New Zealand might not jump to mind when you think of beer destinations—but its brewing history is fascinating, and its craft scene is growing ever more noteworthy.
It started in the early 1770s, when Captain James Cook worked up the first (known) batch of beer. He knew Native Americans had been brewing beer from corn and birch sap, so he used molasses, branches from a tree that resembled an American black spruce, wort (a solution made from grain), and mānuka leaves (tea tree) to create his own fermented brew. It was meant to combat scurvy and supply sailors with nutrients since vegetables were scarce. This so-called spruce beer was packed with vitamin C, and became immensely popular.
Years later, in 1835, the first commercial brewery was established. And, naturally, two corporate giants eventually dominated the space: New Zealand Breweries (which became Lion Nathan in 1988) and DB Breweries. Luckily, things started to shake up in 1981, when former All Blacks rugby player Terry McCashin purchased a brewery from Rochdale Cider. McCashin and his team are credited for pioneering the craft-beer revolution in NZ, with an emphasis on organic ingredients (the spot was later renamed McCashin’s Brewery).
Craft beers were a welcomed reprieve from the lightly hopped lagers, which were ubiquitous because of the circumstances of the time. The beer scene was centered around a nationally mandated 6 p.m. closing time for bars, a remnant of the Temperance movement of the early 20th century, which gave rise to the term “six o’clock swill”. Patrons had to more or less slam brews within the hour. Thankfully, that law was repealed in 1967, allowing Kiwis to relax a bit and start experimenting with more flavorful brews. McCashin’s brought many different styles to Nelson in the South Island, which gave more and more independent breweries the opportunity to do the same.
Other craft-beer luminaries include Mike’s Brewery (1989), Sunshine Brewery (1989), Monteith’s Brewing Co. (1990), and Emerson’s (1991). And, of course, hot spots of today include Wigram Brewing Co. (2003), 8 Wired Brewing (2005), Sprig & Fern Brewery (2006), Epic (2006), ParrotDog (2011), Garage Project (2011), and Lakeman Brewing Co. (2013).
There are loads of superb new breweries and brewpubs sprouting up along the verdant, sheep-infested hills on both the North and South island now. So if you’re paying a visit, here’s a quick tour of some of the best places for the weary beer traveler. And with New Zealand hops becoming highly rated (and highly sought-after), expect new sudsy styles to spring up that’ll hopefully make it to our shores soon.
On the North Island: Taupo
Hanging out around Lake Taupo in the middle of the North Island can get tiring what with all the world-class fly-fishing, bungee jumping, sky diving, and jet boating. And while it’s been slower to dive in to the craft brewery scene than the rest of the country, you can still find two great spots.
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Though Lakeman Brewery—themed around a sasquatch-like, beer-swilling beast—was only established in 2013, the brand has been racking up awards ever since. One of their original concoctions, now overseen by head brewer Rory Donovan, is called Hairy Hop IPA. It won the Strong Pale Ale top award at the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards in 2018. Before that, the same beer picked up second-place accolades at the Australian International Beer Awards. It’s a fairly small operation (headquartered out of a few worn sheds on a working sheep ranch and farm), but the beers—like Taupo Thunder (pale ale), Wild Man (NZ pale ale), Primate (pilsner), and Bodacious (American pale ale)—match up with the best independent brews in the world. If you’re lucky, you can hang out with the crew in the tasting shed. Plans are already in the works to create a proper beer garden and tasting area.
For a relaxing lakeside meal, stop by the sleek and modern Lakehouse. The beers are hand-selected from local and national breweries like Croucher, Tuatara, Epic, ParrotDog, Panhead, Yeastie Boys, Sawmill, and Liberty Brewing Co. Pick out a craft-beer tasting box to sample four brews, then feast on typical pub food like fish and chips, burgers, sandwiches, roasted lamb (remember, this is New Zealand), and pizza. We recommend one of their “On the Stone” signature dishes. A protein of your choice gets seared for about 20 seconds on a hot stone. Favorites include the lamb rump, salmon, and prime beef.
On the South Island: Nelson
Make Nelson a stopover for at least a few days. This is where McCashin’s first started to push back against the country-wide beer monopoly, and is now where a thriving scene exists. The following breweries are also spread out across the island, so you can hit a variety of attractions—like the Church of the Good Sheperd and Abel Tasman National Park—to boot.
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The Free House
Your first stop is The Free House, a church turned beer garden. It was purchased by Mic Dover and Eelco Boswijk in the early part of the 2000s. They’d been hosting beer-tasting events called Nelson Beer Fêtes every few months, and needed a new space to accommodate the growing crowds. The scene at night gets a bit boisterous, with groups using the spaces for events and games. It boasts a good pub menu, but you can also bring your own grub—no fast food, though. The spot is inviting, and a great place to quaff some local beers, wine, and ciders. There’s even an outdoor deck with a yurt and picnic tables.
Tasman’s Great Taste Trail
Take to the streets, orchard roads, and bike trails around Tasman to get out in nature and try some great local brews and wines. The Great Taste Trail comprises 100 miles of pretty easy cycling in one large loop, allowing tourists and locals to bike or trek through bird sanctuaries, small islands, nearby Abel Tasman National Park, and gorgeous country roads. The portion from Nelson to Richmond features a full list of great breweries (new and old) like McCashin’s, Bays Brewery, Sprig & Fern, and Eddyline. The route is well-marked and insanely scenic, from the sparkling waters of the Waimea Inlet to the surrounding green mountains.
Your first stop on the Great Taste Trail should be McCashin’s. The brewery was rebranded in 2009 with Stoke Beer, which features some delectable brews in familiar styles including lager, pilsner, IPA, amber, and dark. Tours are available at the original site, which still brews and bottles their own brews along with offering up their services for contract brewing. They have a common area where you can sample the latest while getting a bite to eat.
Eddyline Brewery & Pizzeria
This is actually an outpost of a Colorado-based brewery and pizzeria. In the Nelson location of Eddyline, you can enjoy beers that were first developed and enjoyed in America like Hop Rider and CrankYanker IPA. Or, suck down some locally focused brews like Pozzy Pale Ale, Low Tide Pale Ale, and Hoppy Kea IPA—all made with different hops from New Zealand.
Sprig and Fern Brewery
One of the most respected and experienced brewers in New Zealand, Tracy Banner bought Sprig & Fern with her husband, Ken, in 2009, transforming it into one of the most unique and progressive breweries in the world. Her franchised Sprig & Fern taverns only pour her beers (16 in all, including New Zealand styles along with an American pale ale, Scotch ale, English IPA, and pilsner). The environment is more old-school pub (no pool tables or TVs). Conversation and great beer rule.