The Beer Project was conceived in July 2009 as a two-year project to document the 50-odd breweries in New Zealand. Obviously, I missed my deadline, not photographing my 50th brewery, Mata, until 2017. And now, the number of breweries has risen to over 200, which at my current rate will mean I will finish sometime around 2099.

There were also a couple of regions I had missed. So, I came up with a simple plan: photograph the breweries of Taranaki and Northland, attend a wedding in Gisborne, and visit as many other breweries as I could on my way around the North Island. A summer road trip! 

It was a very successful mission. Many photos were taken, stories heard, and beers tasted. There was a great range of breweries and people, from a retired engineer producing beers he loves to drink on a lovingly handmade scale (Karamu Barrelworks) to the brewery with massive fermenters brewing four times a day to keep up with demand (Sawmill).

From a brewer with a PhD in freshwater ecology whose soul was crushed by district council politics to the fresh-faced assistant brewer not long out of school, both inquisitive in their own way.

“Do other breweries do this? It seems weird,” the young brewer asked me. “Yes, everyone does it that way.”

And everyone is striving, and generally succeeding, to make exceptional beer. Full run-downs on each brewery will follow over the coming months. For now here are some photos and an eclectic list of observations.

With the rapid rise in the number of breweries I’ve often wondered where all of the brewers are coming from.

While there are many graduating from home brewing or local courses, I found these are supplemented by many overseas brewers, some on working holiday visas, some moving here permanently, and some gaining experience before they head home to open their own breweries.

I met brewers from almost every continent: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Japan, Poland, and the USA were all represented. In a culture that encourages young Kiwis to take off overseas on their OE to gain ideas and experiences, it’s great to see that people are keen to come here for the same. The intermingling of ideas can only make our local beer scene stronger.

As a friend I was staying with in Auckland looked through my photos, he asked whether there many women brewers. I listed a few but was disappointed with the number I could come up with and I hadn’t encountered any in the 12 breweries I’d visited up until that point.

The Beer Project
Nona at Sunshine Brewery

I was pleasantly surprised when four of the next few breweries I visited had at least one woman on the brew team. Nona, who has been brewing with Sunshine since she finished her brewing course at Otago University, told me the majority of her class were women so that’s a hopeful sign that number of women in the industry will continue to grow.

Some highlights from the trip:

Northern-most brewery: Kainui in Kerikeri. I photographed Invercargill Brewery in 2016, then the southern-most (and western-most!) brewery in NZ, so one of the main aims of this trip was to visit the northern-most brewery to balance things out. Brewer Paul Keating returned to his hometown after many years working overseas on luxury yachts and skifields. He is making some great beers that are sadly only available from the Plough & Feather in Kerikeri. Make the effort to visit and try the Hellhole of the Pacific, a smokey red IPA at 6.66%.

The Beer Project
Paul Keating at Kainui Brew Co

Most ironic reason for starting a brewery: Doug Eng at The Theoretical Brewer, in Bell Block, on the outskirts of New Plymouth, laughs about how he got started. “My wife told me I was spending too much on beer and bought me a home brew kit. She’s paying for it now!”

Best sound system: Sawmill. Huge PA speakers throughout the brewery pumping out some great beats. The packaging crew definitely had a good rhythm on while boxing cans.

Best brewery artwork: Workshop Brewing in Raglan has so much great art on the wall, all by local artists.

Best food: Shining Peak. I had the chicken salad from the employees’ menu and it was so delicious I wish I’d had the time to go through the rest of the menu. A must-visit in Taranaki.

Most photogenic: Karamu Barrelworks. Situated on Daryl Bryant’s rural property, everything about the place seems magical and suggests that he is happy focusing on long-term results: from brewing spontaneously fermented beers that take years to mature, to the trees he and his wife planted on the property when they moved in 30 years ago, the bonsai plants on the garden table, the beautiful brewery buildings hand-built by Daryl using traditional 16th century techniques, to the beautiful gardens. I could have spent days here photographing, and just absorbing the tranquility.

The Beer Project
Daryl Bryant at Karamu Barrelworks

Most interesting experimentation: Having a PhD suggests an inquisitive mind but Bruno David from Workshop Brewing in Raglan seems to take it to another level. He had fascinating insights about sustainable packaging, CO2 recapture, using local fruits in beers, spritzers, and non-alcoholic sodas, but my favourite was his research and experimentation using toasted totara from his own property to “barrel-age” beers. Get down to the brewery and try their totara stouts. Amazing.

Best view: Pacific Coast Beverages in Mangawhai looks over a vineyard down to the harbour. I’m looking forward to heading back to visit once they get their bar open. What a spot.

Favourite photo of the trip: this is a lot like asking a brewer what their favourite beer is. It’s hard to pick your favourite child. Shooting with off-camera flash created some very cool, moody shots, and I took some great portraits using a 50-year-old medium format camera, but I think I’ll go with the photo that makes me smile the most. As I was leaving Urbanaut I tried to capture the repetitive pattern of boxes in the chiller. Suddenly co-founder Bruce Turner appeared looking for beers. A quick reaction snap that gives you the joyful surprise of finding a person amongst the mountain of boxes. Love it.

The Beer Project
Bruce Turner of Urbanaut Brewery

What a tour! The final stats: 24 days, 3441km, 20 breweries, 2277 photos, including 60 on film. It was an epic summer adventure.

Maybe it’s the South Island’s turn next summer… To see more photos from the road trip visit my Instagram: @jedsoane.