For a city with an extensive brewing history, Christchurch breweries are not as prominent in beer drinkers’ thoughts as those from Wellington and Auckland. Some could be forgiven for think the city’s scene is still in the doldrums after the devastating February 2011 earthquake.
But, on a recent visit, Our Man in New Zealand, Jono Galuszka, found a beer culture especially comfortable in its own skin.
You can always get a good gauge of a city’s attitude through the style of its sporting teams. It’s no different in New Zealand, especially when it comes to its national sport – rugby union. Specifically, the way the teams in the Southern Hemisphere Super Rugby competition play. Wellington’s Hurricanes are stylish but, until recently, notorious flakes. Auckland’s Blues are much the same, possibly thanks to having Hurricanes great Tana Umaga as their coach.
The Crusaders, who call Christchurch home, are dependably excellent. It is almost frustrating for the rest of the country to see just how damn good they have been for so long, racking up eight titles in the competition’s 22-year history. But the big thing to notice is their supporters – parochial, almost pentecostal.
That religious fervour for anything their own can be seen at the Great Kiwi Beer Fest. Held in a small corner of Christchurch’s oak-trimmed Hagley Park (size: 164.637 hectares), thousands throng for a day of beer, food and music provided by anyone from 80s reunion act Mi-Sex to national hero Dave Dobbyn. But keen-eyed attendees at the 2018 edition would have noticed something interesting. While the lines for the likes of Garage Project and Liberty Brewing were predictably long, the biggest queue was for Harrington’s – a Christchurch brewery with more than 25 years on the clock.
Twisted Hop founder Martin Bennett is another part of the scene’s furniture. An expat Englishman who worked as a photographer, he made his way to New Zealand via Indonesia. He had no idea what to do when he arrived, but fell in with someone who was keen to brew cask conditioned ale. Christchurch, renowned for being the most British city in New Zealand, seemed as good a place to do it as any.
“Half the people are Poms, and half are descended from them,” Martin says.
The Twisted Hop brewpub opened in 2004, quickly gaining a reputation for both cask ales like Golding Bitter and its excellent Sauvin Pilsner. But Martin now spends much of his time at The Laboratory, a new brewpub in Lincoln, just south of Christchurch. Maybe it is the old wooden trusses, the brick walls, or the opium bed on the mezzanine, but The Laboratory feels like it fell out the sky after being teleported from the 19th Century.
Yet the grand building is not even five years old. The décor is thanks to recycling. The 17,000 bricks came from the old Addington Saleyards near Hagley Park. The trusses came from the former Wards Brewery on the corner of Kilmore Street and Fitzgerald Avenue, now home to Christchurch’s most famed pub, Pomeroy’s. The horseshoe bar called the Hororata Hotel home until the non-fatal September 2010 earthquake laid waste to the old pub.
There are also hints at how Martin ended up in Lincoln. A sign for Poplar Lane hangs in the courtyard, while the original liquor licence for The Twisted Hop brewpub hangs in The Laboratory’s brewery. The Twisted Hop called Poplar Lane home until a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck at 12.51pm on February 22, 2011. Killing 185 people and injuring thousands more, the quake laid waste to many parts of Christchurch. Much of Poplar Lane was decimated, the brick buildings that gave the city its English charm crumbling. The building The Twisted Hop leased was the only one on the lane to survive, but the brewery was made to move.
“We had to get all the stuff out in three days, because it was going to be torn down,” Martin says. But it stayed up, eventually being strengthened to become the home of Dux Central.
You could forgive Martin for being a tad angry about the situation, but he is philosophical. Lincoln is growing and gets plenty of visitors thanks to its university and Crown research institutes.
Central Christchurch could not be more different. It is a sobering experience. Buildings surrounded by chain link fences are more like zoo animals than places where people worked, lived and played. Clock faces are covered by wood. Graffiti artists have made the most of the swathe of new canvas, while the iconic ChristChurch Cathedral is now a house of pigeons, not worship. Some have made the most of it, such as Smash Palace – possibly the only pub run out of a school bus – but many bars have moved to the suburbs.
Three Boys Brewery founder and former Brewers Guild of New Zealand president Ralph Bungard says the beer culture is different depending on the suburb you go to. While Woolston, where his brewery is located, has many bars pouring craft beer, other parts of Christchurch are firmly tied up by the likes of DB and Lion. Christchurch is a long way from the country’s biggest beer markets, Wellington and Auckland, making it hard to sell big enough volumes.
“It’s easy to send one keg a long way," he says, "but we aren’t going to pay our mortgage on that because next week something else will be on tap.”
You can find Three Boys beer outside its home city, but Ralph says they made a decision a few years ago to focus on the local market.
“We had to choose whether we were going to try and ride the crest of the wave by going big on distribution. But we’ve always wanted to make Christchurch our home, where we can treat our customers incredibly well. We are committed to them.”
Rachel Norcross, co-owner of Christchurch beer distributor and flagon fillery Punky Brewster (pictured above), says it works the other way. Take, for example, Panhead selling to Lion in 2016. The popularity of Panhead Supercharger APA is well storied, but some bars wanted something different after the sale. Instead of reaching for a more established product, many bars took on small Christchurch producers like Southpaw and Beer Baroness.
Those two breweries also hint at how the Christchurch brewing scene is changing. Rachel says people outside of the city think of real ale, milk stout, porter – styles you could describe as sedate. But the city has brewers making beer across the style gamut, with Rachel especially excited for the next wave of young brewers coming through the city, many of them from the homebrew community.
Oli Drake is the first name that comes to her mind. A software engineer by trade, Oli won the National Homebrew Competition in 2015 with a Flanders style sour red ale modelled on Rodenbach Grand Cru. He has since opened Wilderness Brewing, based out of his garage, and started producing a range including a smoked lemon gose, an oak aged dark mild fermented with brettanomyces, and a hazy IPA aged on apricots.
But, despite the newcomers, Christchurch brewing does not seem to have an impact outside of the city. Make a list of all the breweries creating hype in New Zealand and abroad, and you would be hard pressed to find one from Christchurch. It is something Craig Bowen, founder of Christchurch-based distributor BeerNZ, credits to the Englishness of the city.
“It’s very traditional, reserved and conservative," he says. "I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but when you are trying to push out into the market … Christchurch, to some drinkers, doesn’t have anything cool. We don’t have a rockstar.”
The latest GABS Hottest 100 Kiwi Craft Beers results confirm that. Only one beer came from Christchurch – Harrington’s Rogue Hop pilsner, at 91 – made the list. That does not mean Christchurch beer is bad. But it is different.
The Laboratory on a Sunday afternoon is a perfect case study. The place is packed as it is at this time every week, many people sipping real ale from big English pint glasses. Nucleus, a 3.5 percent ABV English-inspired pale ale, is the exact kind of beer you could drink like water yet still be right as rain. It is made for long conversations about the weekend’s sport results, but is not the kind of thing that will get a brewery to the top of Untappd ratings. It perfectly sums up the city’s beer culture very well: assured, mature, approachable, happily enjoyed, not needing to be screamed about from the rooftop.
Craig puts it a different way.
“We are like your favourite pair of Levi’s – comfortable, never in fashion, but never out of fashion.”
You can read other articles on New Zealand's beer scene here and all articles by Jono here. You can find him elsewhere on the internet on Twitter, or his beer blog From Drinker to Brewer, which you can also follow on Facebook.