In order to check the progress of something, you need a benchmark, a comparison against which to measure.
Marrickville has recently been talked about as the nation’s craft beer capital. In New Zealand, Wellington has been using that label for a while.
In fact, our neighbours across the Tasman are often considered to have a far more developed brewing landscape. Wellington is undoubtedly a massive part of that.
I recently visited the city (along with stops in Nelson and Auckland) and took in some of the great beer from around the country.
So how does Sydney compare to Wellington for good, independent beer in 2017?
Breweries & Venues
Wellington has quite a few breweries and it seems like there are more on the way. In this regard, it’s very similar to Sydney.
There does seem to be a few, such as Choice Bros at Husk, that are taking a brewpub approach. However, aside from Garage Project’s 91 Aro (a separate taproom, away from the actual brewery) and the recently opened Fortune Favours, the cellar door experience doesn’t seem to be as big a thing as it is in Sydney.
Instead there are a number of established beer venues such as Golding’s Free Dive, The Malthouse and Little Beer Quarter that are serving up a varied list of quality beer.
Such venues seem to be places where breweries are keen to get their beer on tap. Not only will they receive exposure but they can have faith in how their product will be handled and served.
In Wellington, like in Sydney, there are a range of venues serving good beer. There are core beer venues (such Bitter Phew or Royal Albert Hotel here) and then there are newly rejuvenated pubs serving good beer in order to meet demand (The Horse is an example in Sydney).
The subject of independence is an ongoing point of discussion in Australia and New Zealand. Brands like Tuatara, Panhead and Emerson’s are owned by the larger breweries but still seem to play a major part in the beer landscape. From an outsider’s perspective, these brands seem to be considered more favourably than the likes of James Squire in Sydney.
In Wellington, the subject of independent venues is a long-running issue. There’s a tradition of tied houses vs free houses, the latter being quick to emphasise their independent stance. In Sydney, the subject of tap contracts has only recently gained traction.
The larger craft breweries seem ubiquitous in Wellington. Garage Project are ever present in bar fridges, while Tuatara branding can be seen outside pubs and bars throughout the city. The same, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, can be said for Kereru.
Restaurants and even cafes have an impressive line up of beer. Licensing laws have an impact on this. There are different challenges for a cafe in Sydney to get a liquor licence than there are for one in Wellington. Many restaurants also have finely curated beer lists, something that, while slowly improving in Sydney, is still severely lacking.
Reinforcing the normality of good beer in Wellington is the availability of good beer in chain bottle shops. Also, supermarkets in New Zealand sell beer (like they do in the UK) so you can pick up quality beer alongside your groceries. That’s something which seems some way off in Sydney but could potentially be damaging for independent bottle shops.
Attitudes To Beer
Craft beer seems to be less of “a thing” in Wellington. It’s pretty much just seen as “beer”. Yes, there are heavily advertised macro brands but it’s not surprising to see Garage Project beers or other local options across a variety of licensed venues.
In Wellington, it seems like women don’t get treated as badly when ordering a beer as they do in Sydney. Admittedly this view is gained through anecdotal evidence across a few good beer venues but it seems less likely for women to be fobbed off with light beers or fruit beers or to be talked out of ordering a double IPA.
Outside of the reputable venues here, women can still be faced with patronising responses when ordering beer. It’s still a significant issue in Sydney and one that needs addressing sooner rather than later.
Serving sizes vary greatly in Wellington, with pints coming in both imperial and schooner measurements. A number of beer-focused venues serve 200ml, 300ml and 330ml pours. This makes it difficult to be sure of the value or relative cost of a beer. Either way, some places are expensive even by Sydney standards.
Often half pints aren’t much cheaper than full pints. Sometimes the difference is only a couple of dollars. Perhaps it’s a necessity for venues but, in a country that does so much to tackle problem drinking, it doesn’t seem to promote moderation.
In both Sydney and Wellington, you could have an affordable night drinking pints of top notch lagers and pale ales but it’s also very easy to spend considerably more if you start perusing bottle lists at some of the more adventurous venues.
There have been a few questions about beer quality in New Zealand’s beer circles recently. Even so, the overall beer drinking experience in Wellington is very positive.
Again, there are a number of reputable venues who clearly know how to handle and serve beer well but the breweries seem to be doing a good job too.
From an admittedly small sample size, one trend noticed was the presence of diacetyl in traditional Czech style pilsners. This is something which is found in the classic Pilsner Urquell but some smaller Kiwi producers seem to have dialled this up a notch.
Sydney has its fair share of quality issues but in both places there are plenty of clean beers so major flaws are hardly a prevalent issue in day to day beer drinking.
Wellington is a city that expresses its character through its food and drink. Surrounded by dramatic landscapes and experiencing varied weather conditions, the beer scene has evolved into a diverse beast that reflects the vibe of the city.
On one side the inspiration from American craft beer is obvious. Bold, brash and exciting beers are produced at a prolific rate. However, this approach is particularly interesting when it’s combined with local flavour profiles.
Just across the water are the hop growing regions around Nelson, Motueka and Riwaka. These sought after flavours and aromas are uniquely Kiwi and something which gives Wellington, and the rest of New Zealand, a unique and alluring charm to its beer.
Then there’s the British tradition which seems enduring. Hand pull as a method of dispense is fairly common, meaning that Wellington marries varying beer cultures far more than Sydney does.
Good, flavourful beer seems more a normal part of everyday life in Wellington than it does in Sydney. While its appeal is growing in Sydney, it’s still a niche or marginal thing in many places, seen as something different to the mainstream.
While we can look to the US for inspiration as to how our beer scene might develop, perhaps a peek across the Tasman is what we need to inspire us for the future state of beer in Sydney.