Winter has always been a time of hibernation in New Zealand’s windy capital city, and for good reason. From June to September, the average daily low dips to more than half of what it is the rest of the year (6°C / 43°F); on top of that, June and July tend to be the wettest months of the year, too. And so with bitter southerly winds whipping around street corners, flipping umbrellas inside out, Wellingtonians tend to scramble indoors to huddle around oil heaters in their chilly homes for a few months.
Weather be damned, however, these days a slew of festivals and events are shaking locals from their winter slumber and compelling them back into the city center during the cold, dark winter months. Anchoring this diverse off-season schedule of happenings that celebrate film, food, art, music, and drink is the city’s vibrant brewpub scene.
“Wellington has this quiet week when the weather changes and everyone stays in, and then they realize that, well, the weather’s going to be gross for a while, so we may as well come back out again,” says Jos Ruffell.
In 2011, Ruffell partnered with longtime friends Pete and Ian Gillespie to launch Garage Project, Wellington’s first city brewery. The three set up shop in an old petrol station located in Aro Valley, just outside the city center.
“Wellington was always known as the craft beer capital, but it was from a consumption point of view,” Ruffell says. “When we started there were no breweries in the city, and we were attracted to the idea of brewing in the city at places where people could smell and see the brewery.”
The idea sparked a fire that today burns brighter than ever—seven years later. seven craft breweries occupy a four-kilometer square area in the central city. So, although Garage Project is still a relatively green operation, the brewery has become distinguished almost by default as the hip, young godfather of Wellington craft beer.
“In this evolving scene we‘re old school,” Ruffell admits, adding that a “second wave explosion of brewpubs” has pushed the scene to a point of maturity. “People are coming with different tastes and objectives. Some have come and gone, but there’s always going to be a demand for interesting and delicious beer.”
At HUSK Bar & Eatery, home to Choice Bros Brewing, co-owner and brewer Kerry Gray feels that while Wellington’s density of brewpubs and beer bars of course means competition, a distinct diversity in venues and brewing approaches helps keep things fresh.
“Each bar is different enough to stand out, which means people want to go around and try each of them,” says Gray. “There are crossovers, but we all have our own style, which is really cool.”
HUSK is understated, relaxed, and welcoming on a blustery Wellington morning. The barman is making flat whites, and sharp coffee smells mingle with the yeasty aroma wafting from the purple-lit brewing equipment at the back of the space. The brewery’s fast rotation of beers—around 25 different styles a year—means there are enough unique offerings to keep everyone interested. It also keeps Gray on his toes. “There’s no room to make bad beer,” Gray says. “I’d hate to be brewing the same beer five times a day, every day. It would be boring. You’d lose your passion.”
One bonus to Wellington’s compact conglomeration of beer bars, Gray says, is an infrastructure that helps set the city apart from northerly Auckland, which has begun pushing against Wellington’s “craft beer capital” title. “The Wellington culture is one of trying new things, of experimentation,” he says. “We don’t copy other scenes. Here there’s a lot more engaging with new things. [Auckland] is a sprawling mess, and not easily accessible to beer tourists. People in Auckland are used to it, but tourists aren’t.”
The beating heart of Wellington craft beer is the Cuba Street and Aro Valley area, a colorful, artistic part of town frequented by students, professionals, and travelers lured by throngs of vintage shops, record stores, independent art galleries, and Malaysian canteens.
It’s a quick walk from Cuba Street to the main drinker’s artery of Courtenay Place, where the city’s largest bars discharge stumbling drunken hordes on Friday and Saturday nights. But while there’s a short geographical distance between Cuba and Courtenay, a vast ideological gulf exists between the old-school drinking spots lining the latter and the “less is more” emphasis on flavor and quality favored at the city’s brewpubs.
“The distance is deliberate. We don’t want to be associated with what’s happening on the street outside,” Gray says. “People are going out and realizing the value of hanging with friends and having a couple of pints. They’re spending the same amount of money, but more wisely.”
Indeed, on an average day at HUSK one can see a mix of business people pounding away on laptops, students poring over textbooks, and groups of friends dropping in for a casual pint. “We even have intermediate kids come in for a hot chocolate after school,” Gray says. “These younger kids get to see responsible drinking. You can just have a beer and do some study and read a book—you don’t need to be on the piss.”
Over at Heyday Beer Co, at the top of Cuba Street, co-founder Hamish Sail says he doesn’t want to downplay his part in a trade that can be harmful, when abused. However, he likes to think that his and other craft brewpubs are more community-minded than the traditional brewery model. They like to keep an eye on what’s going on around them, running charity events and catering a diverse community.
“Come in on a Sunday and you’ll find half the tables are full of couples with kids,” he says. “There are board games out, and tap badges get scribbled on with crayons. All kinds of people feel comfortable here. You can see anyone from tattooed bogans and computer nerds, to older men in their sixties and young women in their twenties.”
The one and perhaps only thing these people have in common, Sail says, is an appreciation of good beer. “People come in for the product, the flavor. That brings a lot of diversity.”
Heyday is Wellington’s fresh-faced newbie on the block, having just opened its doors last November. Cheerful pastels, flowers, and flamingo salt shakers give the place a distinctly beachy vibe. Sail, who has a background in construction, fitted the bar himself with the help of his brewer and staff. It was a lot of work, and by the time Heyday’s opening day rolled around at the start of the busy summer season, Sail says that everyone was “buggered.”
“We didn’t really have systems in place when we opened, which was a challenge,” Sail says. “We’re looking back and seeing how things can be done better.”
As for its beer, true to Wellington’s preference for experimentalism, Heyday doesn’t maintain a core range. “Every batch we do is new, so when you buy our beer you know it’s fresh,” says Sail. “We believe the only way to get fresh beer to our customers is in a keg, and we generally sell everything out within about six weeks.”
Sail describes his crew as a “small team of young people that are excited about beer” and about being a part of the city’s brewing community. “[The breweries] do compete, but it’s all for the sake of better beer,” he says. “We all help each other, and if someone’s short of a bag of grain, or needs to borrow a piece of equipment, even the big guys will put their hands up and say they can help. It’s a community coming together, and that’s a fantastic thing of which to be a part.”
When I meet Sail, he and his team were in the midst of a much-needed early winter reprieve. But with major festivals like Wellington on a Plate, Beervana, and The World of WearableArt (WOW) on the horizon, Sail says that the winter break will be a short one.
“We’re about to get slammed again.”
Try These Beers
Garage Project: Ruffell suggests Fuzz Box, a “delicious, juicy, hazy IPA/pale ale,” and Yuzukosho, brewed with Japanese green yuzu, chilli, sea salt, and lime.
HeyDay Beer Co: “In the winter people turn to full-flavored malt beers and brown ales,” Sail says. He recommends Octopus’s Garden, an espresso milk stout with salted caramel, as well as the recently released Mango Lassi Kettle Sour.
HUSK: Gray says this his New England IPA, a clean, crisp, and dry IPA with soft bitterness, is “the go-to for all the beer geeks.” Keep an eye out, too, for SHAKE IT!, a chocolate milkshake stout brewed in collaboration with Heyday; Velvet Goldmine, a sour cherry and coconut cream stout; and On the Brain, a peanut butter and raspberry ale that Gray says has developed a small cult following.