A Kiwi, a French Canadian and a dinosaur walk in to a bar.
It’s true – that kind of thing happens in Queenstown during the Winter Festival. Halfway through our interview, someone walks into Smith’s Craft Beer House dressed in a large dinosaur costume, and owner Pascal Fillion doesn’t even blink. The impressive thing – the bar’s upstairs. Hey, watch out for asteroids, Dinosaur Dude!
Queenstown is party central, summer and winter, and it’s been a bit of a craft beer desert. The tiny Atlas Beer Cafe flew solo for years, then The Fork & Tap opened 20km north west in Arrowtown. Smith’s Craft Beer House opened nine months ago and Beertown.NZ talked to Pascal at the belated beginning of his first winter in town.
Pascal’s Wellington venue, Bin 44, was his graduation in craft beer.
“My background is in hospitality going right back to Canada. I spent years in fine dining environments and did everything from running pubs to event management. I found craft beer on the East Coast of Canada, and my Dad did a bit of brewing as well, but I didn’t fall in love with it until I got to Wellington.
“I was living with the Toastman, Maurice Bennett. When I first got to Wellington I lived with Maurice for nine months. Brilliant guy, absolutely crazy. Beer was his passion and the first pub he brought me to was the Malthouse.
“I got back from Canada a month ago not even, and the beer scene is really evolving. The East Coast is very European in style. Put it this way – I went to a freehouse in Montreal and they had 40-odd taps and just three were IPAs. They had coffee bocks, all kinds of styles”
Pascal opened Smith’s in Queenstown after realising the Wellington craft beer scene has matured. “I knew Wellington was getting too saturated and if we were to do anything new we’d all be getting on top of each other.”
So Pascal wanted to bring craft beer to a different community, and decided he liked Queenstown. “I mean look around you here! What an opportunity. You ask anybody in Canada about New Zealand and they know Queenstown. So to be able to bring our beer from all over New Zealand and showcase it to people coming in – how cool!”
Smith’s is upstairs off a side street, and it takes a bit of seeking out. Up the stairs, the interior is warm, with a good range of tap and bottle beers and an emphasis on decent food. For someone serious about their beer, it’s a haven above all the resort’s shotz’n’lager joints.
“I looked for a long time to find a venue. Found this place and lo and behold, the lease was up. We took a sledgehammer to the place and built everything ourselves. Some of it’s crooked!”
Keeping it quirky is also a result of Queenstown’s business environment. Commercial rents are expensive, and getting a keg sent from Auckland can take three days and $70. But this cost of doing business means craft venues can easily distinguish themselves from the venues tied to mainstream brewers.
“To get on to street level I’d be paying more rent than I’m paying for waterfront in Wellington. So when somebody says, ‘I’ll pay you 50 grand to fit out your business, just sign this contract’ – well fair enough! I wouldn’t do it, but I understand why you would.
“I think very soon we’ll see lots more Panhead down here, and that’s cool, because when people want something different they’ll have to come here or Atlas or Fork & Tap. There’s nothing like a Supercharger to convince you life’s better with hoppy beer.”
“Atlas Beer Café has been pouring great beers for years. And Fork & Tap – what a great pub, it’s one of my favourite pubs in the country. It truly feels like a neighbourhood watering hole. Between the three places Queenstown’s covered for a while until we get more demand.”