If I trace my entire history with craft beer (nearly two decades now) back to the very first contact point, I find myself at Wigram Brewery.  I can’t remember what I bought, only that I’d heard there was a place you could go and fill plastic bottles with beer, and it was cheaper… 

It might sound like the naive thought process of any other student looking to save money on beer, and it was, but actually that wasn’t too far off the public perspective on craft beer back then.  Most people weren’t thinking about things like all-grain brewing or exotic styles, beer was beer, and the purchasing factors were brand loyalty and price. 

It shouldn’t be understated just how marginal the Christchurch brewing scene was 20 years ago.  The old Dux de Lux brewpub produced something akin to early craft beer as we know it, while the late great Canterbury Brewery mass-produced for Lion, and the (even then) long-established Harringtons operated in the “independent” brewing business, rather than craft beer as we’d recognise it today.  The Twisted Hop and Three Boys were on the horizon, but they weren’t here yet.  Choice was extremely limited.


That was the bleak horizon into which this new brewery took its first fledgling flight, and just like the district of Wigram itself, things have changed profoundly over the intervening two decades.

Wigram founder Paul McGurk acquired a taste for quality beer while travelling through the UK and Europe, finding New Zealand brewing lacking upon his return.  Unlike many of our other proto-brewers returning from overseas, Paul wasn’t star-struck by the complex ales of Britain, or modern American IPAs, he just wanted better beer.

“The thought of making a crisp, clear pilsner was always the goal.  The Dux de Lux beers were the benchmark at the time, a new version of a Grolsch or Heineken was what I aspired to create, not English styles or American.”

transformed, repurposed and reimagined

These days, building a new brewery typically involves serious investors and (increasingly) flashy crowdfunding campaigns.  Not so in the early aughts…  With a very slim budget, the first iteration of the Wigram brewery was patched together by Paul and his wife Caroline from what Paul describes as “transformed, repurposed and reimagined”stainless steel.  Though investment would come later in 2008, it was a No 8 wire mentality that held things together in the beginning.

Wigram’s first commercial brew (a lager) took place on December 7, 2002, and the first 50-litre keg was sold to Morley’s Bar in Hornby, for $90.  As Paul told me this I brought up my laptop’s calculator, ran the equation and just stared at the screen for a while…

(And yes, while we’re “celebrating” Wigram’s 20 years in brewing, it’s typical of their laidback style that it’s now almost 21 years!)

Paul was excited just to be selling something he’d brewed, despite the marginal returns, but it quickly became clear that keg sales were not going to provide the financial throughput required to support the new brewery.  The focus turned to bottled beer, and after a fraught period of hand-bottling and labelling, filling and packaging was moved to the Harrington’s facility.  Eventually Wigram bought an absolutely vintage bottling machine, a 1967 model, ex-Matson’s, ex-Kenny Beverages, ex-South Australia’s Fizzy.  Wigram would be the final owner of the venerable machine, which has now “sadly departed to the great metal dump in the sky, or on route to China…”  They’ve now finally switched to cans.


In 2016 the brewery finally outgrew the original site and shifted a couple of blocks down to 57 Sonter Road.  Paul imagines the move doubled costs, but quadrupled the available space, which seems like a fair trade-off.  Most recently (2020) a new bar and fillery was added to the front of the brewery.  Hangar 57 has become an important social focal point for the sprawling industrial area surrounding it, as well as a crucial source of revenue for the brewery.

The ability to sell their beer through their own establishment was critical.  Every litre of beer sold through Hanger 57 was worth five in the wild, which was a sobering thing to hear.  It’s easy for us who just get to drink beer and don’t have to sell it to forget the incredible costs of doing business in this industry. 

Solid beer at a reasonable price

Which brings us to the present.  It was a Friday afternoon as myself and Paul chatted.  People were drifting in and out of the bar, most to fill riggers for the encroaching Friday drinks.  High-vis, overalls and steel cap boots was the dress code.  These customers weren’t here for the latest experimental avocado grape sour, they were here for solid beer at a reasonable price, and I feel this is the core of the Wigram Brewery ethos, just as it was all those years ago. 

Aspects of the place, the vintage aviation theme of the branding — reflecting the Wigram Air Force base that was the area’s main activity for decades — and the way business is done, do seem suspended in time. For this some might paint Wigram as a brewery living in the past, but I see it as more of a living piece of it.  This is what brewing was, before it became fashionable and rockstar razzmatazz crept in, and while other breweries aimed for the moon, Wigram has always been about maintaining altitude. 

When asked if there was a favourite or signature style associated with the brewery the reply was: “the one that sells the most is the one we love the most”which might sound cynical, but if you’ve been in brewing for 20 years I think that’s an attitude you’re inevitably going to come to embrace.  For my part, I’ve always been fond of the dark beers out of Wigram, from their Trophy-winning Wee Reekysmoked scotch ale, to the (very) long running Czarimperial stout, their strong darks have always hit for me.  (They’ve also just released a celebratory pinot barrel-aged version of their multi-award winning Ace Smokey Porter which just claimed another gold at the recent NZ Beer Awards.)

Also, for as many sighs undoubtedly echoed around the brewery when they finally gave in and made one, the hazy is top notch.

As for what the next 20 years may have in store?  Paul would be the first to caution anyone against making bets on the future of brewing, but he does describe (somewhat esoterically) things as being in a reset stage at the moment for Wigram.  So perhaps change may be afoot for this classic brewery. 

You can find Wigram beer at New World supermarkets, direct from www.wigrambrewing.co.nz and over the bar in the industrial surrounds of the Wigram district itself at 57 Sonter Road.