The 3-hour early morning ferry ride from Nelson, the “Craft Brewing Capital of New Zealand,” to the North Island mostly lent itself to a nice little nap. Fortunately I woke up just in time to witness a pod of dolphins frolicking and leaping through the boat’s wakes as they escorted us into port. I looked forward to a day of exploring Wellington, the “Craft Beer Capital of New Zealand.” That’s right. The Craft Beer Capital of New Zealand; not to be confused with Nelson, the aforementioned Craft Brewing Capital of New Zealand.
Prior to leaving on our trip, Chris connected with a Twitter friend (@NikCarmichael) who eagerly offered to introduce us to the Wellington beer scene. We planned to meet Nikki for what we assumed was going to be a quick pint, so she could give us the lowdown on where to go. Much to our surprise, Nikki had no intention of simply offering a verbal report on Wellington beer. She wanted to show us herself! Beer brings people together and makes the world smaller and Nikki was a prime example of that.
The first stop on Nikki’s tour was the innovative Garage Project, located in an old petrol station in the Aro Valley area of the city. Apothecary jars filled with beer sat above each tap, which offered us a quick glimpse of what to expect.
Garage Project combines the New Zealand hops we all love and know with ingredients such as chili, mango, Venusian Spear Fungus, and Manuka (New Zealand Tea Tree). This daring attitude made for the most experimental and memorable beers of our trip. Chris was especially enamored with the Pernicious Weed, a strong, hoppy brew using organic Rakau and whole cone Nelson Sauvin hops. Fulfilling the stereotype, I liked the pink beer best. Beyond the Pale, a sour beer made with sumac, lemon and hibiscus, was brewed for the New Zealand Fringe Festival and tasted refreshingly tart. From wildly experimental and super hoppy to delicious golden and ultra dark, Garage Project offered an impressive range of beers.
Diverting attention away from our obsessive focus on breweries, Nikki wanted us to experience Malthouse, Wellington’s original beer bar. The Malthouse boasts 150 different beers from around the world, including 27 taps and 2 handpumps. On a weekday afternoon we were the only ones in the place, but Nikki assured us that it gets hoppin’ at night. Our Irish bartender was attentive and even offered me a beer cocktail of his own creation. I initially protested, but somehow one made it into my hand and I was forced to admit that it was quite tasty.
If your time in Wellington is short, the Malthouse is the perfect place to taste a variety of Kiwi beers. Although we didn’t order one, they also serve pizzas, which makes this a very convenient stop. The Malthouse proudly serves beer from Tuatara Brewery (located 60 km north of Wellington) and Baylands, the nano brewery owned and operated by Nikki, her husband, and a business partner.
Nikki already had her suggestion for where we should order lunch; Hashigo Zake. You may be wondering why a place with a name like that would be included on a beer tour of the city. Here’s the answer: they call themselves a “Cult Beer Bar” and have a great array of beers from New Zealand, Japan, and the United States. Plus, at the top of the entrance to their basement location there was a sign that I especially liked. “There is no such thing as a girlie beer.” Damn skippy.
Hashigo Zake offers a dark and cozy atmosphere that is refreshingly mellow (at least when we were there). It gave us a nice break from our busy jaunt around the city. In addition to a nice beer selection, Hashigo Zake has a yummy menu of asian-inspired cuisine, including udon noodle bowls. For the record, wasabi peas are now my favorite beer snack. I like having good food with my craft beer and this was the perfect place for that.
Nikki was the best tour guide we could have asked for as she took us on a brief detour from our beer stops. A drive up a steep winding street landed us on top of Mt. Victoria, the best view in Wellington. It was something we probably would not have had the time or energy to do if Nikki hadn’t been at the helm.
We did need to get a move on, though, and our next brewery visit was to Parrot Dog. We had tried to make this our first stop of the day, but they were closed to catch up on some bottling. We were happy to see that with the bottling complete the tasting room was open later in the afternoon.
The small tasting room was simple, yet inviting and definitely a must stop. Six beers were available for tasting, including Flaxen Feather Blonde Ale, Bitter Bitch IPA, and Bloody Dingo, an Imperial Red Ale. They also have an American IPA called Pitbull, which apparently drew ire from a Pitbull group because it defamed the breed. Apparently the Dingo Anti-defamation League is much less organized, as they never mounted a campaign against the name of the Imperial Red.
Parrot Dog (not to be confused with another brewery in town with ‘Dog’ in the name) crafted great beers. And very convenient for travelers, they sell beer to go in flagons, plastic 2-liter bottles. If you don’t have a chance to stop by the brewery, be sure to look for Parrot Dog beers at craft bars throughout the city.
Our final stop with Nikki was Fork & Brewer, an upscale brewery and restaurant. The main focal point (besides the brewery, of course) of the upstairs pub was the circular-shaped bar surrounding a large barrel that housed the kegs. Now the early evening, the bar was beginning to fill up with after-work drinkers. Our four-beer sampler included a Pilsner, IPA, Brown, and “Old World Pale Ale.” All the beers were quite good, but I bet you can guess which ones we liked best. If you said the Pils for me and the IPA, you’d be correct.
Nikki introduced us to the brewer, Lester, who sat down to talk New Zealand beer with us. An interesting, mellow guy with a thick curly mop for hair and a bushy beard, Lester would fit nicely into Santa Cruz or the Haight. For brewing such great beers, he was very humble and possessed a laid back attitude towards brewing.
Fork & Brewer serves up an awesome menu and at Lester’s suggestion we tried the chicken wings. Oven baked and coated in a spicy spent grain rub, they were deliciously spicy without being messy. The salt and pepper squid also paired nicely with our beer.
This was the end of our visit with Nikki. She was an amazingly energetic beer guide and she really made our day in Wellington memorable. When we first started beer traveling, we would hope to meet a local in a pub who would point us in the direction of great places while steering us away from the not-so-great ones.
Today, social media makes it easy to connect with local beer lovers no matter where your destination. And we’re finding that more often than not, people want to not only tell us where to go, but actually go there with us. The idea that beer brings people together may sound like a cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
PS: Bin 44 Restaurant and Bar on Queens Wharf is another great stop. With 11 craft beer taps and another few dozen in bottles, Bin 44 also serves up good food. The walk along the water from our hotel topped off our night beautifully and once there, the outdoor seating offered fun people watching.