There’s a saying - “It takes a lot of beer to make a good wine”. Hawke’s Bay brewers are turning that on its head - “It takes a lot of wineries to sell a good beer.”
Craft brewing is growing fast in Hawke’s Bay. I visited this week and counted 10 breweries and two cidermakers, and probably missed a few others. Several are less than two years old.
The oldest and biggest is Hawkes Bay Brewing, turning 21 this year and producing 700,000L/year. Chief exec Greg Forrest describes his business as the biggest secret brewery in New Zealand. It has a large capacity and a small and consistent range, to make the most of economies of scale. Most of its production is sold as kegs, with 30% bottled in elegant 330ml bottles, designed by the brewery to look good on a restaurant table.
And that local market is crucial for Hawke’s Bay brewers. Like most regional centres, nearly all pub taps are tied to major brewers. But Hawke’s Bay has many cafés and restaurants, often linked to wineries, and all promoting fresh, local food and drink.
For brewers this means an attractive opportunity to get their beer out there, provided it’s bottled, looks good and appeals to diners. The result is that a typical Hawke’s Bay beer is drinkable, built on a firm malt base, downplays the hops, and made to a recognised traditional style.
Another consequence is strong seasonality, with tourists and cruise ship passengers making for very busy summers followed by a quite winter with the locals. Napier’s Westshore Beach Inn is a freehouse for the locals, offering 20 craft taps in a traditional Kiwi sports bar environment.
Cider is also strong in Hawke’s Bay, and, like beer, it’s finding local solutions. While several New Zealand craft brewers tack a cider or two onto their beer range, in Hawke’s Bay cider makers operate in the overlap between the dominant horticulture and wine industries. Paul Paynter, of Paynter’s Hawke’s Bay Cider, is working like a mad scientist to hybridise new cider apple varieties – watch this space.
Brewers are also experimenting with hop growing, and early trials indicate the region has potential.
Another development is BStudio, a planned large-scale contract brewing and bottling facility to be developed in Napier near the wharf. BStudio’s Simon Gilbertson is in Germany this week talking to brewery manufacturers.
Hawke’s Bay’s craft scene is promising but still small. To extend my viticulture analogy, it’s at the vulnerable bud stage. But there are enough brewers doing interesting things, working together to find local solutions, to make Hawke’s Bay a region with the potential to become a significant brewing destination.