Raising a glass to four years of beers
Free House celebrates 375th varietyALAN CLARKE
It’s 10.30 on a Saturday night, the yurt is a cruisy three-quarters full and the Free House is living up to its name in more ways than one.
Not many venues offer free entry to performances by national touring acts, even if mainly up-and-comers. But – based in an ex-church, specialising in craft beers and boasting the Southern Hemisphere’s only Mongolian yurt performance venue in the front yard – the Free House is no ordinary pub.
Set up in 2009 as one of New Zealand’s first free houses (a pub untied to a single brewery), it was the first in the South Island to offer a multi-brewery range of local and national craft beers and ciders to choose from – all on tap.
According to Mic Dover, who co-owns the pub with Eelco Boswijk, local industry commentators doubted in 2009 that a free house could attract enough customers at the premium end of the market to be viable.
However, the best part about naysayers is proving them wrong. The Free House is now halfway through its fourth year of trading and this month achieved a minor milestone when it served its 375th variety of beer or cider.
Mr Dover was pleased the mark went to a local brewer, Townshends of Upper Moutere. He said its Janszoon (Abel Tasman’s middle name) ale was inspired the classic ales of England, echoing "the golden straw-like colour of lagers, yet it still has the malt and hop flavours associated with English cask-conditioned ales."
It was the 46th different beer Townshends has supplied to the pub, and the brewer is clear on the all-time list of suppliers. Next are Moa of Blenheim with 19, Founders and the Mussel Inn (both 18). Other local brewers on the top 10 list are Monkey Wizard of Riwaka and Golden Beer of Mapua. In another sign of the pub’s commitment to the region, all the wines it offers are local.
Mr Dover says the venture is thriving despite growing competition in the craft beer sector – the only part of the industry that is expanding.
A Brewers Guild survey shows the total number of breweries in New Zealand has increased by 42 per cent, from 48 in 2008 to 68 by the end of 2011.
The number of small "craft" breweries (those under 40,000 litres per annum) grew the most, from 15 to 30. Notably, the total craft beer market grew by 14 per cent from June to December last year, and production of craft beer increased by an average 3 per cent per annum over the past three years.
The Free House claims to have led the way in tackling the complexities of looking after cask-conditioned ales – it was the first untied pub in New Zealand to create a dedicated chiller for casks of real ale which need to be kept slightly warmer than normal beers.
In keeping with the region’s lead role in craft-brewing and hops production, The Free House has already been recognised internationally, winning awards and plaudits from Lonely Planet and Beer and Brewer Magazine but locally, Mr Dover says recognition has been slower to come.
He’s confident that’s changing, and is excited by what the yurt brings to the business. Use has expanded during its first nine months – the standout a performance by headline artist Holly Smith last month.
Mr Dover says he has never brewed in his life but as a former guitarist (in bands ranging from punk and funk to folk and rock) he is happy to take a role in the local music scene.
"I can remember what it was like to be a struggling muso and we definitely aim to treat artists with respect," he says.
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