The good and the bad of Beervana
So Beervana has come and gone for another year. I almost didn't make it this year; with a fortnight to go I was finding it hard to justify the expense of travelling to and finding accommodation in Wellington, but circumstances changed and in the end I went. And I'm glad that I did.
This year's Beervana was an excellent festival and once again Wellington confirmed its claim to be the country's "craft beer capital". Indeed, if you factor in all the pre-festival beer and brewing-related events, which were listed separately in the excellent and widely distributed (and downloadable) Road to Beervana flyer, the beery celebrations taking place around the city ran for well over a week.
In its 14th year, Beervana offered somewhere in excess of 250 beers from 60 breweries. However, as usual it was much more than just an opportunity to sample an amazing range of beers; festival-goers had a choice of beer and food-matched tastings, on-site brewing displays and a range of seminars related to all things beer and brewing.
The "media brews" have become an annual drawcard and are a masterstroke for publicity. By inviting influential and high-profile journalists to collaborate with breweries and compete with each other, there's always plenty of media coverage in the weeks leading up to Beervana. The public certainly seem to enjoy trying all these wacky-themed creations too.
Those who attended the Kiwi brewing industry's showcase festival this year could be forgiven for failing to notice that it has new owners. A few months ago David Cryer, the Auckland-based malt importer and supplier, sold Beervana to the Wellington Culinary Events Trust.
Set up in February 2014, this council-backed, not-for-profit charitable trust was established to promote the Wellington region as the "premium New Zealand destination for hospitality experiences" and is now working to reposition Beervana as the flagship event of Wellington on a Plate, New Zealand's largest culinary festival.
With assistance from David Cryer, the incoming organiser, Beth Brash, did a splendid job putting this year's festival together. But for all its strengths, Beervana still faces some serious issues.
Both the timing and the location of the event are continuing concerns. Holding a beer festival in Wellington in the middle of winter is always going to be a challenge.
The vagaries of the capital's weather are well documented and, despite the city's excellent public transport network, the long, exposed walkway from the railway station to Westpac Stadium can be particularly soulless on a blustery, bitterly cold, winter's day.
As for the venue itself, although the stadium was purpose-built to cope with large crowds, the chilly, stark, narrow circular concourse which accommodates Beervana is hardly conducive to the relaxed enjoyment of beer. The oft-heard comment, "It's like drinking in a concrete tunnel," rings very true.
And, as anyone who's travelled or shipped goods between the islands knows, Cook Strait is an expensive stretch of water. As I mentioned above, those of us living on the South Island have to pay a premium just to get to Wellington. But it's even more costly for the Mainland's brewers.
But it's not difficult to see why. Although Blenheim-based brewers such as Renaissance are only a short drive from the inter-island ferries, for the majority of South Island brewers a trip to Wellington is a time-consuming and expensive business.
And even when they make it to Beervana, they still need to put on a decent show. The days of brewers presenting their beers from ice-filled chilly bins mounted on trestle tables are long gone. These days brewery stands at Beervana are generally far more professional and up-market. Some breweries go even further, with massive theatrical structures and light shows.
One South Island brewer told me he estimated the cost of putting together a decent display stand and sending a team from his brewery to Wellington was well into five digits. That's not something many smaller breweries could even consider.
As a result, of the 33 Kiwi breweries who exhibited their beers at this year's Beervana only five were from the mainland. And that figure looks even more pitiful when you take into consideration that seven Australian breweries were represented. Furthermore, three brewers from Oregon had flown in from the United States to promote their beers and brew collaboration beers with local Wellington brewers. The bottom line; at this year's Beervana you stood more chance of drinking an American or Australian beer than a South Island beer. That's just daft.
With interest in craft beer continuing to grow and Beervana now firmly in the hands of Wellingtonians, I reckon the time is ripe for a new breed of smaller, education-focused quality beer festivals in regional centres around the country. Cheers!