Tourists visit New Zealand for its incredible landscapes made famous by the Lord of the Rings and to seek out its grassy sauvignon blancs, not beer—but that’s about to change. A recent report by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research states that New Zealand has more breweries (over 200) per capita than Britain, the US, and Australia.
Leading this charge is Wellington. With roughly 20 breweries, plus as many craft-carrying pubs, the hip, compact, and easily walkable city is inarguably the craft capital of the entire Southern Hemisphere (and they even have their own Craft Beer Capital website). Experimenting with wacky ingredient combos that somehow just work, Wellington’s beer masters aren’t playing it safe either. Not afraid to push the envelope or their creativity—many average a new beer every week—these are some of the city’s most exciting risk takers.
Fork & Brewer
A pioneer of New Zealand’s craft capital, Fork & Brewer became Wellington’s first independent brewpub in 2011. But it didn’t really pick up steam until brewer Kelly Ryan—nicknamed BrewJesus by his peers—took over the taps in 2014 and expanded the list from six to 42.
In five years, Ryan has made close to 170 different beers at the second-floor Bond Street brewery as a miraculous one-man show. It doesn’t even have an elevator, so he carries all of the ingredients upstairs himself and brews right among the patrons, his small collection of fermenters sectioned off in the corner. “I love the intensity of it,” he says. “I did my time managing breweries and have been more deskbound, so I love being back on the tools with the smells, the sounds, and the taste of making beer on a really manual kit.”
Ryan’s creativity runs on a chemistry background, dad jokes and puns—take the Hardpour Corn maize lager, for instance—and an obsession with aromas and flavors (he once considered becoming a perfumer). As a result, there’s truly no ingredient he won’t experiment with. For a Stranger Things-inspired imperial oatmeal stout called Demogorgon, Ryan used an unorthodox ingredient: a can of silkworm pupae, which happens to be a popular snack food in South Korea.
The Yoghurt & Bruesli, a multigrain sour ale fermented with Brettanomyces, is one of his most funky, yet popular experimentations at Fork & Brewer; and in an especially creative combo, he used local pinot noir grapes and sea urchin for his own take on the oyster stout. He cleverly named it Kinot Noir, as “kina” is the Maori word for sea urchin. “The world is your oyster stout when it comes to thinking of beer ideas,” says Ryan, never one to pass up a good dad joke.
Ask a local which Wellington brewery you should visit and the first recommendation out of most people’s mouths is Garage Project (pronounced ”gair-age” in Kiwi-speak). Partners Pete Gillespie, Jos Ruffell, and Ian Gillespie grew up on the same street and started Garage Project on a half-barrel brewing kit, which is still in operation today despite them now having three production facilities. Under a startup initiative called 24/24, they brewed 24 beers in 24 weeks.
“It wasn’t like homebrewers just starting out,” says Ruffell. “We consciously decided to start with that little system so we could take some risks and experiment in a way we wouldn’t be able to if we were making 10- to 20-barrel batches, and we’ve kept that mentality and flexibility as we’ve grown.”
These days, Garage Project makes roughly 40 to 50 new beers a year, experimenting with everything from spontaneous wild ferments using locally foraged wildflowers and plants to blending multiple beers together. (The Two Tap Flat White, for example, features an espresso stout at the bottom of the glass, topped with a nitro cream ale made with lactose, poured over like foamed milk.) “You name it, we’ve sort of done it,” says Ruffell. This includes submerging a speaker in the beer and playing it an 11-day hardcore metal playlist during fermentation for their Gyle 666 black IPA.
Garage Project also works with local freelance artists to create distinct artwork for each beer (they even have a book coming out, The Art of Beer, in July). The Umami Monster and Mecha-Hop were both packaged with a full graphic novel, while the Mutiny on the Bounty, which told the story of the failed HMS Bounty mission, was wrapped in an old-timey map, with a gold foil, triple-embossed label hidden underneath. But not all labels are taken so seriously; the White Mischief salted white peach sour features rabbits going at it in different positions. “We want the beer to have its own personality,” says Ruffell. “Every one has to have a strong story, strong identity.”
Locals and tourists flock to Garage Project’s original, graffiti-covered Aro Street location, The Garage. Opened in 2011 in a former petrol station and car workshop, it offers free tastings off eight taps and beer for takeaway, but across the street, the unassuming taproom has a lot more, with 18 taps for flights and pints, plus food.
Head to Wellington’s famous David Bowie mural, look up and to the right. You’ll see a lively upstairs patio and a giant tattooed hand holding a tarot card protruding from an industrial building. That’s Fortune Favours, one of the newest breweries to open in Wellington. “It’s a play off the saying ‘fortune favours the bold, fortune favours the brave.’ I was moving cities, mortgaging the house, and taking the opportunity to chase my dream,” said founder Shannon Thorpe.
Housed in a former dipstripping business at the gateway of Hannah’s Laneway, an old factory in the revived Leeds St. district, Fortune Favours is within walking distance of seven other breweries, plus a number of other independent artisanal producers, like Fix & Fogg, creators of flavored organic peanut butters. Fortune Favours kept the building’s original walls, floors, and ceilings, even constructing the upstairs bar out of multi-colored pipes. Food pairings are a major focus here—there’s an actual meat and cheese bar— plus oddly enough, a robust gin and tonic menu showcasing local craft gins for non-hop heads.
Brewer Dale Cooper focuses on creating a diverse lineup. “Part of my philosophy is to have a wide variety. We try to be more inclusive for people and part of that is having a wide variety of styles, not just all big hop bombs, but something for everybody,” he says. The tap list ranges from lagers to IPAs to stouts, but every Thursday, Cooper releases a small-batch experimental beer (as tiny as 20 liters), which tends to sell out quickly. Inspired by the piña colada, the Barrachina Hazy Ale has become a brewery staple and Cooper especially loves working with goses. His tart creations have included tomatillo, pineapple, and cinnamon, and cucumber and mint, to name a few.
Founded by Wellington hospitality legends the Scott family, Whistling Sisters was started with charitable intentions. The family’s daughter and sister Karen Louisa passed away in 2015 from advanced breast cancer and Whistling Sisters was created as a way to consistently supply funds to the foundation they started in her honor. “We’ve raised $150,000, but were hitting up the same people all the time and we needed it to live longer,” said Lisa Butcher, Karen’s sister. “This is not a new concept. The Trappist monks for years used to brew beer and give money back to the community. It collided two things we love: giving back to a cause we really believe in and giving people a great time.”
In 2018, Whistling Sisters opened its Fermentary on what’s known as Wellington’s Ghuznee Street craft beer mile, where 20 cents for every bottle goes to the foundation. The Scotts also bring their decades of hospitality prowess into play with a thoughtful food menu, the star of which is their famous fermented fries, made with yeast from the brewery.
Fitting for their name and mission, Whistling Sisters’ limited releases feature powerful female figures on the labels, like the Prima Dana Italian pilsner, Riveting Rosé, a berry wit inspired by rosé Champagne, and the Rooty Toot Toot, chock full of good-for-you roots like ginger, turmeric, galangal, and carrots.
“We brew to take our drinkers on a journey through the spectrum of beer styles, from fruity sweet to bitter dry, the hoppy to the malty, and all the unexpected places in between,” says Bede Roe, who partnered with the Scotts to open Whistling Sisters. One of those unexpected places? The Sipping Duck. Crafted with coriander seed, cumin seed, red rice, galangal, ginger, kaffir lime leaf, bay leaf, red chilli flakes, and real roasted ducks, it’s literally a Thai red duck curry in a glass.
Opening in late 2017, HeyDay snagged prime real estate on the quieter end of Wellington’s iconic Cuba Street. The owners set up shop in an old car garage, painting the exterior a trendy mint green, with pink accents inside. Similar to a lot of American breweries, the garage door rolls up and the outdoor patio, complete with lawn games, fills up during the summer months.
Brewer Sam Whitney is an American and former chef, but switched over into beer during the last decade spent in New Zealand. HeyDay was a chance to take his craft to the next level and he’s since brewed 85 beers in roughly 18 months. “I was brewing the same five to six beers over and over,” he says. “I was looking for something smaller, more creative.”
That creativity is apparent in brews like the S’more Stout, for which he made his own marshmallows and toasted them with a crème brûlée torch, in addition to adding cocoa powder, graham crackers, and cinnamon during fermentation (ironically, he found that many Kiwis have no idea what a s’more is). His Agua Fresca series of fruit-focused kettle sours is inspired by the non-alcoholic refreshers popular in Mexico. Whitney’s favorite to date is the Nectarino, made with “a ridiculous amount of nectarines.”
“I have one foot in the past, one foot in the future, meaning I’m really into traditional styles of beer—your pilsner, lager, saisons—but I also really like the very, very modern beers, like the hazy New England IPAs and kettle sours with large fruit additions,” he says. “It’s all about experimentation and keeping new and exciting things on tap to get people to try, but still making sure they’re beers I want to stand behind and can be proud of. Quality is number one.”