Land of hops and honey

FAMILY BUSINESS: Nelson craft brewer John Duncan with his two sons, Callum and Matt.
FAMILY BUSINESS: Nelson craft brewer John Duncan with his two sons, Callum and Matt.

Ah, Nelson. If the sun, mountains, bush and beaches weren't enough reason to move here, there's always the beer. Because despite what the occasional uppity Wellingtonian may have you believe, Nelson is the craft brewing capital of the nation, with more craft breweries per capita than anywhere else in the land.

I wrote about one such brewery, the Sprig and Fern, a few months back, causing several beer connoisseurs to write in alleging favouritism. Given that Nelson was crammed with fine craft breweries, they asked, why focus on just one?

These correspondents have a point. Blessed with good soil, ample water and more sunshine hours than anywhere else in the land, the Nelson/Tasman region is New Zealand's premier hop-growing area. Consequently, you can't throw an empty pilsner bottle without hitting a passing brewer who's moved here to be nearer the heart of the hoppy action.

As an investigative journalist of national repute and considerable thirst, it seemed fair I should shine a light on a few more splendid local breweries and identify a few top drops readers may want to try for themselves. Also, given my puny wages, what better way to accumulate a stockpile of free beer to get me through the winter months?

But there were journalistic politics involved. Would I be treading on the toes of my learned colleague Michael Donaldson, who already writes a beer column in this paper and was once proclaimed Beer Writer of the Year by the Brewers' Guild of New Zealand? I phoned him up to seek his blessing, assuring him that, unlike his fine columns, my own beer-fuelled ramblings would be entirely lacking in research, reasoned analysis or insight.

Furthermore, given that my palate had long ago been destroyed by bitter black coffee, hot curries, jazz cigarettes and strong spirits, I would be forced to use piss-poor adjectives such as "cold", "wet" and "beery" when I made tasting notes. As a beer writer, I was no threat. In that case, he said, go for your life.

So I made contact with seven of the best craft breweries in the Nelson region and invited each of them to strap together a mixed dozen for me to sample at my leisure. They did, bless them, and now my office overfloweth. With impressive dedication, I've been slowly drinking my way through this beery backlog, with the intention of presenting my findings in sporadic columns over the next few weeks.

IT'S BEEN an illuminating process. I've discovered that beer is about more than just aroma, flavour, social lubrication and making me a better dancer; it's also a labour of love for the pioneering eccentrics who strap the stuff together on our behalf.

Over the coming weeks, we will meet the hobby brewer-turned-pro; the ex-pat Pom teaching us colonials how to make real ale; the retired racing car driver who started brewing beer only because he hated wine.

But let's begin with a local family tree that has its roots way down deep in a big pool of ale. Just a 10-minute bike ride from my front door stands Founders Brewery, one of the longest established craft breweries in this neck of the woods.

Proprietor John Duncan is the fifth in a long line of local brewers, stretching back to his great-great-great-grandfather, Nelson's first mayor J R Dodson, who bought into a local brewery 160 years ago, in 1854.

John's pride in the family business is palpable. When I dropped by to uplift my dozen, there was no chance of a speedy getaway; instead, he patiently led me through the flavour profiles of each of his main brews, pointing out where they followed or diverged from overseas styles.

Duncan is one of those calm, soft-spoken, observant men who make undisciplined ranters like me feel doubly boorish by comparison. It was a warm autumn arvo as we wandered around the hop garden outside his bar, beset by an intoxicating resinous aroma. "That smells like very good pot," I said, though this was, of course, just a guess. Also guessing, he agreed, and told me that hops and cannabis were in fact very close relatives. "You could graft a marijuana plant onto a hop vine and it would probably grow," he said, causing my already boggled mind to boggle further.

John told me the beer business was extremely hard work. No matter how good your product, getting your brews in front of discerning drinkers nationwide was tough for a small local brewery, especially with so many new players entering the marketplace. Consequently, Founders sold its brand to major Auckland brewery Boundary Road two years ago. The bottled beers are now brewed up north, while the family here in Nelson still brews the keg beers and specialist seasonal ales.

"That deal meant far better marketing and distribution, so now you can find Founders beers in any decent supermarket in the country".

It's true. I'd been in Auckland the previous week, and had no trouble buying a six-pack of Founders' exceptional 1946 Pilsner in deepest Ponsonby - a beer that smells like pine needles warmed by the summer sun and, to a Nelson boy like me, tastes like home. As I carried a clinking dozen of Founder's finest outside and strapped it to the carrier of my bike, John's sons Matt and Callum wandered past in brewer's overalls, with Matt carrying his infant son in his arms. It transpires Duncan's brewery is already onto its sixth generation of family brewers, and that unsuspecting child may prove to be the seventh.

Sunday Star Times