Nelson – Beer Capital?

hand drawn cask ale

a classic pour at Nelson's The Free House

Often when we discuss beer culture in Nelson, we hear “Nelson is considered the craft beer capital of New Zealand.” But is it really? And there are two questions in that: who thinks so, and is Nelson in fact a beer center by any measure?

Nelson’s beer community definitely feels it has a special passion for beer. This could be a matter of tradition, since according to “The Story of Beer” by Gordon McLauchlan, Hooper and Company (est. in Nelson in 1842) was NZ’s second commercial brewery. Nelson quickly developed a thriving beer culture including malt and hop production. Even within the microbrew renaissance Nelson can claim the original McCashin’s as the instigator of the movement.

But local beer lovers we’ve talked to won’t quote history alone. They will also point out that even without the original McCashin’s around anymore, Nelson has so many local breweries, and new ones are opening at a regular clip. Further, no other community in New Zealand has the equivalent of the Dead Good Beer events that have occurred throughout the last few years.

And though there is national interest in Nelson’s regular beer events, in searching the internet, we found that Wellington or Auckland are typically rated higher than Nelson as possible capitals. Nelson comes up, but we don’t see people outside the area dubbing it the leader.

So, going beyond reputation, is Nelson in fact some sort of beer center? According to the New Zealand Brewer’s Guild, Nelson/Tasman has seven of 57 breweries nationally, but Auckland has 11, while Canterbury has nine. So perhaps we have the most breweries on a per capita basis? With the help of Statistics New Zealand, we were surprised to find that Marlborough edged us out. Both regions have more than double the next contender, so top of the South wins hands down, creating that sense of higher brewery density.

Perhaps we should be looking at quality rather than quantity? Nelson beers are selling well in more and more venues locally and nationally. While this can be a very subjective area, the New Zealand Beer Awards held a panel judging in Wellington in August where entries from most the country’s breweries competed with international submissions. In the past some of our local brewers have done very well in national competitions, but this year no awards came home to Nelson.

Yet we believe that even if the reputation and numbers arguments don’t hold out at the moment, real excitement for a true brewing capital comes from innovation and experimentation. When we moved to Nelson in 2006, we were impressed by the number of passionate brewers in the region. But for the most part, we soon realized, they had been brewing the same beers for the past 5-10 years.

Over the last three years, though, most of them have introduced new products or lines. From Founders’ Fair Maiden to Tasman’s berry ciders, we have seen new brews challenging the traditional palate. And while all the new breweries are experimenting by definition, most of them are also putting out a wider variety of styles.

People happily drink a great beer, but they get fired up about a beer that teaches them something new. This past beer fete promoted a “new to Nelson” theme and sold out of fete beers in record time.

What does this mean for Nelson? Claiming a place as a beer hotbed would be a real boon not only for our brewing industry, but also the local tourism industry. But Nelson can’t just rest on its laurels and rely on history; it must keep pushing, experimenting and expanding in order to keep fighting for the Beer Capital title.

Originally published in the Nelson Mail.

About Fritz and Maria

Fritz and Maria have been living, drinking and brewing together for over 20 years. As beer commentators and educators they strive to create a beerocracy where people exercise their palates by voting for quality in the marketplace. Their interests include the personalities, business, and culture of craft beer worldwide. As distillers for Rough Hands, they loved being at the place where magic meets science. Fritz and Maria can be found speaking at beery events, holding guided tastings, judging competitions.

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