On one of our working motorhome expeditions in the South Island, a single day completely shattered my romantic notions of grape harvesting. I'd imagined rustic camaraderie as we – peasants of the field – gathered the bounteous offerings of the vine and picnicked in the shade (with a tipple or two) at lunchtime. I discovered there is absolutely nothing romantic about grape picking. I lasted five hours and was very bad at it.
My quixotic ideas turned instead to hop-tying. At the foot of Takaka Hill is the small village of Riwaka, the centre of the New Zealand hop-growing industry, which is surrounded by fields of tall hop vines. I had an image in my mind of hop-stringers walking down the rows of vines on stilts and it struck me as a fun way to earn a living. I enquired and it turned out I was about 100 years too late. They tie by cherry picker these days. I decided then and there that my involvement in the beer and wine industries would remain with the end products.
Hops are picky about where they grow, so it was lucky that the settlers, who brought them to New Zealand in the mid-19th century, ended up in the only spot in New Zealand where the plants thrived. In the next 160 years the Nelson region became known for its high-quality, disease-free produce.
Today, hops are only grown in a rough triangle of land between Motueka, Tapawera and Brightwater, but in recent years they have given rise to a much wider spread – from Golden Bay to Nelson City – of boutique craft breweries which, if you are an aficionado of fine ale (or even if you're not), are fascinating to visit.
Our introduction to Nelson craft beer had been at the widely touted Mussel Inn, a small rustic restaurant and bar with a big reputation housed in an old tin shed extended by an addition of locally sawn macrocarpa. In this friendly chaotic room stuffed with memorabilia, the traditionally brewed beers on offer are from the micro-brewery next door.
From the list that advertised White Heron, Pale Whale Ale, Freckled Frog, and Captain Cooker (flavoured with manuka), I chose Gold Goose lager, which was served with a slice of lemon. Bill singled out a beer called Strong Ox that was the colour of burnt toffee.
That was a few years ago and since then boutique breweries have multiplied everywhere but particularly in the Tasman/Nelson region, which now regards itself as the craft brewing capital of New Zealand.
Two of the newcomers are Simon and Nicki Nicholas who moved from a corporate life in Auckland last year and bought a tiny brewery called Monkey Lizard, which was shoe-horned into the old butcher's shop on the main road through Riwaka. Under the new ownership it is now called The Hop Federation.
You'll get a fulsome welcome here. I was swept into the world of brewing by Simon who had been head brewer of Hallertau in Auckland and has a wide-ranging knowledge. The range of ales the couple produces is not so wide – just four at this stage – but all equally delicious to my uneducated palate.
Nikki learnt we were travelling in a motorhome, "We get a lot of motorhomers calling in," she said, "And because we understand that not all of them have a lot of storage space, we sell them single bottles instead of the usual six packs."
If you ring for an appointment, Martin Townshend might be free to show you through his very small brewery in a green valley, a short drive from Upper Moutere. It is wedged into a small shed next to the family home. Martin says that for him, brewing began as a "hobby that got out of control". He now brews full-time using imported malts and local hops, three small fermenters and a gas-fired brewkettle. At the New Zealand Beer Awards this year, Townshend Brewery was New Zealand champion.
"This has caused a Townshend English Pale Ale, called Sutton Hoo, to be a bit of a hit among our punters," says part-owner of nearby Moutere Inn, Dave Watson.
At this long established hotel you can taste 13 of the regions craft beers including three from its own contract brewery, the Moutere Brewing Company. It was here a few years ago that a fellow imbiber (who I suspected had done much of it in his time) wised me up on my character. I was drinking a pilsner but I can't remember which one.
"Did ya' know that pilsner drinkers are doers?" he says. "Bet you're a straight-up sort of person. Y'know, you say it like it is and get things done."
I may have looked astonished. I wasn't sure that was directed at me.
"Me, I drink dark ale, so I'm aggressive on the outside, but I have a heart of gold." He winked flirtatiously and raised his glass. I didn't wait around to test his theory.
There are several other pubs in the region that serve the spectrum of local craft beers – mainly The Bel-Aire at Tahunanui; The Free House; and Rhythm and Brown in Nelson City.
Driving around you cannot help to notice some of the six Sprig and Fern Taverns in the area – all different in character but serving a range of ciders and 15 types of beer made in the Sprig and Fern Brewery in Richmond. Each tavern is owner-operated and has its own character.
Being a bit of a hophead, I try to grab a pint at the small Sprig and Fern in Hardy Street whenever I'm in Nelson. I love the bar's convivial atmosphere – and its pizzas. It has a small garden bar out the back.
Another of my favourites is in a quaint converted villa in Milton Street near Founders Heritage Park. It is owned by Tracy Banner, who is the head brewer at Sprig and Fern Brewery and has been in the industry for 30 years. At this year's beer awards, the brewery won eleven awards.
"Brewers started making new styles of beers in the late nineties," Tracy told me, "And now, as people become more discerning about the beer they drink, things have really taken off. I encourage people to try beer with food as a change from wine. It's more thirst quenching and can be just as interesting."
And for those whose love of the liquid gold is as much the making of it as the drinking, three breweries, apart from the Hop Federation, have tours.
In 1981, former All Black, Terry McCashin started a microbrewery in the old Rochdale cider factory in Stoke. As there were only two commercial breweries operating in New Zealand at the time, it was a bold and innovative move, which enjoyed considerable success. After various reincarnations, the brewery is once more under the control of the McCashin family and is now the largest independent brewery in the country.
As well as its well-known Stoke beer brands, the company continues to produce Rochdale cider, and the brewery draws a lot of attention with tours every day (except Sundays) at 11am and 2pm (the $10 fee includes tastings), a cafe, a garden bar, live music at weekends, a market on Saturday afternoons and free wi-fi.
The smallest commercial brewery in the country is also in the Nelson area. In this tiny space, Lighthouse Brewery (which is not a lighthouse but named after the Boulder Bank Lighthouse which still stands but is no longer in use) owner and brewer, Dick Tout, only brews about 200 litres per batch. I didn't ring first and when I went to the Lighthouse, Dick wasn't in. He was most likely off in his seven-metre motorhome with a stash of beer in the back.
So I've yet to experience the Lighthouse tour and tasting which everyone says is different and great fun. The names of some of the brews are titillating. The Cheeky Little Lager, for instance, and Dick's Dark, Fug Nose, Haulashore bitter, and Nelson's Victory Ale.
The remaining tour is through the small Bays Brewery at Tahunanui. It's run on an ad hoc basis. When you go there for a tasting, you can look around the brewery if you ask.
For a peep into a bit of past and present, Founders Brewery in Founders Heritage Park, Nelson, has a large window through which you can watch the process as it is today. In 1860, great-great-grandfather of the present owner, John Duncan, set up a brewery in Nelson, and it's been in the family ever since. John's sons, Matt and Callum are now the sixth-generation of brewers.
It seems fitting then that next to the Founders Brewery, a new Hop and Brewing Museum is currently being built and will be finished sometime in October this year. No doubt they'll be raising a glass at the opening, not just for old time's sake, but to those who still have a powerful urge to craft good brews, and those of us who like to quench our thirsts with a tumbler or two of cool clear ale.
Pick up a Nelson Craft Beer Trail brochure from the I-site to find locations of breweries, hop farms, pubs and outlets.
Bike rental company, Gentle Cycling has put together a seven-km tour to the three breweries in the Stoke area where they are based.
Craft breweries in Nelson/Tasman/Golden Bay
Dale's Brewing, Richmond
Bays Brewery, Nelson has tours and tastings
The Hop Federation, Riwaka has tours and tastings
McCashins, Stoke has tours, tastings and a bar
Mussel Inn, Golden Bay, bar and restaurant
Sprig and Fern has six separate bars serving beer
Totara Brewing Co, Wakefield
Townshend Brewery, Upper Moutere has tours by appointment
Golden Bear, Mapua Wharf, bar and restaurant
Founders Brewery Nelson offers tastings
The Lighthouse, Stoke has tours and tastings
Liquid Alchemy, Nelson
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