At the periphery of New Zealand’s beer scene you’ll find a tight-knit community of brewers and beer lovers who like to get decidedly funky. Alongside the huge growth of craft beer over the past 10-15 years, a subculture of sour beer, wild-fermented, and farmhouse fanatics has slowly developed into a spirited and fascinating movement.
This movement was in full force in October, when the second Funk on the Water festival took place at the Boat Shed in Wellington. Around 300 beer geeks gathered on the waterfront to celebrate funky beers and ciders, with over 30 wild and wonderful brews to choose from, including many spontaneously-fermented ales, barrel-aged saisons and fruit-based sours.
Funk on the Water co-founder David Wood wanted to recreate the cosy community atmosphere of former-Wellington beer festivals like the Pacific Beer Expo (PBE) and the Winter Ales Festival, and he felt the time was right for an event that focused solely on wild and funky brews.
“Back when I was helping run PBE, just having exciting IPAs was enough of a point of difference,” says David. “But now the New Zealand beer scene has progressed so much that you can get an amazing selection of beer like that any day of the week… we’re so spoiled with normal styles of beer.”
Finding a large selection of funky beers (like geuze or lambics) is much rarer, as these beers don’t yet have a mainstream following. They often take years to brew and the cost can be prohibitive, with price-points sometimes closer to a bottle of wine than to your average beer.
The flavour profile is another potential barrier to mass appeal, as these brews can be very tart, dry, and ‘horsey’, due to the use of wild yeast and bacteria — such as Brettanomyces or lactobacillus. Many of these beers taste more like champagne or good cider, compared to malt and hop-driven “clean” beers.
Despite being niche, there’s undoubtedly a bigger following for these styles than there was 10 years ago, and there are many more breweries making them. The growth in popularity of more accessible (and often sweeter) kettle sours has introduced many beer drinkers to the concept of high acidity and fruitiness in beer, which can be a gateway to appreciating Belgian-style “spontaneously fermented” ales. This shift in culture and increase in production has made a festival like Funk on the Water possible.
“The beer didn’t exist 10 years ago,” says David. “It’s been breweries like 8 Wired and Garage Project’s Wild Workshop leading the way — starting barrel programs — that’s really brought spontaneously-fermented sours to the mainstream.”
While more beer like this is available nowadays, 8 Wired owner and head brewer Soren Erikson feels the demand is starting to plateau. “My general feeling is that the interest is not necessarily growing,” says Soren. “The people who are interested in that kind of beer are interested, and the people who aren’t probably won’t ever be.”
For 8 Wired, the one exception to this trend is the Wild Feijoa Sour Ale, named Champion New Zealand Beer at the 2023 NZ Beer Awards. Soren believes this beer has a much broader appeal than the more traditional barrel-aged beers he makes, and while he isn’t making larger batches, each release sells out faster than the previous year’s. “I notice at our taproom, people who are drinking that beer are not necessarily hardcore beer nerds.”
Oliver and Hannah Drake at Wilderness Brewing in Christchurch have been brewing wild beers on a nano scale since 2017. For Funk on the Water, Oli worked with fellow farmhouse brewer Jamie McQuillan of Cell Division to create Wildfire — a spontaneously fermented sour ale made without the use of electricity or gas. They crushed 60kg of grain by hand, heated 400 litres of water over a wood fire, lautered the wort through a bed of hay and cooled it overnight in a coolship. The beer was then barrel-aged for 18 months and fermented with a mix of microbes from the coolship, along with a sourdough culture named Percy. In terms of beer-nerdery, this is close to the pinnacle.
Although many Wilderness beers are esoteric, Oli has a lot of experience converting sour beer newcomers, and he says people are often surprised by how much they enjoy them. “We do a farmer’s market on Saturdays — a lot of people come to that and try our beers who have never heard of us, or have never tried funky beer before. Some people just instantly dislike the idea of a sour beer, but other people really like it, even though they’ve never tried it before.”
So what does the future hold for wild and funky beers in New Zealand? Based on anecdotal evidence and their widening availability in bars and stores around the country, it seems demand is slightly increasing, but further growth is likely to be — much like the beers themselves — a slow process, especially in the current economic climate.
While many brewers are passionate about these beers and would love them to be more financially viable, there’s also a sense that some of the joy would be lost if they started appealing to the masses. Making niche beers for a tight-knit community of serious beer geeks allows brewers a lot of creative freedom, alongside heartfelt customer appreciation of their craft. In the unlikely scenario of Funk on the Water one day being the size of Beervana, there’s no doubt a lot of magic and warmth would be lost.
“What we’re really aiming for is people coming to a beer festival to appreciate the beer in a nice environment,” says David Wood. “We treat them like adults; we give them glasses that are made of glass. They can relax, drink some nice beers and talk about them – catching up with a load of beer people they haven’t seen in ages. There’s a great community feel to it.”
That friendly, peaceful atmosphere is a huge draw card for Funk on the Water. Together with great curation, organisation and a beautiful location, the festival is perfectly poised to entice a new wave of beer lovers to the funky side of town. Here’s hoping it goes from strength to strength, because events like this are good for the heart and soul of New Zealand’s beer industry.