The Free House that beer built
In the lead-up to Nelson Beer Week and Marchfest later this month, Neil Hodgson talks at those involved in the region's craft beer industry.
A little building that was formerly a church in Nelson's Collingwood St became a pub in 2009 and has quickly gained a reputation as one of the very best in the country.
It had its genesis in quarterly beer fetes so it is quite fitting to look back at the success of this business leading up to Nelson Beer Week and during my craft beer month.
Taking its name from the free house philosophy of a pub that is not tied to a single brewery The Free House has led the way in promoting hand-crafted and beers and real ales in Nelson for the last eight years.
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While many bars may appear not to be linked to a particular supplier you don't have to look too hard at a beer list to see the vast majority of drinks come from one supplier and I think it is fair to say most pubs today are still tied houses.
While these cafes and pubs have a limited number of products from other producers, generally local products, they are financially tied to breweries in one form or another, either with cash to help with set-up costs or generous discounts on products for a sole-supply contract.
When I had a chat with Free House owner Eelco Boswijk last week he told me "we were in a pond with not very many fish in it, now there are more specialty craft beer pubs opening every week".
I think that is a great thing.
When Boswijk and Mic Dover started there were five partners in the business, three silent partners who were as passionate as them about quality beer.
Boswijk and Dover bought out the others about three years ago before Boswijk bought Dover's shares in December last year.
Boswijk and Dover also own Dead Good Beer Events, a business that organises the annual Marchfest and is the force behind Nelson Beer Week.
Boswijk's journey to owning an iconic New Zealand pub started when he left New Zealand at 18 and embarked on a 15-year OE that saw him eventually living in London working for a TV news company, "taking cameras into war zones, food into Somalia for journalists, just doing a lot of support stuff and I met [Wife and former Nelson City Councillor] Ali when she was working in the marketing department of the same company."
He fell in love with beer when he got the real ale bug in London and the couple started attending little craft beer festivals long before the craft beer market was fully established.
"It was a matter of seeking out the right pubs. We would go camping in little campgrounds and using the CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ales) Good Pub Guide would select a campground by choosing pubs doing interesting things with beer. If there was a pub in walking distance to the campground that is where we would stay."
The couple married in the Caribbean when they were living in the Cayman Islands before returning to Nelson to have their first child.
They had no real career plans "just took things that were presented to us."
It was a matter of who could get a decent job first so when Ali started working with Bays TV and then arts marketing, Eelco took on the role of raising two boys.
When they started going to school he was looking for something to do and ended up growing gourmet mushrooms in a grow-tunnel at home, which he supplied to local supermarkets.
He told me having seen the long hours and hard work his father – the Nelson cafe pioneer also named Eelco – he was determined he was never going to work in hospitality "but sometimes you run so far and so fast from something you meet it coming the other way."
He joined forces with Dover running beer fetes to encourage others to try proper hand-crafted beers. The first event attracted about 300 people with over 1100 people attending the final one.
They wanted to set the scene for a free house style pub, "but no one else opened one so when the building came on the market we had to put up or shut up."
When they opened The Free House there were three outside tables with no signage for three years, relying on word of mouth to spread the buzz about a pub serving fantastic craft beers.
"We invited a whole lot of people for opening night and they told a lot of people, spreading the word and it just took off from there. It was a bit precarious in the early years, the business was always looking positive, then just as everything seemed to be going right something hits you sideways but you just deal with it."
They took over the car yard next door three years after they opened and that gave them space for a decent sized garden and space to host some outdoor music gigs in the summer "but when four out of five gigs were shut down by noise control we put in the yurt."
As well as being a music venue the yurt became a reference point to people, "People loved it or hated it. Some wouldn't go in it, others thought it was marvellous and magical."
Boswijk says they had incredible support from craft breweries around New Zealand. There weren't very many when they started. "We would send an email or make a phone call and beer would generally arrive but when Beer NZ in Christchurch started distributing craft beers for many small breweries many more craft beers became accessible .
"We still make sure we have a relationship with different breweries, especially those who supply us with real ales."
Real ale is cask-conditioned beer that is still alive, it still has the brewing yeast in the casks, it is hand-pulled or hand pumped from the casks rather than being gas forced through lines. The Free House gets its cask conditioned ales from Townshend's, the Twisted Hop and Cassels and Sons in Christchurch.
"Chris Stothers, an Englishman who has helped us a lot with the technical side of things, helped us develop our own cellar to store them properly. We designed and built a system that works for us because we don't have an underground cellar like most old pubs have."
Boswijk said when he and Dover started they didn't want to ever stop changing or developing or trying new things. "It is a project that hasn't finished. When a project just starts and doesn't change it loses its soul."
The latest change is the addition of a food caravan in the garden, "Mint Restaurant used to have a menu for us and when they closed we had to think about how to serve food so we bought a food caravan. With the yurt going and caravan arriving we are continuing changes that keep the business evolving and fresh."
With huge support from locals and great staff The Free House has quietly gone about changing the reputation of pubs, focussing on quality fresh beers that are treated with respect rather than just a beverage to get you drunk .
It has confirmed its place as an iconic Nelson hospitality venue.
Nelson Beer Week runs from March 18-26 with Marchfest on March 25. See nelsonbeerweek.co.nz