From Captain Cook’s first fetid brew in 1773 to the hop-rocking IPAs that dominate today’s craft scene, small breweries at the Top of the South have shaped beer culture and industry in New Zealand. Matt Philp primes his fermenter to figure out why.
Behold Pickersgill Harbour, late March, 1773. From a three-masted sloop, Cook’s sea-weary crew are finally coming ashore after three months in the Southern Ocean. A group heads uphill, to hack out a clearing from where astronomer William Wales will fix the position of New Zealand. Meantime, a second party plunges deeper into the Fiordland forest, stripping the surrounding mānuka and rimu trees as they go. It’s thirsty work, but no matter: they’re about to brew this country’s first beer.
Andrew Dixon knows the story better than most. The owner of Golden Bay’s Mussel Inn, Dixon is the man behind the legendary ‘Captain Cooker’ mānuka beer. He once made a pilgrimage to Pickersgill Harbour, returning with a bag full of mānuka tips.
We’ve arranged to meet at a central Nelson bar, last stop on Dixon’s delivery run to the city’s craft beer outlets. I’m hoping he’ll have insights into how Nelson-Tasman emerged as the capital of New Zealand’s craft brewing scene, with more breweries than any region. But there’s another motive: I want to replicate Cook’s beer. Dixon is bringing the recipe, plus some mānuka branches from a favoured “secret spot” in Golden Bay.
He’s easily spotted, greying curls and a high-visibility hunting jacket, the promised package of green-tipped branches beside him.
Beer writer Geoff Griggs describes Dixon—who employs someone else to do Mussel Inn’s brewing these days—as “more of a publican than a brewer, and a very good businessman. For someone who comes across as super-relaxed, he’s a smart operator.”
Dixon was 15 when he brewed his first beer, back in the 1970s when brew kits were still a novelty in New Zealand.
“I cooked up the first and my mother went into a swoon. As soon as the hops hit the water and those malt smells started coming off the big pot, it took her right back to her childhood growing up in Island Bay, Wellington, with her grandmother brewing beer in the kitchen. Mum thought it was wonderful and gave me all the encouragement she could. From that point, I always brewed. In the ’80s, when I was building log houses and travelling around the country, we dragged the kit around.”
In 1992, he and wife Jane built the inn on land they’d owned for a decade at Onekaka, west of Takaka. The idea was to create the kind of place they’d want to visit, homely and a little rustic, with simple food and 20-odd boutique beers.
Within a couple of years, he’d built a rudimentary 400-litre brewery to supply the inn’s beer. The craft brand Mussel Inn was launched, albeit initially only available on site.
“We avoided the whole bottling thing for years, because we believed that beer should be drunk where it’s made—and I still believe that, although eventually we succumbed to pressure,” he says. “Being able to make the product and then serve it at the bar is hugely satisfying, and also very useful for knowing where your product stands.”
He pauses, unfolds two typed A4 sheets on the table. Along with instructions for the Pickersgill Harbour brew, he’s printed off his own Captain Cooker recipe: no trade secrets here. (His beer has been brewed under licence in Belgium. For that exercise, Dixon—who ordinarily throws freshly picked branches of mānuka into the brew, “lizards and all”—airmailed dried mānuka tips to a contract brewery.)
Captain Cooker began as an experiment, he says. “I thought I could make something that looked like an ordinary beer, but which didn’t taste like one. The first lot I didn’t particularly like, but people loved it—and it was a range of people, including those who said, ‘I’m not really a beer drinker, but this is quite nice.’”
Unsurprisingly for a brewer who has reworked an 18th-century recipe, Dixon counts himself a traditionalist. He’s not roused by the pursuit of novelty that drives many beer geeks.
“When we first started brewing 20 to 30 years ago it was the Germans, the Belgians, the English and Czechs who were held up as the standard, and their beers were beautifully balanced and easy to drink. To me, that’s what beer is about—an adjunct to a social situation with your mates.”
He reckons that sense of moderation defines Nelson-Tasman as a craft brewing region. “We have the oldest and strongest tradition because the hops are grown here and because Nelson is relatively old. Possibly it has a grounding effect. We’ve always made drinking beers—interesting drinking beers—and we don’t feel the need to make a big noise or produce outrageous flavours.”
Later, when I examine the 1773 recipe, I’m reminded of this less-is-more stance. The document is utterly unadorned, reflecting the limited ingredients available and the purpose of the exercise: preventing scurvy among the Resolution’s crew. There’s no malt or hops. Instead, Cook advises boiling a quantity of “spruce” (rimu) and “tea plant” (mānuka), the latter to soften the rimu’s astringency, before adding molasses as a malt substitute.
“When the whole is milk warm put in a little grounds of beer or yeast, if you have it, or anything else that will cause fermentation,” concludes the great navigator and pioneering craft brewer. “In a few days the beer will be fit to drink.”
“Only a mad Pom builds a brewery in the middle of nowhere.”
Martin Townshend, the self-described mad Pom, has given instructions on how to find him. I take the inland route through the German-settled village of Upper Moutere, home to New Zealand’s oldest tavern, left up the artisanal artery of Neudorf Road (olives, wine, cider, cheese; a gourmet platter of a road twisting through the Tasman hinterland), then right, continuing on gravel for several kilometres. Over a ford to a rough-sawn timber farmhouse and a large shed, beer barrels flanking the entrance.
Townshend initially forged his reputation making cask-conditioned English-style real ales. He’s a ‘brewer’s brewer’, named Champion Brewer at the Brewers’ Guild Awards in 2014, despite being entirely untrained. Nor has his isolation hurt. “In a way it’s probably helped him,” says Griggs. “Here’s this guy tucked away in the backwoods. It’s a nice story.”
The brewer emerges from his shed, a wiry character with close-shaved hair, sporting a shiner. He says he got it during jujitsu training, but the black eye seems appropriate given Townshend’s past year.
It began promisingly enough. Faced with growing demand and no capacity to expand his backyard operation, Townshend made a production and distribution deal with a large craft brewer. Supposed to take his label to the next level, it turned sour when bottles began to fountain when opened.
After a decade of building a reputation, it was a heartbreaking setback for Townshend, who has since pulled all production back to Moutere. “We had this huge drop in momentum,” he says, “but we’re climbing back out now.”
In fact, my visit has come at a pivotal moment, with Townshend waiting on consent for a new brew pub in nearby Motueka. If it comes off, he says, “It will be the best thing that’s ever happened to Townshend Brewery.”
Meantime, he’ll keep working his sorcery in this backblocks brewery, where birds flit among cobbled-together equipment—“organised chaos”, he calls it. “This is almost an extension of my personality. I don’t think I’d ever be able to just hand the keys over to someone else.”
Townshend came to brewing beer via drinking it. He had a regular gig reviewing beer for a Nelson radio station and—briefly, and by his admission, unsuccessfully—for the Fairfax-owned Nelson Mail.
“Eventually, I just thought, ‘I want to be one of these fellas; I want to have a brewery,’” he says. “And I did see a gap in the market. At any one time in New Zealand there are a quarter of a million people with a British passport, but there weren’t many places back then where you could buy cask ale. I really wanted to see more of the hand-pull stuff.”
That early emphasis has typecast him to a degree. “I just wanted to produce the best cask-conditioned ales in the country, and I ended up doing that. But throughout our history, we’ve produced as wide a range of styles as anybody.”
Yet the “English thing” isn’t entirely inaccurate. While New Zealand craft brewers fell under the spell of American-style heavily hopped beers, Townshend has maintained a long-term love affair with malt—the “backbone” of beer.
Not long ago, he did a collaborative brew with the team from Gladfield Malt, coining the name “The Man at the Back” for the resulting malt-focused beer. “I used to play drums and that’s malt: the man at the back who’s never given enough credit.”
Making beer is ostensibly a simple process, involving just four ingredients: malt, hops, yeast and water. Yet the variables are boundless.
Take water, for example, which constitutes 98 per cent of beer. Townshend trucks his in from Motueka. It’s beautifully soft, borne by aquifer through the limestone riddles of Takaka Hill.
“If I’m trying to make a classic Burtonised IPA, then I look at the Burton style of water, which comes out of the arse-end of the Pennines and is super hard. We can emulate that by adding certain salts such as gypsum, epsom and calcium chloride. Depending on where the beer comes from, whether it’s a German Hefeweizen, an IPA, or whatever, I’ll dick around with the water first. But we’ve found that the most similar water in the world to Motueka’s is Dublin water, so for our stouts we don’t bother. The dark beer really sings with this style of water.”
Townshend adds complexity by cask-conditioning many of his beers, allowing residual yeast to chomp through any sugars left behind, amplifying the flavour and excitement of the brew.
“For me, beer isn’t some inert, sterile product,” he says. “I see brewing as being farming on a microscopic scale, dealing with live yeasts and strains.”
The craft brewing scene is routinely described as collaborative. Townshend has learned much of what he knows from other brewers, and no one has ever turned him away. “But then there’s nothing in beer that hasn’t been done before. We’re all rehashing concepts and recipes that have been around for eons, putting our own little twist on it.”
It sounds like an enviable life. “If you want to do 70, 80 hours a week and get no money, it’s definitely the way to go,” laughs Townshend. “It’s f**cking hard graft, mate, from heavy lifting, to continually pushing for sales, to coming up with new ideas and keeping the quality high, because if you don’t there are hundreds of others who will steal your shelf space.”
But for an obsessive, what other life would do? “If Jesus could have turned water into beer, he would have, mate.”
The craft beer gospel has certainly taken root in New Zealand. Even as mainstream Kiwi beer brands are flatlining, craft sales last year were up 35 per cent, while the number of breweries has climbed from 39 to 168 since 2008.
“We’ve broken the back of boring beer,” trumpets Geoff Griggs, who writes a fortnightly beer column that runs in half a dozen of Fairfax’s regional papers.
Another expat Englishman, Griggs lives in Marlborough, but happily concedes Nelson is the craft brewing capital.
“Nelson is a craft place anyway, and it encourages people who are into the whole craft thing,” he says. “There’s also proximity to the hop fields, although in pure brewing terms that doesn’t make that much difference—except around the harvest, when everybody does a fresh-hopped beer.”
Griggs has been observing the craft scene here long enough to spy trends. The threshold shift in our taste for big-hopped beers, for example, which he likens to the drive for ever-hotter curries. “What we perceive now to be a hoppy beer isn’t the same as five years ago,” he says, also noting the ascension of IPAs. “If you can make a beer and by any stretch of the imagination call it an IPA, it will sell.”
He views the explosion in craft breweries with a mix of excitement and unease. “There’s a real issue of quality and consistency and too many labels on the shelf,” says Griggs, adding that an industry shakeup is inevitable. “Less than half of this is about turning out good beer; the rest is about selling it, making it stand out in the market. Being adventurous is the only future for a craft brewer, because you’re now being constantly pushed from underneath by the big brewers.”
Meantime, there’s still a dearth of craft beer-literate venues. “You’ve got punters who want to try things, and brewers producing for them, but in the middle is this hospitality industry that is dragging its heels.”
I meet the Free House’s co-owners Mic Dover and Eelco Boswijk for a late-afternoon beer at the pub, sited in a deconsecrated church on the edge of Nelson’s CBD. The Arts Festival’s in town, and the notoriously ripe-smelling, wool-insulated yurt in The Free House’s beer garden is being prepped for a performance—officially its swansong, after Dover and Boswijk listed it on Trade Me earlier in the week.
It’s an evolutionary moment in other ways at the pioneering pub, with Dover about to wind back his business involvement—he’ll become a punter rather than a partner.
“I can’t believe what we’ve done here,” the expat Englishman says of The Free House, which he partly willed into being by constantly “moaning” about the venues and beer available in Nelson. “We’ve created the pub I’d want to drink in. So it’s really important it thrives—at least until I die, then I won’t care.”
The idea of The Free House was to bring craft beer into Nelson, says Boswijk. “And we wanted real ales. That was really important, hence the hand-pulls.”
As the name implies, it wasn’t going to be tied to any particular brewery, but rather serve an ever-changing lineup of beers. “If you’re a new brewer knocking on the door, we’re the answer to your dreams,” says Dover. “We would always try a brand new beer.”
In parallel with the pub, the pair began to organise craft beer events in Nelson, culminating in the launch of Marchfest to celebrate Top of the South brewers. “We wanted it to be like a harvest festival for the hops season,” says Boswijk.
Both pub and festival were tenuous enterprises. The Free House limped through its early years, and the first Marchfest coincided with 36 hours of rain, forcing the partners to remortgage their houses to clear the debts. The fact that both eventually proved successful (3500 people attended the last Marchfest) signals something not only about Dover and Boswijk’s perseverance, but the sea change in craft’s fortunes.
They’ve been catalysts for the craft wave, at least in Nelson. But it’s fair to say the scene has developed in ways they weren’t anticipating.
“When we started it was a fairly raw industry, and it was very personal,” says Boswijk. “You could order with an email or a text to the brewery. As the industry has expanded, and brewery sizes have grown and distributors have come on board, you now have to fill out credit applications. So it’s slightly more corporatised.”
Against that, the quality of beer has improved, they believe. Craft drinkers are also less brand loyal, flitting from one label to the next. “But that’s definitely healthier, because it means it’s not just about marketing,” says Dover.
“The character of the city is important in the whole thing,” says Boswijk, who reckons the Wellington brewing scene is more actively collaborative and adventurous.
“In Nelson you have more of the lifestyle brewery than a ‘Let’s throw 20 buckets of seaweed into our beer and see what happens’, where everybody gets excited and does mad stuff. People here are working more on their own and quietly, and they’re generally older.”
It’s tough to make a living from a small regional brewery, observes Dover. “You can get protective of your patch. But I’d love Nelson brewers to become more collaborative and infect each other with new ideas.”
A sauna-like smell of gum trees fills the kitchen. Mānuka is from the same myrtle family as eucalyptus, and the 10-litre pot has boiled for a full hour, a white scum slowly leaching from the branches. Now the wort, into which I’ve stirred a litre of molasses, is cooling in a 25-litre fermenter, awaiting the addition of ale yeast and the onset of magic.
Andrew Dixon, whose version of mānuka beer eschews the molasses and rimu of the 1773 beer, had suggested Cook’s men would have necked it. Yet I’ve read conflicting accounts, including that the sailors could only be persuaded to drink it by adding a generous tot of rum.
For weeks I’ve been hoarding empties in anticipation of filling them with Pickersgill Harbour Original. But this substance on the bench does not bode well. Treacle-dark and pungent, it’s without any hops. And you need hops for beer, surely?
It’s minus-20 degrees in the cold store at the Plant and Food Research centre in Riwaka. Moving among shelves of bagged dry hops, Ron Beatson is enveloped in steam, backlit by fluorescent lighting, a 67-year-old career scientist turned rock star.
The image is apt. Beatson heads a hop-breeding programme that produced cult-hero cultivars such as ‘Motueka’, ‘Riwaka’ and ‘Nelson Sauvin’—the latter attaining a mythic reputation in brewing circles. His science has contributed to the recent transformation of New Zealand hops from a cottage industry into a sophisticated niche exporter, achieved in close collaboration with craft brewers.
“It’s been a real journey for me,” says Beatson, who took over the leadership of the hop-breeding programme in 1984. At the time, the industry was in the doldrums, focused on supplying the major New Zealand brewers with large quantities of high-alpha bittering hops—a commodity crop in an over-supplied market where the buyer called the shots.
The emergence of pioneering craft brewers such as McCashin’s in Nelson (Mac’s) and Emerson’s in Dunedin marked the beginning of a shift towards breeding specialty hops.
Says Geoff Griggs: “The craft brewers said, ‘Give us hops that are low in alpha so we can load them in, without making the beer too bitter, but while getting maximum aroma and flavour. The hops industry has been completely turned on its head by that, and now people are looking for extra hectares to plant on.”
Beatson, New Zealand’s ‘hops man’, has been at the heart of this search for flavour. Now he’s trying to bridge the gap between breeders, growers and brewers, to hasten the process by which promising new cultivars become bottles of IPA.
“You can do a lot of research here, but in the end, if you’re a brewer or grower, you just want to get your hands on the thing,” he says.
Hence the new ‘Hop Lab’ micro-brewery in the heart of the Motueka campus. Commissioned two years ago with a price tag of $100,000, it’s a beautiful piece of kit, albeit with a more clinical aesthetic than your average craft operation—the polar opposite of Martin Townshend’s patchwork quilt of a brewery. Lab coats hang by the door, and the whiteboard is filled with coded numbers for experimental hop selections, broken by the occasional reference to ‘porter’ or ‘red IPA’. “We do the odd festive brew,” says Beatson with a smile.
Breeding successful hops is a numbers game, with 5000–10,000 seedlings planted for every cultivar that makes it to market. A potentially world-beating variety can be easily missed, perhaps because its alpha acids weren’t sufficiently high, or it didn’t meet some other predetermined standard. What you need to do from time to time, it seems, is throw out theory and just brew the damn thing.
“I can evaluate a new hop as a single plant out in the field, smell it, do the chemistry testing, but unless you’ve got a pilot brewing kit, that’s the end of it,” says Beatson. “Now, if we like a plant, we can do a brew.”
When it’s ready, he convenes a tasting session of his ‘Research Committee’, comprised largely of Nelson craft brewers plus one or two from other areas, some hops growers and NZ Hops boss Doug Donelan. If it floats their boat, the new variety gets fast-tracked.
The early generation testing has already caught at least two “outstanding” hop selections. What are they like? Beatson’s eyes gleam. One of the selections has got his team excited. For now, he’s calling it ‘Waimea’s Sister’, because it’s a full sibling of that well-known hop. But he believes it could be the next Nelson Sauvin.
“We’ve done three brews and they’ve all been outstanding successes. It’s got that wonderful tropical fruit flavour, with a whole lot of stonefruit and a citrusy aroma.”
Someone coined another name for it: the ‘Wow Hop’.
“One of our catchphrases here is ‘Hops with a difference’. And when we say difference, we mean a good difference.”
Disaster. Shaping to carry the fermentation barrel to a warmer spot in the house, I’ve knocked its tap loose. In an instant, 25 litres is discharging through a hole the size of a 10-cent piece, a cataract of molasses-infused water spraying the kitchen walls before I can plug the dyke.
What’s left—generously, perhaps half of what I began with—now sits in the office, a sad spectacle. The little airlock tube that should be bubbling with carbon dioxide, signalling healthy fermentation, is lifeless.
I ring Dixon. “Oh dear,” he says. But he doesn’t think it’s affected the fermentation. He suggests checking for krausen, a foamy head that forms on the surface of wort during fermentation, followed by tasting the thing. If it’s bitter, I’ve got beer; hallelujah and pass your glass. If it’s sweet, fermentation has failed.
I remember then that Griggs had described Tracy Banner—Sprig & Fern head brewer and co-owner—as the “matriarch” of New Zealand craft. She was formerly the head brewer at McCashin’s and had a reputation for being smart, highly trained, and “ferocious” about producing consistent beer. Perhaps she could help?
The Sprig & Fern brewery is to be found in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Richmond, with concrete precast outfits and trucking operators for near neighbours. Banner meets me at reception. Dressed in a black Sprig & Fern shirt and wearing thin-rimmed glasses below a neat blonde bob, she looks like Griggs’ description: a cheerful perfectionist in a sometimes slapdash industry.
Raised in Warrington, Banner was 16 when she got her first job as a lab technician for massive corporate brewer Greenall’s. One of 40 in the lab, she became a “sponge”—analysing malt and colour, bitterness and head retention, different oils and salts. “Between the ages of 16 and 23, I got a very good understanding of what makes up a beer.”
Later, she tackled product improvement at Bass Brewery, then quality assurance at a large Liverpool brewer, before she and her husband Ken moved to New Zealand. To turn a jug of a story into a quick half-pint, she was working for Lion in Auckland in 1995 when she saw a classified ad seeking a brewer in Nelson.
At Mac’s, Banner convinced the McCashin family to let her start making new beers, starting with some hoppier premium lagers. “I always say to my kids, ‘When I’m six feet under, you’ll be able to say that Mum was involved in the change.’ I was at Mac’s coming up with new styles, Emerson’s was just happening, and there was Harrington’s. We were changing the face of New Zealand beer and ciders.”
When Lion bought the business, she was persuaded to take on the positions of head brewer and brewery manager at Speight’s in Dunedin—the first woman in either role—then returned to Mac’s after a couple of years. She barely had her feet back under the table, however, when Lion decided to close the Stoke brewery.
That stroke of a pen in an Auckland office eventually led to the creation of Sprig & Fern, which the Banners now own outright. With seven franchised pubs in the Nelson-Tasman region, two in Wellington, and riggers of the beer selling nationally, it’s a solid middle-heavyweight in the craft scene. There have been honours, too, most recently a best-in-class gong for its Best Bitter at the 2016 Brewers Guild Awards.
“I like to brew a beer that is stylistically correct,” says Banner, who judges at international level. “If you’re drinking our Scotch ale, then it’s traditionally made, and the same for a doppelbock, say. Not everyone does that.
There’s been a huge amount of beers recently that are hop bombs, without the complexity and balance of malt to carry those hops. Beers have to be drinkable. You’ve got to be able to say, ‘I enjoyed that so much that I’m going to have another pint.’”
There are traditions and guidelines, but she also literally follows her nose. “I have exceptional sensory,” says Banner. “I heard on the radio the other week that a woman working at Cadbury had insured her tongue for one million pounds. I said to the kids, ‘Maybe I should insure my nose.’ I’m able to pick up a lot of flavours, and it’s all to do with the nose.”
Naturally, she’s on Ron Beatson’s tasting panel. More impressively, while at Mac’s she was the first commercial brewer to use Nelson Sauvin, and helped to coin the name.
“It really was like having a glass of sauvignon blanc. The aroma that came off that beer, with the gooseberries and the passionfruit, it was just fantastic.”
When Banner devises a limited-release beer, all of her science and brewing experience is put at the service of her intuition.
“Before I’ve even written a recipe, I can taste the beer in my mouth—or how I want it to taste,” she says, citing a recent brew to mark her 30th anniversary in the industry. “I don’t like whiskey, but I could taste this hint of whiskey in my mouth. I was thinking, ‘I want honey and whiskey, and a nice sophisticated beer to savour the moment.’ The beer I made was just over seven per cent, and it had honey and peated malt like they use for whiskey. And it was gorgeous.”
The same cannot be said of Pickersgill Harbour Original. What could have gone wrong? Banner considers, then suggests three possibilities: too little yeast, or an unviable yeast; not enough oxygen; and temperature.
To illustrate the last point, she takes me through to the brewing hall and shows me the fermentation chart for a porter underway in one of the tanks. She talks of specific gravity and hydrometers; she shows me graphs, grabs a calculator and starts punching in numbers. The gist, I glean, is that mash temperature is critical to the fermentation process and final alcohol percentage, and that a porter and a pilsner, say, begin to diverge at this early point.
But of more interest is Banner’s enthusiasm. Notwithstanding her multiple roles in the business, she’s still hands-on. “I may not actually be throwing the malt in, but you’ll see me lugging kegs.”
She still loves brewing. They all do.
As for this fledgling brewer, my beer is undrinkable. I drink it anyway, raising a glass to Cook and his crew.
Their time at Pickersgill Harbour yielded more than navigational treasure. From that first handful of mānuka and helping of molasses, two centuries of fermentation produced a vigorous craft brewing movement. I wish my next brew better fortune. In the meantime, no chance of scurvy, at least.