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Wellington, New Zealand: Craft beer’s up-and-comer

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Thanks to new hops and novel brewers, the New Zealand beer scene is one to watch.

By Stephen Beaumont

If you’ve ever thought it might be nice to visit a beer scene on the verge of exploding in popularity and influence, you could do far worse than to schedule a trip to New Zealand. Just don’t wait too long, or you’ll risk ending up like the tourist who arrives in Munich mid-October, only to find that the bulk of the historic Bavarian beer event actually occurs in September.

You may have heard of a New Zealand hop called Nelson Sauvin, so named because it is grown in Nelson and has a flavor profile that resembles that of sauvignon blanc wine. What you might not know, however, is that it is but the tip of the New Zealand hop crop, which includes a variety of distinctly tropically fruity specimens such as Riwaka, Motueka and Pacific Gem.

This was one lesson I learned touring the “other” Down Under, where I visited both islands that make up this diminutive Pacific gem of a country, got my boots dirty in several Nelson hop fields and generally sampled everything craft brewed I could get my hands on. It was, to say the least, an illuminating experience.

And at its heart is Wellington. The southernmost city on the North Island, Wellington is both the capital of New Zealand and about as close as you can get to the geographic center of this boomerang-shaped nation. It is also the country’s self-appointed Craft Beer Capital, complete with an interactive website (CraftBeerCapital.com) and 13-stop beer drinking trail.

Home to fewer than 400,000 people, Wellington is compact, ideally suited to pedestrian exploration so long as you don’t mind climbing the occasional hill. For the beer traveler, with a dozen top hop spots within the central downtown, marking a tour of the city’s prime beer destinations could scarcely be simpler.

My journey through Wellington began at the centrally located, second-floor gastrobrewpub Fork & Brewer. Although brewing had not yet begun—it is now under way, with early successes including the grapefruity Base Isolator IPA—the 40 taps provided plenty of selection to accompany Chef Anton Legg’s upscale pub menu, featuring dishes like Ham and Gruyère Pie. The flavorful beauty of New Zealand hops was amply evidenced in Tuatara APA. Although its initials once stood for American Pale Ale, when U.S.-grown Cascade hops became tough to source, it became Aotearoa Pale Ale, with grapefruity hoppiness transformed into Kiwi hop-driven pineapple and gooseberry flavors.

I continued my explorations at The Malthouse, Wellington’s original beer bar on Courtenay Place, hub of the city’s rollicking nightlife. With 27 taps, two handpumps, a lengthy list of bottles housed in six fridges (each with a separate temperature control), and one of Australasia’s only beer cellar lists, it remains one of Wellington’s best beer destinations. The beer-savvy bartender guided me through several pints, including Red Zone Enigma from the Twisted Hop Brewery, a strong ale that was left aging in the no-go “Red Zone” of earthquake-ravaged Christchurch for more than six months.

Hashigo Zake is not your ordinary brewpub. In fact, the Japanese-themed bar and restaurant calls itself a “cult beer bar,” and despite an atmosphere not that far removed from your average sushi joint, the description is apt. Its beer list boasts an impressive number of obscure and much-lauded brews from New Zealand and well beyond, many of which the bar imports directly itself. I passed on some of the more esoteric offerings—including arm’s-length selections of Mikkeller and Nøgne Ø brands—and opted for a pint of Pernicious Weed, a showcase of the Kiwi-grown Nelson Sauvin and Rakau hop varieties by local brewers Garage Project.

Tucked away off Victoria Street is another of Wellington’s newer beer joints, Little Beer Quarter, known locally as LBQ. A relatively quiet, comfortable place, its dozen taps and 100 or so bottles hardly rival the big beer guns of the New Zealand capital, but it is a place definitely not without its charms. Order a “cheese of the week” pizza and a pint of Yeasty Boys PBK, a hoppy porter with possible IPA aspirations, and you may find your reluctance to leave building with every sip and bite.

For a more balanced meal, I went to the Hop Garden, a wonderfully out-of-the-way bar and restaurant where fine cuisine is complemented by a handful of mostly Kiwi taps. The glass-roofed garden patio is the place to be early, while the front bar area is the spot late at night for a pint of Emerson’s Pilsner, a ground-breaking Czech-style pils hopped to mild fruitiness with New Zealand hops, or whatever is new from ParrotDog, the young and keen, central Wellington brewery responsible for such brews as the Kiwi hopped Bitter Bitch IPA and the lighter Dead Canary Pale Ale.

While it’s certainly recommended, you don’t have to fly to New Zealand to taste the fruits of the country’s craft breweries. Here are a few to watch for:

Tuatara Brewing: One of the country’s larger craft breweries, it just moved to a new location that allows it significant growth potential. Look for Tuatara APA, Tuatara Helles.

Epic Brewing: Contract brewing operation led by the peripatetic Luke Nichols. Look for Epic Mayhem, Epic Hop Zombie.

Renaissance Brewing: This South Island operation’s at its best with malt-driven

ales. Look for Stonecutter Scotch Ale, Craftsman Porter.

Moa Brewing: More export-focused than most, with a keen eye on the U.S. market. Look for Moa Five Hop, Moa Méthode.

8 Wired Brewing: Contract brewery led by Danish expat brewer Søren Eriksen. Look for Hopwired IPA, Rewired Brown Ale.

Yeastie Boys: Another contract brewery with a decidedly eclectic view of brewing. Look for Pot Kettle Black, Rex Attitude.

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