Wind, waves and earthquakes

Matthew Curtis takes a whistlestop beer tour in the Land of the Long White Cloud


On first appearances Wellington’s Ortega Fish Shack might not immediately strike you as a typical high-end seafood restaurant. Sitting just outside the New Zealand capital’s central business district, Ortega oozes a casual charm that belies the standards of the food and drink it serves. 

And the food is spectacular. Think native, green-lipped mussels almost as big as your fist, tantalising with their fleshy salinity, monkfish served with tarragon butter that will make you weep, and rich, delectable smoked eel risotto served in a horseradish crème fraiche. These are just some of the highlights. The wine list is impressive too—as you’d expect from a country with a wine industry worth over 1.6 billion New Zealand dollars (about £830 million)—but that’s not what I’m here for.

Wellington is a serious beer town, the brightest light in this nation's diverse and eclectic beer scene. It has a selection of bars, breweries and beers that, for me, rivals cities such as Portland Oregon, or perhaps even Manchester here in the UK. As such, Ortega’s beer list is near-equal to its wine equivalent. I order a bottle of C!tra, a double IPA from Helensville’s Liberty Brewing Co. It’s pithy and resinous, with a flavour reminiscent of fleshy, slightly sweet lemons and undertones of pine resin and navel oranges. It provides the perfect contrast to the oily, fatty texture of the smoked eel. 

A short walk from Ortega Fish shack and back into the centre of this bustling city, surrounded by tree-clad, rolling hills and the crashing waves in Wellington Bay, is Fork & Brewer. (Pro tip: if you do get thirsty on the way you can stop at its excellent sister pub, The Malthouse.) This charming, modern brewpub is headed up by one Kelly Ryan, one of the most respected brewers in New Zealand. If you’ve heard his name before, that’s because before he returned to his native country he brewed at Thornbridge in Derbyshire. He also produced the stunning collaboration beer, Amis du Brassage, with Mark Tranter of Burning Sky, one of his closest friends.

At Fork and Brewer, Ryan produces the kind of beer he wants to drink, and thankfully he has quite an eclectic palate. This means you’ll find clean-yet-punchy pale ales and IPAs, redolent with the herbaceous and tropical fruit notes from New Zealand hops. These are joined by snappy, refreshing lagers, tangy, salty gose, and much more besides. His barrel-aged, mixed-fermentation beers are also something to behold. There is something for everyone at this brewpub, and that’s before you’ve got to yet another excellent food menu.

One of the more curious things about Fork and Brewer is that the brewery itself, which sits on the first floor of the building in full view of the entire brewpub, is mounted on girders. On my first visit here in 2017 I asked Ryan why this is. “Earthquakes,” he replied. For Wellington (and indeed most of New Zealand) sits on several fault lines, and the last thing Fork and Brewer want is the brewhouse crashing to the ground amid a tremor. 

Not far from Fork and Brewer is another local brewery, but one that has made its name as one of the most innovative craft breweries in the world: Garage Project. Founded in a disused petrol station (hence the name) by brothers Pete and Ian Gillespie and close friend Jos Ruffell in 2011, this brewery has built its success on bold, envelope-pushing recipes and bright, eye-catching artwork. Their success has seen them pour at beer festivals all over the world, including at Firestone Walker’s invitational in California, and the Beavertown Extravaganza in London. 

Their success has seen them pour at beer festivals all over the world

The garage that houses the brewery is painted in graffiti as vibrant and colourful as Garage Project’s label art. Here you can visit the brewery for a quick tour and get bottles, cans and growlers to take away (the brewery seems happy to fill almost any container you arrive with, not plagued by the same licensing laws as their British equivalents.) Or if you fancy something a little cosier you can nip to its taproom over the road and try beers like the dank and citrusy Pernicious Weed, or something more off kilter such as Two Tap Flat White, a beer that consists of a coffee infused imperial stout blended with a “milk cream ale” as it’s served. It’s a genuine spectacle, that’s as delicious to taste as it is to behold when they serve it. 

You may even have time to try some of Garage Project’s wild and sour ales, or perhaps some of its own range of “natural” wines (its 100% Brett-fermented Chardonnay is not to be missed) at its Wild Workshop taproom in the centre of town. Then you can round off your stay in New Zealand’s capital of beer at some of its best bars. I’m a huge fan of the buzz within Golding’s Free Dive, while Hashigo Zake is another essential spot. The latter was the city’s first proper craft beer bar, and also serves up tasty meat pies alongside comforting bowls of noodle soup. 

Despite having such a rich and well-integrated beer culture, Wellington is far from the be all and end all of great beer in New Zealand. Sure, major locations, such as Christchurch on the South Island, or Auckland—its biggest city—also have this culture in spades. However, if you give yourself the chance to explore a little, you can uncover a few gems that you might miss if you didn’t.

Plus, if you plan a road trip, you can take in some of the stunning countryside along the way. Plus you get the chance to enjoy one of New Zealand’s finest delicacies—the steak and cheese pie. Found in many a pie warmer at petrol stations up and down the land, this is the ultimate roadside cuisine. They also pair very well with a tasty NZ pale or pilsner.

On the eastern side of the North Island you will find Hawke’s Bay, and the art deco surroundings of Napier. This city’s eccentric stylings are the result of it being rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1931. It’s worth a quick stop, but only on the way to Hastings; a relatively nondescript town when compared directly to its neighbour, it’s also home to Brave Brewing Co., one of my favourite breweries in the country. 

Established in 2014 by award-winning homebrewer Matt Smith and his wife, Gemma, Brave has gone on to win countless more awards for its simple, yet deeply delicious beers. Beers like Stay Gold Wheat Ale, and Bottle Rocket Extra Pale Ale. The jewel in its crown, however, is Tigermilk, an IPA so precise in its hop character you’d think it was made on the West Coast of the USA. Demand for Tigermilk often outstrips what the brewery is able to produce, so don’t hesitate to pick some up if you do find it. 

The brewery seems happy to fill almost any container you arrive with

Brave’s taproom is also significant, in that it breathed a little bit of youthful energy into an otherwise sleepy part of New Zealand. Honestly, you could drop this little bar into London or Leeds and it would be packed out every night. There is something significant that it isn’t however, as the Smith’s choose to invest in their local community, so too does that community give back to their little (but rapidly growing) business. 

Comparisons could easily be made with another family owned brewery, Liberty, about an hours drive past Auckland in another cosy little New Zealand town called Helensville. Liberty was set up by another husband-and-wife pair: Joseph and Christina Wood. The brewery is known for—among other things—catchy slogans such as “fuck, that’s good beer,” (coined by Joseph in one of the many “promotional” videos he likes to make and share on social media. They also happen to be the Brewers Guild of NZ champion brewery of 2019. 

Like many NZ breweries, there’s a big American influence here. It’s something you see a lot, seeing as years ago many well known West Coast breweries such as Stone, Bear Republic and Oregon’s Rogue began exporting here, inspiring a new generation of homebrewers in the process. Add in that New Zealand grows some of the most diverse and interesting hop varieties in the world, and you have the perfect storm when it comes to the establishment of a strong beer community. 

It’s always felt to me that New Zealand had the jump on modern beer in the UK somehow. Without the weight of history and cask beer culture it’s been free to float on the breeze like the long white clouds this country is known so well for (although cask beer exists here too, and a pint of ESB at Auckland’s Galbraith’s Ale House is essential during your own visit.) 

It might be a bloody long way away, but if you love beer, and want to experience the energy and diversity of a beer culture that’s not too different to our own—but also completely alien in its own right—then it’s time to settle into that long haul and ready yourself for all the fantastic beer and culture you’ll enjoy once you arrive.   

Share this article