Barreling ahead

Eoghan Walsh drops in for a pint with the team at 8 Wired


It’s early on a Monday morning, and there’s the merest hint of panic bubbling up at 8 Wired. The brewery, set up by Søren Eriksen and his partner Monique, is a couple of weeks away from opening New Zealand’s first dedicated barrel-store and tap room in the chi-chi village of Matakana. The new purpose-built facility will accommodate the brewery’s ever-increasing collection of wine barrels, foeders, and whisky barrels used to age 8 Wired’s sour ales and imperial stouts. Only there’s a problem. The sign meant to sit atop the building and announce 8 Wired to the surrounding countryside is missing an ‘R’. Unless it’s solved, passing commuters will be welcomed instead to ‘8 Wired Bewery’. 

Not to worry. Monique departs to tear strips off the supplier, and Søren gets back to explaining how he ended up here. Eriksen’s not a New Zealand native, and after a decade over here, his accent remains somewhere between Copenhagen and Christchurch. It was for love (and a little bit of work) that Eriksen ended up on the outskirts of Auckland running one of Australasia’s largest barrel-ageing beer programmes.“We met in Bangladesh actually,” says Eriksen, explaining how he met Monique while he was working as an intern at the Danish embassy in 2003. “It was really a bit of bullshit,” he says of the internship. “I was not qualified at all but I’m guessing nobody else applied for the position!” The pair eventually made it to Western Australia where Eriksen finished his studies and where, in 2005, he was given a home-brew kit by his partner to mess around with.

Eriksen caught the home brewing bug, playing around with home-brew recipes of beer styles he’d heard of but never seemed to be able to get a hold of. “Certainly, down here there was no craft beer to speak of,” he says. “Basically, I had to brew it myself…I actually think my second beer that I made that was actually semi-brewed in a proper manner rather than with malt extract was an imperial stout.” Once the pair had returned to Monique’s native New Zealand, the home-brewing became serious, and it was a trip to the US that involved much beer and brewery visits across Colorado and the Pacific Northwest that sparked a desire to make a professional go of it.

Eriksen had been working as a part-time lab research assistant - researching sea urchin proteins - but that US trip made him realise his future was elsewhere. “I’d never been a great student,” he says, ‘and working in a lab was not going to be for me.” instead, he wanted to make the flavourful beers he’d tried in America. “One that I remember vividly was Bridgeport in Oregon. That was one that stands out for me. Their ESB, although looking back now it was probably more like an American Pale Ale,” he says, with a wry, fond smile.

He was given a home-brewing kit by his partner to mess around with

Fast forward to 2008 and Eriksen secured an apprenticeship at the Renaissance brewery on New Zealand’s South Island as the pair planned to open a brewpub. But it soon became clear they had neither the hospitality experience nor the technical brewing acumen to go straight to opening their own place. So Søren cut a deal with the brewery: he would brew their beer, and in exchange they would rent him out the brewhouse to make what became 8 Wired Brewing. “It was invaluable, obviously,” Eriksen says. “In all honesty I only had two years of home-brewing experience, and I wasn’t even that good a home-brewer to be honest!”

8 Wired’s first beer on the Renaissance kit as a contract brewery back in 2009 was a brown ale, but soon after Eriksen brewed Hop Wired, an IPA that has remained in the brewery’s core range. New Zealand craft beer then was still quite regional, but 8 Wired with their hop-forward IPAs made a mark, and within five years were contract brewing out of four different breweries spread across New Zealand’s two islands. It was a logistical nightmare. 

In 2014, 8 Wired leased an industrial estate on the outskirts of Warkworth, an hour outside of Auckland on winding motorway through lush, spiky hills. The brewery they built then, in an old engineering workshop with a creaky pitched roof, is largely the same in 2019, with only tweaks to the capacity of the brewhouse and the growing barrel collection the big changes. As Eriksen shows off the barrels lined up neatly on one side of the brewhouse, there’s a sweet smell of beer ageing on wood hanging over the building. The brewery is set up to make 2,500 litres of finished product with every brew, and around half a million litres a year. It’s quiet this morning, with a little steam rising up to the ceiling, but later this afternoon Eriksen will mash in and get the whole system humming for a brew of one of the brewery’s kettle sours. 

Beyond the experiments ongoing with barrel-ageing the 8 Wired core range is made up of the afore-mentioned Hop Wired IPA, the Semi Conductor session IPA, Hippy Berliner, a sour hoppy ale described by the brewery as the free-spirited love child of a Berliner Weisse and an IPA, and their tropical pale ale, Tropidelic. They’re joined by an annual release of a sour ale aged on Feijoa fruit - originally a Latin American fruit but adopted wholesale as the unofficial national fruit of New Zealand. This and other sour ales are all aged in the barrels stacked to the ceiling on one side of the brewery. They’re sourced largely from wineries in the surrounding countryside or from their previous base at Renaissance (which is located in the heart of winemaking country on the South Island), who are quite happy to offload their pinot noir barrels once they’ve been used up. There’s a couple of rare Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay barrels, and stored a little away from these are several foeders Eriksen secured off a down-on-their-luck vineyard owner and filled with beer. “It was some middle-aged billionaire that set up a winery just for the fun of it, but pretty quickly after that he realised how much work it was,” he laughs. “He just gave up, he couldn’t be bothered. He had all these foeders and he never used them.” So Eriksen relieved him of them and put them to work. 

With these and the barrels, he’s got a store of about 230 vessels, into which he puts various pale sour worts which are fermented sometimes with brettanyomyces yeast, sometimes with wild house strains and Eriksen has even experimented with some spontaneous fermentation. Some are aged on fruit - the aforementioned feijoa being a big hit - and yet more are imperial stouts. Erkisen taps a couple of random barrels, one pouring forth a lightly tart pale ale sweet with residual sugar, and another a bracingly sour 8 Wired take on a Flemish Red Ale.

The brewery is set up to make 2,500 litres of finished product with every brew

And it’s this work that has led the Eriksens to their next adventure with 8 Wired - the dedicated barrel store that’s missing some letters. To get a sense of the scale of the venture, Eriksen loads up his pick-up truck - or ‘ute’ as the ubiquitous trucks are universally known in New Zealand - and we head out under thunderous summer skies whose rain bursts have just abated. As we ride out, Eriksen goes through the reasons for their expansion. A big part of it will be educational. The excellent IPAs, pale ales, and sour hoppy beers that have propelled growth forward for the brewery in the last five years will continue to be the backbone of 8 Wired’s sales, because barrel-aged beer is still a relatively niche phenomenon in New Zealand. 

Erikson hopes the new tap room will ease his customers into ordering and understanding these beers better. It will also be a chance for him and the brewery to experiment a little more, putting on smaller batches intended only for on-site consumption as well as having an outlet for an increase in output. “We usually only brew for barrel-aged beers four or five times a year…[and] the idea is to ramp that up significantly, at least once a month,” he says. And, ultimately, shifting the barrels out of the brewery will free up more space for additional equipment or upgrades on what they’ve already got. “At the moment we can’t fit anything [in],” Eriksen says, eyeing up where the barrels used to sit in the brewery, an ideal place to put in some new fermentation tanks, and as a place for their mobile canning line which is wheeled in and out of a side room when called upon.

Apart from looking for errant letters and trying to convert locals to the side of Flemish Red Ales or Feijoa fruited sours, Eriksen’s view is firmly on the future both of 8 Wired and of the New Zealand craft beer industry in general. It’s almost unrecognisable from the sector he started working in a decade ago, with an explosion in both interest, breweries and beer brands in the past couple of years. And this newly competitive market is posing questions that he and other brewers will have to deal with in the coming years. Take, as one example, the challenge of keeping up with what beer styles New Zealand’s drinkers want. “It used to be fairly easy five or 10 years ago,” Eriksen says. “You just go and look to the [United] States and say, yeah that’s probably coming two three, five years away. But nowadays, trends happen and they spread worldwide immediately.” 

Even so, Eriksen is banking on the new barrel-store and the space this will open back at the main brewery to bring in some new equipment and expand production just a little bit more, to continue to give 8 Wired a competitive advantage. "I like to say that we’re probably ahead of the trends,” he says, and he’s got the perfect platform to keep 8 Wired that way. Just so long as he can find some errant letters.

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