Is Nelson really the Craft Brewing Capital? What does that mean anyway? Nelson Mail beer writers Fritz Kuckuck and Maria Grau investigate.
A few years ago when Nelson started officially calling itself the Craft Brewing Capital of New Zealand, more than a few objections were raised.
Yes, everyone agrees New Zealand craft beer really started with Mac's in Nelson. Yes, Nelson is the only commercial hop growing region in the country. Yes, Nelson had other iconic brands such as Founders, the first Organic brewery, and the Mussel Inn's legendary Captain Cooker manuka ale. But . . . but . . . but . . . does that make it the capital?
Nelson didn't exactly become Craft Brewing Capital spontaneously. In our beer column, we had observed that while Nelson was proud of itself as a beer centre, the rest of the country didn't really seem to notice. All the elements were there, lots of people in the industry believed strongly in the region's beer culture, but there was a bit of history keeping breweries from working together as a team.
It took the irrepressible energy of Emma McCashin to charge forward in spite of all that and get something off the ground. Her vision was that this wasn't just about beer and breweries. Rather than waiting for all the breweries to join together, Ms McCashin recruited a handful of hardcore believers from the related sectors, including brewing, hospitality, hops and tourism. The group keenly wanted more breweries involved, but felt confident with the diversity of industry perspectives.
So, a group took the bold step of printing a Nelson Craft Beer Trail Map, proclaiming the region the Nelson Craft Brewing Capital, and scattering this across the region and across the country. And thus began the test - was this just so much myopic, provincial pride run rampant, or was there truth to it?
A Hop Called Nelson
Just having an agricultural crop isn't really enough to get people excited, even if it's a crop with the fanatical fan base of hopheads (beer drinkers who love really hoppy beers). But over the past decade, New Zealand Hops Ltd has been aggressively transforming the position of New Zealand's hop profile.
Hops serve multiple functions in beer flavour, providing bitterness and also providing specific hoppy flavours and aromas. New Zealand had gotten very good at growing extremely bitter hops, a commodity desired by breweries trying to reduce hop costs.
But, as craft beer and hopheads were creating a sea of new beers highlighting the hop flavours, prices for hops with good aromatics shot up. New Zealand Hops took some bold risks in this area.
While the traditional definitions of "good" hop aromas were explicitly tied to existing hop varieties, New Zealand Hops tuned into the ethos of craft brewing which was constantly seeking novelty. So, not only did they shift away from pure commodity hops, but rather than just growing more of the "hop of the moment", they pushed development of new varieties with previously unexplored fruity aromas.
New Zealand hops are now sought after for tropical fruit, gooseberry and berry fruit aromas and flavours not found anywhere else in the world. This means that today, there are beers around the world named for specific New Zealand hop varieties, including quite a few called Nelson, after the Nelson sauvin hop.
The hops have put our name on the lips of brewers around the country and the globe, but to be a Craft Brewing Capital, you also must have craft breweries. The definition of a craft brewery has been argued to the point of silliness, but the simplest core elements should include beer brewed in batches, with a focus on quality ingredients with a goal of making flavourful beer. By that standard, every brewery in Nelson is a craft brewery, from the tiny Lighthouse through to the rapidly expanding Founder's and McCashins.
There's also debate about what to count as a Nelson brewery. Dale's Brewing Company runs from Nelson, though the beer is made in the North Island. Founder's Brewery and Cafe still brews and kegs beer, but the brand and all bottled product are now in Auckland. Moutere Brewing Company and Dead Good Beer have beer made in various places, but almost all the beer is sold here.
So how many craft breweries do we have? We count up to 13 companies in the region proudly making Nelson craft beer. That's 13 smaller or larger marketing budgets reinforcing the Craft Brewing Capital message. (We've heard rumour of at least two more in the works.) While craft breweries are springing up like mushrooms around the country, this is still exceptional, particularly with our population.
The average drinker in Nelson clubs and pubs wants easy drinking, sessionable beer. Pinning down what that means is more complicated. Over time, we have seen new IPAs and strong ales come on line, and knock some of the mildest flavoured beers off the ranks, but there is no clear local favourite. Doug Donelan, CEO of New Zealand Hops Ltd, says, "You can come here and get every style of beer, but with a New Zealand twist."
Nelson does have some challenging beers available. Among their sessionable beers, Townshend Brewing is on the forefront of wild beer experimentation in the country, and Golden Bear has been intriguing drinkers for years with his California-style ales made with New Zealand hops.
But most local brews are not the exciting, hop forward beers making Nelson's hops famous around the world. Local beers tend towards a drinkable balance. They are high quality, and award winning, perfect for an afternoon in our famous sunshine, but possibly not the topic of conversation later on. As the Mussel Inn's Andrew Dixon says, "As soon as the focus of discussion turns to the beer, by definition it is not a session ale."
The Local Culture
You can't just be making beer to be a brewing capital - you need to have a beer culture. And a number of our breweries thrive almost completely on local trade. Bay's Brewery and Lighthouse Brewery are from the first wave of craft brewers in the country, when there was almost no distribution system for the little guys. They slowly worked their way into pubs and clubs and developed loyal local followers. Totara Brewing has quietly come up and expanded in that same model.
The Sprig&Fern pubs have developed a very unique alternative for primarily local sales. They invented a neighbourhood craft pub model not seen elsewhere in the country.
Using a centralised brewery, they have created a chain of branded franchised pubs specifically designed to distribute their beer, but with a very local community feel. It has been so successful that they now have opened in Wellington and Auckland as well.
The breweries have also been quite fortunate to have good local supermarkets promoting them. The Fresh Choice stores and some New Worlds have made a point of carrying bottles or riggers of local beer. Without this local commitment, most brewers don't have the volumes to supply stores that require national distribution.
And over the past several years, craft beer has expanded exponentially into other outlets. When the Free House opened, they were among just a few pubs or bars in the country dedicated to offering fresh craft beer from a variety of brewers. These days, you will find a good cross section of bars, pubs and restaurants around this region with a few taps of fresh craft on offer.
Nelson has an ingrained culture of celebrating local food and wine, and this now certainly extends to beer. Like the Free House, the Moutere Inn pub and the Bel-Aire Tavern, while also not strictly offering local beer, have a number of taps to choose from.
For restaurants and bars like Hopgoods, Harry's Bar, Jester House and Rhythm and Brown, where local and craft are integral to their brands, local beer is featured in their menus.
Tourists come to a community like Nelson in part to experience what Nelson experiences. The current Lonely Planet lists the Nelson Craft Beer Trail among it's "hot and happening". Sarah Bennett, a Lonely Planet writer for the Nelson region, says her job is to serve her readers, who are keenly interested in terroir, local food and craft beer and looking for the next new thing. "Craft beer has emerged as an exciting trend in New Zealand travel, and Nelson is now a hub," says Ms Bennett.
Of the 13 brewers, 11 have at least one dedicated place you can visit to try the beer. Seven open the brewery for tours. So, with a Craft Beer Trail map in hand, you can fill a good couple of days visiting the region's brewers.
And what do the tourists think of Nelson beer? Ms Bennett's partner, Lee Slater, reckons the region ranks well. "The average overseas visitor is impressed by the quality and variety of beer in Nelson." Who wouldn't like drinking a fresh local beer or two with friends after a day's adventures?
Our newest local brewer, Simon Nicholas of Riwaka's Hop Federation, has been so busy setting up his brewery he hasn't actually tried many local products yet. But, he says, "New Zealand is well known for flavoursome beers - and the tourists say they aren't finding those beers here.
Maybe they still need to be promoted better?" Mr Nicholas, who moved here from Auckland, is facing overwhelming demand for his hop forward Red IPA, confirming that some drinkers are demanding punchier styles.
Going back to the idea of Nelson hops as the hot, exciting new flavour in beers outside of Nelson, this isn't too surprising. Beers that get talked about are the ones people find exciting. Beers like Nelson from Alpine Brewing in San Diego or Sauvignon Bomb from Liberty Brewing in Auckland are exciting, highly hopped beers.
But making an exciting beer in Nelson is a big risk - they are typically more expensive to make, and if you are primarily selling to the local market, then locals need to like them. Making good beer for locals doesn't mean tourist won't enjoy them, too.
We have the ingredients for capital status: history, production, and outlets. Emma McCashin wasn't wrong. As we know, when you stick your head up in New Zealand, people will take swipes at it. But if you have the courage of your convictions and survive those early blows, eventually the country comes behind you.
Last month, when the Craft Brewing Capital dropped a thousand Nelson Craft Beer Trail Maps at the iSite, the immediate response was, "Is that all you have?" Nelson is beginning to see beer tourists come to us.
And as Doug Donelan recently reminded us, "Belgium didn't become known for beer by taking beer to the world. People who had come to Belgium went home talking about the beer."
So the questions remain, will those tourists go home talking about our beer? Can we keep calling ourselves the Craft Brewing Capital of New Zealand if they don't?