When looking back at her first Beervana as festival manager last year, Beth Brash likens the experience to a “traumatic labour”.
“You’re leading up to this huge thing and it’s building up and up, with extreme amounts of pain and tears," she says. "But when the day arrives you’re holding this beautiful baby named Beervana in your arms and crying that it’s the greatest thing that you’ve ever done.”
In the lead-up to her second festival, it seems Beth has grown in confidence – she has, as she says, “read all the baby books, so it all makes a bit more sense”.
With her second child, Beth (pictured above at Goldings Free Dive) has had the time to be a bit bolder in her planning. The Beervana team has secured a return visit from a selection of Portland brewers, introduced sour and IPA bars, and opened up the doors to a bigger Australian contingent.
To put things in context, in terms of the beast she inherited last year, Beervana has been running for almost a decade and a half – the likes of Good Beer Week, GABS and Sydney Craft Beer Week have been around six years or less. It was started by the Brewers Guild of New Zealand before being sold to David Cryer (of Cryer Malt) and, under his stewardship, moved to the venue known locally as the Cake Tin, a venue large enough for the festival to grow into what it has become today.
There, helped not just by the burgeoning and frequently high quality local craft beer industry but also elements such as themed Festival Beers, seminars, high quality food – want freshly shucked oysters with your beer? You got it – and partnerships such as that with the brewers of Portland, Oregon, it evolved into a festival of genuine international clout.
And it is upon these foundations that Beth and the Wellington on a Plate team are building.
Taking on the Beervana role so close to the 2015 festival, Beth had little time to make significant changes to the way things were run. Instead, she established an advisory committee made up of brewers and industry sorts that has seen rebates introduced as an additional benefit for exhibitors, and ensured there was more seating and heating for those souls brave enough to make their way to the stadium in the midst of a Wellington winter.
“Those two really simple things just had such an amazing effect, because it totally changed peoples’ attitudes. People were off their feet, they had their own space, they were happier, they ate more, they drank more," she says.
"Everyone commented – brewers especially – about how happy everyone was. Which for a beer festival is pretty key.”
But the biggest change Beth wishes to bring in is a focus on Wellington as a beery whole, rather than a standalone beer festival perched on the edge of a food festival: the ever-growing Wellington on a Plate that runs on after Beervana.
“Our point of difference is that it’s so much bigger than Beervana," says Beth. "It’s Wellington as a destination. So many Wellingtonians go to Melbourne in May for Good Beer Week and GABS and for Melbourne as a whole; it’s about going and being in Melbourne during that time.
“That’s the same thing here. Coming to Wellington in August as a beer lover is the ultimate time to be in Wellington.”
Road to Beervana – Wellington’s answer to Good Beer Week – continues to expand, using Beervana as the highlight event at the end of a week packed to the gills with beer dinners, tap takeovers, and fun events such as karaoke nights.
Though run separately to Beervana itself, the two festivals work together to ensure they are complementary and aid in promoting Wellington overall as a beer destination. To achieve that goal, Beth has dedicated herself to making it a festival for the brewers, because without them, she says, Beervana simply couldn’t exist.
Twenty percent of breweries exhibiting this year only started out in 2015 or 2016, and a sizeable 40 percent are first-timers. She says exhibitor slots sold out in less than a month, and for the first time in the festival’s history, Beervana will come full circle and take up the entire stretch of the Westpac Stadium concourse.
This expansion is, says Beth, a clear indication of the strength of the New Zealand craft beer scene.
“That says so much about the growth of the festival, but you can’t just get bigger and bigger. What’s exciting now is this gives us the chance to refine it down a bit.”
The Pucker Up sour bar and Pink Boots Society-led IPA bar are two parts of that equation, with Beervana continuing to put a strong focus on beer education and exploration of beer styles.
“With sours, there’s the evolution of the brewers as they look for exciting things to do, but the drinkers are coming with them too. Beer drinkers now are such intrepid drinkers. They’re wanting to know what’s new.
“When you’ve got these amazing breweries like Hallertau and Garage Project experimenting, the drinker is going to trust them and start to give things a go. It’s almost like we’re all on this journey together.”
Joining that journey will be the Pirate Life team. The Adelaide crew is flying over to take part in a number of events during Road to Beervana as well as the festival itself, where they're sharing a stand with Stone & Wood.
CEO Michael Cameron says Beervana represents a key part of his brewery's goal to expand into the New Zealand market.
“We’re looking to export to New Zealand in the near future and we’ve had a number of outlets in New Zealand keen to try our beer, so when the opportunity with Stone & Wood came up, we jumped at it.
“We rate Beervana pretty highly as one of the great beer festivals of the world, and I think this is the right time for us to be getting involved with it.”
In a year where GABS has expanded its operations into New Zealand, with the very first GABS being held in Auckland this weekend, the question has been raised as to how Beervana might retain its ascendancy on the New Zealand beer festival circuit.
But for Beth it is not a case of competition.
“Noone goes to only one beer festival," she says. "I don’t ever see it that way. Unless you’re having a beer festival on the same day, then all it does is open up the door to collaborate. It’s actually quite nice having guys on the end of the phone who at times know exactly what you’re going through.”
That belief in collaboration has carried through into practise, with Beervana and GABS offering a combined ticket for punters keen to see the beerier sides of both Auckland and Wellington.
“I think more than anything Beervana is about it being about Wellington and being in the craft beer capital. It’s nowhere near as fun drinking good beer alone, it’s much more fun drinking with likeminded people and finding your tribe,” Beth says.
“Wellington in August can be tough, but now everyone is looking forward to the last few weeks of winter thanks to Road to Beervana, Beervana itself, then Wellington on a Plate. It’s this perfect rouse to get you through the winter months.
“In what other city could you, or would you want to, stand outside eating fresh oysters and drinking a cold beer in the middle of winter while it’s raining?”
If you're a Crafty Pint supporter who's signed up for The Crafty Cabal, you can enter a ballot for two all session Fan Passes to the festival via your member's area.
About the author: Kerry McBride is a reformed journalist who has taken the well-trodden path from Wellington to Melbourne. Her love for bad puns is matched only by her love of hoppy beers and Hallertau Funkonnay.
Also look out for a two-part Beer Travel special in which Nick O heads out to sample some of the lesser known lights of the NZ beer world.