Austin Hobson was born to be a brewer, his Belgian mother and home-brewing English father setting him on the path that would eventually lead him to starting Ruapehu Brewing in the North Island ski town of Ohakune.
“My grandmother was Belgian and my mother was born there, so I grew up around good beer, and we made family trips to Belgium from a young age. And my dad home-brewed as well,” says Hobson with his strong Bristol accent.
A devout snowboarder, he travelled the world looking for snow and during that time met plenty of New Zealanders who told him to come down-under.
“They said to come here, so I did, and I never left.”
After travelling around New Zealand, he set down in Ohakune and started home-brewing because “I missed the smell of my dad’s home brewing so started doing that in the shed.”
He got good feedback from friends and decided to go professional.
“My wife Janelle had a shop in the old Ohakune Railway Station which had a small commercial kitchen and that’s when I did all the paperwork to turn it into a commercial venture.”
The small brewery got some taps at the local Kings Bar and started to build a reputation.
“Between the locals and people from out of town, they kept cleaning me out. Kings would put a keg on and they’d drink it in one weekend and then they’d have to wait another two or three weeks for another batch.”
Then Hobson then met Greg Hickman, who had returned to New Zealand after a number of years in Asia and wanted to set up a meadery, Big Mountain.
“Greg was going to build a meadery and I was expanding as well so we figured it was pointless me buying a tank, him buying a tank, so we joined forces.”
The pair took over the old movie theatre and have a large steam brewery and meadery installed.
It’s a big investment in a small town but Hobson believes the location, plus the tourists, will make it work.
“Ohakune’s unique in that we have people coming in from both Auckland and Wellington and they are already quite well educated around craft beer.
“It’s a small village, but during the weekends in winter it turns into a busy town and those visitors either have good beer-drinking knowledge or they are seeking something local.”
He’s now got an employee, Nicole Jerez, originally from Chile and with a background in food technology.
“Nicole is a friend of a friend and had been living in town for a while. Was a food technologist who had worked in wine industry in Chile and here. She wanted to get in to the industry but that was when I was in the small premises and there wasn’t room for two people, so I said ‘just wait until we get a bigger brewery’.
“She’s a fantastic employee — actually I wouldn’t call her an employee, she’s the boss. She keeps me up to task. It’s just me and Nicole that brew and do all the work, although we’ve just got an intern from the brew school, another local lad, Neil Fisher.”
Hobson hadn’t entered any competitions in the past because all his beer sold locally.
“I threw in a couple of beers to the New World Awards get feedback because I’ve never had capacity in past to put beers out there because they didn’t go out of Ohakune, but now we have capacity to push it further afield.
“Initially when I heard we were Top 30 I was thinking ‘Top 30 in the hazies is pretty good’ but no, I was told it’s the overall Top 30 and then it was ‘holy shit, it’s quite serious’.”
The name of the beer might confuse some punters as Unlimited Vis implies clear beer but as Hobson says, it’s a bit of in-joke.
“You read the snow report here in the paper and many days it would say ‘Unlimited Vis’ – meaning clear visibility, no cloud, no rubbish. So, you drive up there and it’s such a fickle mountain, when you get there it’s cloudy and foggy and hazy. So, the name is a piss-take on the snow report — when you think it’s going to be a beautiful day but you get there and it’s cloudy.”
The beer itself is a different kind of hazy, with a bit more grunt to it and some bitterness.
Hobson was always happy with the beer, but he had a minor revelation when a couple of visitors from America called into see him.
“One of them had a Tree House t-shirt on and we got into a conversation and I told them it was a dream to go there to Massachusetts and drink King Julius. And they said, ‘hold on …’
“They went out to their car and came back with a chilled can of Tree House Green Machine. They later found King Julius in the car and came back and said ‘here, have your bucket list beer’.
“What got me was how bitter those beers were, which I really liked. We’d already been making Unlimited Vis in that style and it made me think ‘OK, it’s not bad … you don’t have to make it all soft and pillowy and juicy. So, it gave me confidence.”
With the new brewery now fully up and running after some teething issues with the steam, and on the back of this award, it’s likely you’ll be seeing more Ruapehu Brewing beers around the traps, and for Hobson, regardless of the snow report, the future looks bright.