Winston Aldworth

Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Bar/fly: Wellington

Winston Aldworth samples some capital beers.

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

If New Zealand's heady craft beer scene has a capital it's - well - the capital. Across Wellington, bars and bar-dwellers have embraced the culture of the hip hop with a palpable voracity that makes us Aucklanders look pretty lame.

In Auckland, we beer snobs still feel in the minority; we latch on to and celebrate new craft beer ventures with an air of desperation. The civil servants have it better, with seemingly a sensational little haunt around every corner.

At the epicentre of Wellington's hop craze is the Garage Project. The small but perfectly fermented offering out of the Aro Valley has set the bar high for innovation and exploration in the booming business of beer.

There's something monastic about Jos Ruffell, who founded Garage Project with Pete Gillespie. This quietly spoken brew sensation - who runs his business from an old petrol station - has been at the forefront of the good-hop revolution in recent years.

"I think in Wellington you had beer drinkers looking for something new, and bars willing to embrace something new," says Ruffell.

"It was a good time for us to arrive."

"New" is the key word. In their first year of business, Garage Project turned out more than 40 different beers.

Today they have key beers, well known to aficionados, but limited runs of their new beers will appear on a tap at a random bar in the capital never to be seen again. Blink and you'll miss a whole taste sensation.

Ruffell shows me a wine barrel with a truffle beer fermenting inside.

It can be hard to keep up, but keep up I must.

So it's on to the promisingly monikered Fork and Brewer, where head chef Anton Legg takes us through a sensational degustation menu. Naturally, beer is matched to each course.

"Wellington definitely embraced good beer very quickly," says Legg.

"Making the link with great food is obvious."

Anton is another genius on Wellington's hop scene. He gave the world Barmite - a silky smooth spread made from brewer's yeast. Anton's brainchild leaves Marmite for dead.

Playing about with the by-products of F&B's onsite brewery, Legg makes his own beer-based vinegar and uses spent grains to make a coating for chicken.

There's a civilised element to craft beer appreciation. It's more expensive, generally stronger in alcohol and mostly heavier in hops - so you drink less - unless you're a beer lover on a beer lover's trek through Wellington, in which case you find yourself burbling excitable nonsense to strangers at Golding's Free Dive until the wee small hours.

Much of the talk in the bar goes back to discussion of what beers are on tap and where the taps are flowing. It may be a fleeting trend; hip Wellingtonians could move on to another passion. But there's no doubt drinking beer in the capital has changed forever and for the better.

The hangovers, I'm afraid to report, are the same as they ever were.

Winston Aldworth travelled as guest of Positively Wellington Tourism.

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