A year after Cyclone Gabrielle destroyed his home, business and almost took his life, Chris Barber is calling it day with Zeelandt Brewing closing for good.

Barber said the last batch of contract-brewed beer was packaged this week and the decision to walk away from brewing was a bitter-sweet moment — a decision filled with as much relief as sadness.

Barber, his wife Luciana, their two children, Oliver and Sophie, and the dog, Barley, almost lost their lives during Cyclone Gabrielle as a wall of water and silt engulfed their house in Esk Valley. They were rescued from the roof of their house after Chris bashed his way through the ceiling with one of Oliver’s toys to escape the rising water. They spent the night in the ceiling cavity and were rescued the next morning by three men in a boat.

The aftermath revealed a house swamped by silt. Also destroyed was the brewery, the Cone & Flower taproom and the Petane vineyard run by Chris’s brother Philip.

Zeelandt close their doors
Chris and Philip Barber the day after the flood. Photo / Stuff.co.nz

Barber’s property was deemed category 3 by the Hastings District Council, which means it’s too dangerous to live there because of the risk of future floods. He and Luciana have bought a patch of land further up the valley and are building a new home, which he hopes will be complete by the end of the year.

Over the past 12 months, he’s tried to keep Zeelandt going by contract brewing at Crafty Brewing in West Auckland. In that time he’s been looking at whether he could rebuild the brewery and taphouse in Napier.

But the cost and time involved proved insurmountable and Barber is leaving the beer business to work in conservation.

“It’s good to have a decision made but it’s very sad. The brewery equipment is being cut up for scrap at the moment.”

Zeelandt started in 2012 and grew into a total family business, with Luciana leaving her job at Wattie’s to do the marketing for the brewery and taproom, as well as bringing her food technology skills to manage inventory, food safety and labelling. Petane wines were sold in the taproom and the wider Barber family were involved in strategy and decision-making.

The trauma of the cyclone and the way their lives stopped in the aftermath, was also a time to re-think.

“We’ve got this opportunity, which we didn’t expect, to re-look at everything – do we stay in Hawkes Bay or not? Do we try to keep Zeelandt going?”

Zeelandt close their doors
Luciana and Chris Barber

It was yes to the first, no to the second.

“The cost of rebuilding, finding new premises, the timelines … and then margins in beer have got so tight. I couldn’t make any numbers work. So, I had to say, `well, here’s an opportunity to rethink what I want to do, what else do I like doing?’.

“I’m 44, and I thought if I restart a brewery and bar and slave my guts out for 10 years will I have the energy to keep going for another 10 years after that? Or do I look at a second career?

Barber has always been keen on conservation and has volunteered on conservation projects in the Waitakere Ranges when he lived in Auckland and again in Hawkes Bay.

He did a trial day with Better Nature, a Hawkes Bay company specialising in pest and weed control, and will move now into that industry.

“It’s boots-on-the-ground work, but I hope to get a couple of years’ experience and move up.”

While contract brewing kept Zeelandt afloat over the past year, Barber said it wasn’t for him.

“Margins are really tight, particularly on kegs because of the freight involved.

“But the other thing is that I used to live and breathe beer. I was in the brewery every day, checking gravity, checking pH, tasting beer, I had my head in brew sheets, looking at numbers … and all of a sudden someone else is making the beer and you’re so removed from the process. It took a lot of the enjoyment out of it.”

The current state of the brewing industry was also a concern.

“At the moment, there’s a lot of doom and gloom out there — that also helped me make a decision. There’s tough times ahead. Not only with tight margins but hospitality is struggling as well and they’re the ones you’re selling to.

“Without the floods, 2023 would have been a really tough year financially. It was tough before the flood and there’s some time to go before it bounces back.

“It would have been hard work getting people out to the garden bar and still paying all the staff wages.”

Zeelandt’s contribution to the industry will be sorely missed. As a brewery dedicated to making classic German-style beer, we’ll all be worse off with Barber’s great hefeweizens, Rauchbier and Kolsch.

Zeelandt brunhilde's fate rauchbier

Without his own beer to drink, he’s resorted to ordering German beers online, but adds: “I’m not ashamed to say I do enjoy Steinlager Classic.

“I’m really going to miss brewing hefeweizen, dunkelweizen and Kolsch — those three styles are where all the ingredients come into play and there’s a balance between malt, hops, and fermentation character.

“They are styles people are not making that much in New Zealand.”

In a twist of fate, he has two kegs of Kolsch “buried” in the brewery. They were put aside a year ago for a wedding between a New Zealander and a woman from Cologne, Germany. A year later the kegs are still trapped, but Barber hopes to rescue them and enjoy them at his leisure.

“The silt would have kept them well insulated,” he says with a laugh.