The good-natured ruckus between Wellington and Nelson may be as old as New Zealand itself, but in recent years it has threatened to froth over. While only separated by 125 kilometres of sea, these two proud cities remain galaxies apart when it comes to beer.
Whereas Wellington has boldly proclaimed itself the ‘Craft Beer Capital’ (craftbeercapital.com) of New Zealand, Nelson has fought back, staking its claim to the title of the country’s ‘Craft Brewing Capital’ (craftbrewingcapital.co.nz). Indeed, the city’s brewing pedigree casts far back to the 1840s, when German and British migrants arrived with their hopes and hops and planted in the Moutere region to the west of Nelson.
It’s difficult to bypass Nelson’s hop heritage today. Travel in any direction beyond the boundaries of this charmed city and you’ll happen across wild hop vines knotting around fence posts and braided to tree trunks. “Hops are part of the personality of Nelson,” Doug Donelan tells me. Donelan is an Australian who once worked at home for ‘Big Beer’ but now heads up New Zealand Hops (nzhops.co.nz), a co-op representing the country’s preeminent growers, and an innovative global hub for research and development.
Released commercially in 2000, the local Nelson Sauvin hop has since rocketed to international acclaim – so named for its fragrant sauvignon blanc-like tropical aromatics, indispensable in American-style pale ales and the ever-growing new world IPA sector. Similarly, the notoriety of the Motueka hop – and its tell-tale zesty citrus bouquet – has been further roused by the popular resurgence of the saison and Czech-style aromatic pilsners, but is equally at home in bolshier brews, such as New England IPAs. While the vast bulk of these hops are destined for international markets, Nelson’s brewers have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, crafting truly rewarding beers largely unfazed by mercurial fashions.
Small, family-owned breweries with welcoming but unfussy cellar doors such as the Sprig & Fern Brewery (sprigandfern.co.nz) feel as timeless as the landscape to which they belong. British-born brewer Tracy Banner has been brewing professionally for decades and boasts a range that traverses both tradition (Scotch Ale and British Best Ale) and progression (Kiwi Pale Ale and the Harvest Pilsner, brewed with a selection of freshly harvested local hops).
Similarly, nearby McCashin’s Brewery (mccashins.co.nz) is emblematic of the honest, zeitgeist of the region. When former All Black Terry McCashin applied for a brewing license in 1981 rumour has it he was the first to do so in half a century – with the country a locked-up duopoly between bitter rivals Lion Nathan and Dominion Breweries (now DB Breweries). McCashin shook the local beer scene to its core with Mac’s. The Mac’s brand remains a major fixture of the country’s beer scene today, with its popular chain of brew-pubs.
But in 2009 McCashin rattled the foundations yet again, taking back his original brewhouse in Nelson and launching the Stoke beer brand (stokebeer.co.nz) under the stewardship of his son Dean, as well as rekindling the historic Rochdale cider brand (rochdalecider.com). Today McCashin’s Brewery is a reinvigorated craft beer haven with a steadfast range of beers that very much vie for the common ground between trend and tradition: including the supple Stoke Nelson Pale Ale, brewed with generous additions of local Riwaka hops.
Set above the pristine Motueka aquifer in the heart of this hop-growing region, Townshend Brewery (townshendbrewery.co.nz) may be modest in scale but not in ambition. While embodying the spirit of the region, these beers also typify global influences – not least the scrumptious Sutton Hoo American Amber Ale, bundled with complex hops and malt tones.
Nearby Hop Federation (hopfederation.co.nz) is now thrilling palates beyond its charmed cellar door, with distribution into Australia. These beers are both refined and confident – including a dazzling New World Pilsner brewed wholly with local hops, and a range of seasonal fresh-hopped beers that showcase the ambrosial essence of Nelson.
With an ever-expanding bevy of breweries – from venerated veterans such as Eddyline (eddylinebrewery.nz) to Golden Bear Brewery (goldenbearbrewing.com) and Founders (foundersbrewery.co.nz) – and beer-related enterprises, not least The Free House (thefreehouse.co.nz) and restaurant Hopgood’s & Co (hopgoods.co.nz), this is one pilgrimage worthy of every beer devotee.