth a visit for the huge range of beer on tap and the great pub-grub – you can even stay the night in the refurbished accommodation.
It’s hard to dispute the Moutere Inn’s claim to being the oldest pub in New Zealand. They’ve cornered the market for the search term with Google and there’s also the framed history of other the contenders on the wall. The Duke of Marlborough, Wellington’s Thistle Inn, the Horeke Hotel and the Waitaki Hotel are all pretenders to the crown because unlike many of its rivals, The Moutere Inn never burned down nor got completely renovated. To have a beer in a bar that’s been in operation for 170 years is quite a treat. And they pride themselves on a good range of almost exclusively South Island producers with a focus on the local area.
A version of this article first appeared in Kia Ora Magazine