After years watching it unfold on social media with a growing envy, Duncan Greive finally hit the road to Beervana last year. With the 2020 edition about to kick off, he revisits a magic day.
My day started early, with a beautifully balanced Westmalle Trappist Dubbel over a hearty omelette, just after 9am. It was going to be a long day, so it felt important to lay a solid foundation. This was my first Beervana, and I approached with a low hum of anxiety, one shared by the four relatives I was traveling with. We proceeded slowly through the meal. We talked fitfully. We exchanged knowing looks. We knew what was coming.
Only, we didn’t. Day drinking at a sports stadium carries with it an implicit air of potential calamity, yet my four hours at Beervana delivered nothing of the sort. The crowd was almost boffin-ish, more resembling that at an overgrown record fair (a parallel I’ll return to later) than the more hedonistic, party feel of events like GABS in Auckland.
These were serious people, here to quaff knowingly, to nod and rate and plot paths and chase tips. It was a magic day, with some very special beer allied with just enough failures to make it feel real. Here are the nine moments which collectively tell the story of my Beervana 2019.
Beervana, New Zealand’s premiere celebration of Good Beer, takes place on 20-21 November at Wellington’s Sky Stadium. Grab your tickets at beervana.co.nz – we think 2020 necessitates a beer or two.
1) Walk it off
We bussed into the city, then walked everywhere thereafter: to the stadium, to Avida, to Garage Project on Marion St, to the night’s end at Goldings for a perfect Pomodoro pizza. The air was crisp and revivifying, and the motion, both in pace and exertion, kept sobriety in hand throughout. The proximity of Beervana to the rest of Wellington’s food and drink scene, meant it felt like an extension of the city, rather than something parachuting in from above. The circular nature of the festival naturally encourages you to dawdle your way around the whole concourse and find everything you’re looking for.
2) Beers to love
Garage Project (disclosure: my uncle is a shareholder) was just inside the door with one of the biggest stands of the day. They had a kind of disco/funk thing going, and a tangentially-related tropicalia to their beers. I opened the festival with Half a Brain, a barrel-aged pineapple sour topped off with an effervescent foam. Coconut in, tart out, delicious.
Cassel’s Miss Grapefruit actually captured the often-cited, rarely-executed flavour profile of the citrus. Epic can feel like time has passed them by, with their emphasis on grunty IPAs, but both the Gin Boss and the shockingly well-balanced and flavourful 14% XXL were well-executed and distinctively Epic beers.
3) Trendwatch: beer for dessert
I have to admit a bias toward Duncan’s, because of their excellent name (I bought the merch, shamefully), but also their excellent beer. Their raspberry ripple nitro was a flavour explosion, constantly battling for the best-rated beer on the (very good) Beervana app. It really was a close tussle: I started the line queueing to taste the #1 beer, by the time I had it in my hand, it had slipped to #2, where it ended the festival. Duncan’s candyfloss pale ale was less well-liked, and almost too-sweet, but a nice counterpoint to some of the more aggressively bitter entrants. Two of the top three had dessert themes, as did a large number of others, while six of the top eight were stouts, a style which came roaring back at Beervana.
4) You didn’t come to eat, but you must
The concourse is studded with excellent and very fast food to soak up your endless trialling. I picked Burger/Liquor, a simple name for a simple operation: great beers and burgers, all at far more accessible prices than Auckland tends to provide. I arrived at 2pm, starting to fade, and being able to easily grab a hot, freshly-made vegetarian option saved my afternoon.
5) Beer is still bro’d out – but it’s changing
Former NZ Rugby CEO Steve Tew was out wandering the concourse, himself a member of the 25-70 pākehā male demographic which represents a very high proportion of buyers and sellers at anything craft beer-related. Yet that’s changing, among the crowd, but also among brewers – Beer Baroness had a delicious NEIPA, and was also represented at the Pink Boots Society stall. The women’s brewer advocacy group sold a trio of beers brewed by women, and Mata’s Tropical Coconut Hazy IPA was rightly rated one of the event’s top ten – a mouthful of ripe fruit offset by just-so bitterness.
6) Beth Brash’s advice
Was excellent: “Get a whole glass. And don’t try to taste everything.” She’s the former manager of Beervana and current programme manager of Visa Wellington On a Plate. She knows. I ignored her. Given the option of a short or longer (c 200ml) pour, it was impossible to shake the sense that more variety was axiomatically a better experience. Yet it meant every good beer was over far too quickly, while the more ordinary still had to be slogged through. Next time I’ll place fewer, bigger bets.
7) The whole brewing country (and beyond) was there, and ready to talk
Breweries came from as far away as the UK, but it was touring New Zealand in tight compression which was the main attraction. I got to talking to Zak Cassels, part of the dynastic Christchurch property clan. He gave a revealing insight into the halting, challenging rebuild, noting that they have paused development because the momentum which once existed in the city has moved to subdivisions an hour out. The hyper-locality of many craft breweries makes them interesting bellwethers for the health of their neighbourhoods.
8) Peak Beervana
There’s a fine line between putting some energy and creativity into your presentation and going too far. The stand which was a busted nuclear-reactor fell into that category, seemingly unaware that no one wants to buy a beer from dudes with fake burns and scabs all over their bodies. There was at times an inverse correlation between how much a stand looked to have cost and the lines out front. The popular ones were, often as not, simple places serving really good beer.
9) Beer has replaced 7” singles as the cultural signifier of a particular type of nerd
After Beervana we wandered blinking into a crisp, sunny winter’s afternoon. I didn’t want to look at another beer, so had a Springbank 15 and moreish thick cut chips at Avida. Then, after a couple of hours reviving as the bar filled up on a Friday night, suddenly I wanted to look at another beer again. We sloped round to Garage Project’s Wild Workshop on Marion St, open for the night, something which happens only very occasionally. They were selling a variety of superbly flavourful barrel-aged sours, and, scanning the board, a revelation struck me in the way it only can when you’ve been on it a while: craft beer nerds are the new record store nerds.
The labels of craft beer and natural wine have long-recalled the kind of hand-drawn and lovingly illustrated aesthetic well-known to alt music fans of a particular age. (Names like Fugazi and Dirty Boots drive that home). But suddenly, 12 hours in, the breadth of the analogy’s fit hit me.
Release schedules, limited editions, like-minded collaborations, fetishisation of once-passé formats (cans/cassettes), imports from legendary overseas labels, the belief in the independent over the corporate, DIY/garage-as-origin-story, the belief multiple singles (bottles) over albums (six packs or dozens) will make for a more interesting experience … Look, my notes become unclear and maybe the argument runs out of steam about here. But the point is: while easy to caricature, craft beer and Beervana are fun because they indulge obsessives, reassuring them that their intense, socially questionable hobby is OK. That it balances the duelling imperatives of the hardcore and the casual fan just starting out is what makes it so special.
Beervana, New Zealand’s premiere celebration of Good Beer, takes place on 20-21 November at Wellington’s Sky Stadium. Grab your tickets at beervana.co.nz. This content was created in paid partnership with Visa Wellington On a Plate. Learn more about our partnerships here.