A few weeks back, Wellington brewery the Garage Project opened what it calls its cellar door beside the brewery in what used to be a service station and garage in Aro Valley.
The parking bay is still out the front, weeds poking through the cracks in the concrete; the building is covered in graffiti. It's less than a kilometre from the country's Parliament buildings, but you couldn't be further away – Aro Valley is a tight-knit, creative community of craftsmen and artists, designers and actors.
“It's not a dormitory suburb where people go to sleep,” says brewer Pete Gillespie.
Inside, the cellar door looks like some kind of rehabilitated science lab: white butcher's tiles, timber benches, old-fashioned stoppered beakers on shelves.
Within days of opening, they were busy selling beer to a mix of hardcore beer geeks from all over the city and friendly locals intrigued by the brewery in the abandoned garage. It's not a bar – it has only an off-licence – and, as with a cellar door in a winery, the idea is that you come in, taste the range, and then you fill a receptacle of your choosing.
“It's a nice opportunity to be able to chat to people,” says Gillespie. “For me it's wonderful, because I get to talk to the people drinking the beer.”
Gillespie and childhood friend Jos Ruffell started the Garage Project a couple of years ago. From the start, they've done things differently – rather than make a standard range of beers, they mainly brew limited-edition beers: in late 2011, before they even had a full brewery, they brewed 24 beers in 24 weeks, including a coffee beer which tanked, and a wet-hopped beer brewed on a 50-litre pilot kit in the middle of a hop garden – and then invited feedback on beer coasters.
In April last year, they installed a magnificent piece of kit imported from San Diego, and started brewing in earnest.
They've collaborated on beers, too – most recently making Hops en Pointe for the world's first “beer ballet”, staged by the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Last year, for the annual Taste Wellington, they collaborated with Miramar restaurant the Larder, producing a multi-course dinner inside the brewery, matching each course with beer.
The highlight was a whole pig, fed on grain from the brewery, roasted over an open fire out the front. In fact it was one of the highlights of my eating year.
“Beer should be fun,” says Gillespie, a former philosopher who abandoned the academic life to brew in Britain and Australia, before coming back to New Zealand to start the project.
“Beer, because it's been seen as low brow for so long, it's been freed from that high-brow seriousness. That's what draws me to it.”
It's the sort of brewery that could only really start in Wellington, which has taken to craft beer with alacrity in recent years. There are now 12 craft beer bars around Wellington alone and three breweries in the region.
Tuatara started back in 2000. Parrot Dog got started a year or so ago, owned by three young university graduates all called Matt. They'd started brewing at university – their beer was brewed on contract – but with craft beer growing at a phenomenal rate in both Wellington and New Zealand in general, couldn't expand.
Before they knew it, they had bought some gear out of China and taken a lease on – you guessed it – a former mechanic's workshop.
“It was all a bit of a joke at first,” says brewer Matt Kristofsky. “Before we knew it, we were doing it.”
In fact, Wellington has led the way for craft beer in New Zealand. After years of domination by brewing giants Lion Nathan and DB (both owned or part-owned by Kirin), craft now accounts for about 10 per cent of the NZ beer market and is growing at something like 15 per cent a year even as total beer consumption is falling.
It is, no doubt, a city of beer geeks: when Emerson's, a Dunedin brewery, sold out to Lion Nathan late last year, there was outrage and several bars banned the previously popular beer.
Patrons are cosmopolitan despite the city's size, but rent is cheaper in downtown Wellington than Auckland, meaning new operators don't need to be tied to a big brewery to get started.
“People in Wellington do look for new things, interesting things,” says Gillespie. “As a rule they try to support people doing something new.”
This is exactly how Tuatara got started back when there were few craft brewers in New Zealand. Owner and brewer Carl Vasta got his foot in the door through small, owner-operated cafes looking for something interesting. He's now a sizeable craft brewer on the New Zealand scene and his Aotearoa Pale Ale has a cult following around the country.
He still doesn't take shortcuts. “As the public gets a bit more aware of what they're drinking, the cracks have opened up,” he says of the big breweries, about which he professes to be sanguine. “Our goal is to make the best-quality beer we can – and we aren't shy about using good ingredients.”
DRINKING THE GOOD STUFF
Wellington describes itself as the Craft Brewing Capital, and rightly so. Start with craftbeercapital.com, which has a handy map and a list of “purveyors” – both on and off licence.
Top tips include Hashigo Zake, the “cult beer bar” that is open every day it is legally able to and has an extraordinary range of beers, both on tap and in bottle.
They're strict purists here, as they are at Little Beer Quarter – “Beer geek heaven” – which opened last year and has a pubby vibe.
The Malthouse, meanwhile, has been serving craft beer on Courtenay Place for 20 years; nearby, on the slopes of Mount Victoria, you'll find the Hop Garden, with an airy outdoor area. Fork & Brewer, meanwhile, has 40 taps and a beer match for every dish on its extensive menu.