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Last orders at the bar

“Becoming serious is a grievous fault for hobbyists. It is an axiom that no hobby should either seek or need rational justification. To wish to do it is reason enough.” – Aldo Leopold

When I first started Beeson On Beer just under three years ago, I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would lead me to where I am today. In those three short years, I have gone from an enthusiastic and fairly inexperienced writer to a nationally published journalist with two British Guild of Beer Writers Awards to my name. It’s been quite the journey.

Along the way, this website has taken me to places I never thought I would get the opportunity to visit – from rural breweries in Catalonia to the cellars of Pilsner Urquell and the fields of Flanders. It’s also enabled me to make writing about beer my primary source of income and my day-to-day job for the best part of two years – no mean feat in an industry where newspaper circulation figures are in freefall and jobs are being cut left, right and centre.

In May of this year, I wrote an article reflecting on my first 12 months as a fully fledged journalist writing about the beer industry. In the article I stated that the transition from blogger to professional writer had been a difficult one. I cited the difficulty in switching off from my job, the constant scrutiny and criticism I faced from people within the industry and the strain my alcohol consumption had put on my mental and physical health.

Not long after I published that particular post, I decided to leave my job at The Morning Advertiser. This was down to a great many factors, including the lack of opportunities for promotion, the desire to travel and my belief that writing about beer for a title whose main agenda is (at least partly) driven by the need to generate page views was detrimental to my own career aspirations and goals.

Coming to New Zealand in September, I hoped to rediscover my mojo and enthusiasm for writing about beer. With the exception of a couple of regular commissions I have been winding down the amount of freelance work I have been undertaking, hoping that this would reignite my passion and revive the enthusiasm that led to the creation of this website in the first place.

That hasn’t happened.

Instead, over the last few months things have, if anything, gotten worse. Working as a journalist in an age where clicks and engagement are currency, and a story’s worth is judged on the basis of the number of people who read it, has irrevocably changed the way I approach Beeson On Beer.

Prior to publishing a piece of content for the website, I feel almost physically sick with anxiety worrying about whether or not it will be well received. I obsess over the analytics section of my site, trying desperately to think of ways to get more people to engage with and read my content. When a piece doesn’t perform as well as I had hoped, I feel angry, depressed and question my own writing ability.

Running the blog like a professional website, managing its social media accounts, ordering merchandise and trying to generate revenue via Patreon, has taken all of the fun out of the simple joy I used to extract from writing about beer and sharing the stories of those who make, distribute and sell it.

Forcing myself to ensure a regular stream of new content, as well as regularly re-sharing older content to try and maintain page views, has turned the website from a hobby into a chore. At a time when I should be meeting new people, exploring a new culture and taking a well-earned break, I find myself scheduling tweets, editing photos and posting on Instagram late into the night, trying to ensure maximum exposure back at home.

Today I am making the decision to put Beeson On Beer – in its current format – out to pasture. The reason for this is simple: I no longer enjoy running it. What once gave me great pleasure and created within me a sense of immense satisfaction and pride brings now only anxiety, unhappiness and stress. The time I spend on creating content for and maintaining the online presence of the site is time that I can no longer justify to myself, and hence, effective immediately, I will no longer be actively updating the website or its social media feeds.

This doesn’t mean I will be ceasing to write about beer entirely. I am still very much actively looking for freelance commissions and will continue to write my regular column for Honest Brew. I may even still occasionally post my thoughts on here, but I no longer have the drive, energy or time to spend updating its social media accounts and producing content on a regular basis. The days of me running Beeson On Beer like a website are over, and I’ll shortly be transforming the site into an online portfolio for my freelance writing, photography, events and consultancy work.

I guess all that is left to say now is thank you to each and every single one of you that has read, enjoyed, shared and supported my work on here. Despite the unhappy ending, it’s been one hell of a ride and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’ll see you at the bar.

The best places to drink great beer in and around Auckland

Auckland is by some considerable margin the most populated area of New Zealand, with around 1.6m of the country’s 5 million inhabitants calling it their home. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the city, and the suburbs and towns that surround it, are developing something of a reputation for craft beer.

Breweries such as 8 Wired, Sawmill, Liberty and Hallertau are all located within an hour’s drive of the city, while the availability and quality of beer in the city’s bars is remarkable (Garage Project on draught in a student nightclub, anyone?)

While Auckland’s craft beer scene may lack the accessibility and walkability of that of Wellington (be prepared to hop on a bus or one of the new electric scooters that have popped up across the city), there some real gems to be found if you’re willing to explore a little.

N.B. The venues on this list were chosen based on my own personal experiences living in the city for the last two months. This list is by no means exhaustive, and entirely subjective.

Galbraith’s Ale House

One of the very few places in Auckland, and indeed in New Zealand in general, to showcase proper cask conditioned ales, is Galbraith’s, an old school traditional English brewpub located in the Mount Eden area of the city. If you’re after a robust pint of traditional best bitter, or a delicately smooth and sweet ESB, Galbraith’s is definitely the place to find one.

Top tip: Try the brewery’s Bitter & Twisted ESB, which is both fruity and earthy, and made with traditional British hops

Brother’s Beer

Brother’s Beer operates three venues in the Auckland region, but its City Works Depot is the most conveniently located, just a five minute walk from the Skytower. With 18 draft lines pouring  a mixture of the brewery’s own brews and guest beers from all over New Zealand, over 200 bottles and cans to take away, delicious thin-crust pizzas and regular live music, it’s a great central spot for a beer or three.

Top tip: Head round the corner to Best Ugly Bagel for freshly prepared and extremely tasty bagels with a multitude of toppings.

16 Tun

Located down near Auckland’s viaduct in the up-and-coming Wynyard quarter, 16 Tun has one (semi) permanent tap, with the remaining 18 lines constantly rotating to showcase the best independent breweries in New Zealand. Combine this with regular tap takeovers, beer launches and food and beer matching events and 16 Tun is an essential stop for any craft beer lover.

Top tip: Order a tasting crate of four, six, or eight beers to get the most bang for your buck (up to almost half the price of drinking by the pint).

Full Disclosure: I worked for 16 Tun for two months during my stay in Auckland

Vultures Lane

Just tucked away off the bustling and commercial hub of Queen Street is Vultures Lane, a pleasantly grungy pub with 28 taps and over 75 bottles. There’s a large TV screen showing live sports, and a secluded downstairs spot that’s perfect for escaping the hubbub of the city above. Sure, there’s Guinness and Corona here, but there’s also brilliant friendly service and more craft than you can shake a stick at.

Top tip: Check out daily specials on food. Half price wings on a Thursday, or Fish and Chips for $10 on a Sunday is not to be sniffed at.

Garage Project Kingsland

Wellington’s Garage Project opened its Auckland taproom in March of this year, and it is proving (predictably) to be a huge success. The venue only has a tasting room license – so you won’t be able to get a full pint – but make sure to stay for a tasting tray and bring along your growler. 12 taps offer a rotating selection of the brewery’s beers, while there is also merchandise, cans, and bottles to take away.

Top tip:  Visit near the start of the month to try the brewery’s latest fresh IPA release, which is only sold in Garage Project venues across New Zealand.

The Brewers Co-Operative

Just a stone’s throw from the Skytower and a short walk from Brothers Beer is possibly my favourite spot to drink in Auckland city centre. The Brewers Cooperative offers a superb choice of beers from across New Zealand and further afield, exotic seafood dishes (think fish tacos, shrimp gumbo and oysters) as well as affordable fish and chips in a rustic, unpretentious set up.

Top tip: If you’re going for the fish & chips, opt for the cheaper house fillet – you won’t notice the difference once it’s been deep fried in batter.

Beer Jerk Bunker

The newest addition to the Auckland bar scene is Beer Jerk Bunker, a cosy underground bar on Symonds Street owned by Luke White and Brent Grove, of beer subscription service Beer Jerk. The bar only seats around thirty people, but it’s beer list is seriously impressive, with over 100 to chose from, including cans from UK favourites Northern Monk and North Brew Co.

 Top tip: Remember to eat dinner before visiting, or – you’ll walk out far later and feeling more drunk than you originally intended (I know I did).  

Hallertau Brewery

You’ll have to hop in a car and drive around twenty minutes east of the city centre to visit Hallertau Brewery’s taproom and German style biergarten, but with a delightful range of fresh beer to drink on site or takeway, and delicious wood-fired pizzas, you’ll be glad you made the trip. Tasting paddles cost between $12-16 for four small beers, which is probably all you’ll be able to drink and still drive home. Maybe get a taxi instead?

Top tip: Hallertau are at their best when making true to style continental and world lagers. Try the supremely balanced Schwarzbier or the effortlessly light Japanese rice lager.  

Deep Creek

The brewpub where Silverdale brewery Deep Creek originally started life is one of the hottest spots to drink in Browns Bay. As well as escaping the city, you’ll be able to enjoy fresh supplies of all of Deep Creek’s latest brews such as its deceptively sessionable Droptop Chardonnay Brut IPA. Hop on a bus from the city centre and make a day of it.

Top tip: Be sure to visit on a Wednesday, when you can enjoy all you can eat ribs for $35. Book in advance to avoid disappointment – the venue sells 15 tonnes of these ribs a year!

Albi Brewing Company

The short 45-minute ferry over to Waiheke Island ($40) is definitely something every visitor to Auckland ought to consider, even if just for the stunning views on the island alone. Throw 15 wineries into the mix, and it’s a must visit destination. Alibi Brewing Company operates out of the bottom floor of the highly renowned Tantalus Estate Vineyard, and its small-batch brews only very rarely make it to the mainland.

Top tip: Grab yourself a pint of the brewery’s delicious New Zealand hopped pale and a crusty sourdough Reuben sandwich on. You won’t regret it.  

Destinations: McLeod’s Pizza Barn & Taphouse, Waipu (New Zealand)

A small settlement just under two hours drive north of Auckland, Waipu isn’t exactly what you’d call a bustling metropolis. Situated just marginally inland from the coast, and home to less than four thousand inhabitants, it’s probably not that high up on the list of must see destinations for most New Zealand visitors.

Yet, in my first few weeks in the country, I was told to visit Waipu more than any other location. The reason, naturally, had little to do with the town’s (admittedly lovely) beaches or the large population of glow worms living in natural caves nearby, and everything to do with a certain amber nectar of which I happen to be rather fond.

I was made aware of McLeod’s Brewery pretty much on day one working at 16 Tun, being taken completely by surprise that this traditional-looking brewery was producing some of the finest hazy beer in New Zealand.

The brewery takes its name and branding from the Scottish ancestry of Waipu (the town was the centre of a significant Presbyterian settlement in the 1850s) but is far more forward thinking when it comes to its beers.

Since the arrival of Jason Bathgate (formerly of 8 Wired) as head brewer in 2016, the brewery has been flying, picking up thirteen medals at The Brewers Guild of New Zealand Beer Awards this September, including 3 golds. Bathgate has drawn praise in particular for the brewery’s 802 range – a series of unfiltered IPAs made using different hop combinations (think The Kernel, but with NEIPA).

McLeod’s produces around 200,000l of beer a year, and I’d hazard a guess that a fair amount of that is sold through its Pizza Barn & Taphouse, which is one of only two pubs in the whole of Waipu. Thankfully, it’s rather a good one, and this is reflected by the fact most of the town seem to have decided to make it their local.

 The brewery started out of the Pizza Barn after founders Geoff and Clayton Gwynne decided they’d had enough of selling big beer, and the Barn continues to reflect that today, with over ten McLeod’s beers pouring on tap, as well as a cider from Peckham’s Cider Mill in the South Island.

Our group plumps en masse for the latest beer in the 802 series (#12) along with our pizza. Made with Vic Secret and Amarillo hops, 802 #12 is surprisingly bitter, but still ripe with stone fruit and citrus flavours. Another highlight is the delicate, peppery Spring Sun Belgian Wit, made with coriander and fresh orange zest.  

The pizzas themselves are objects of pure extravagance, piled with toppings and smothered in roasted garlic, and priced between $27-30 NZD for a large size.

I opt for the Globetrotter, which comes with smoked vension sausage, mushrooms, streaky bacon, garlic, caramelised onion and peppers. Other crowd-pleasing menu options include burgers, chicken wings, pasta dishes and lamb shanks.

The atmosphere is electric, with people of all ages and backgrounds sampling fresh beer and supporting a local business, which has in turn made itself the centre of a small community.

It strikes me, as we depart the empty venue (having also been pretty much the first to arrive at shortly before 5pm), that there are more than a few small towns in the UK that could do with a venue like McLeod’s at the heart of them.

New Zealand Beer People: Søren Eriksen, 8 Wired Brewing Co.

A nomadic former-homebrewer turned professional, Søren Eriksen has made New Zealand his home for the last decade, bringing his skill and expertise to the fore at 8 Wired’s permanent residence in the town of Warkworth.

8 Wired are among the country’s most successful craft breweries, and are imported into the UK through the New Zealand Beer Collective. The brewery is probably best known over in Blighty for its Hippy Berliner, a refreshing, light, hoppy, kettle sour, but it is it’s exceptional barrel aged beers which rightly earn Søren plaudits at home and further afield.

He lays claim to having the largest barrel collection in the southern hemisphere, with some 250+ vessels squeezed into 8 Wired’s small warehouse home. It is here that beers such as Fistful of Cherries – a sour ale brewed with Marlborough Cherries and aged in wine barrels, and Lokomotiv Merlot – a imperial stout aged in Hawkes Bay Merlot barrels – mature and take shape under Søren’s watchful eye.

Softly spoken and instantly welcoming, and having developed something of a Kiwi sense of humour, Søren is an easy person to like. While visiting the brewery last month, I asked a few short questions to see what makes him, and New Zealand beer, tick.

”I was a homebrewer and over time the hobby went out of control. Eventually me and my wife decided that it would probably be more fun to own a brewery than working for the man for the rest of our lives.

“The ‘no 8 Wire’ is a piece of fencing wire that the kiwi farmers historically have used to fix everything that broke down on the farm. Because New Zealand is so far away, it was often impossible to get spare parts and they had to make do with what they had, which was usually a piece of number 8 wire. Over the years, it has become a symbol of the kiwi ingenuity and fixing/building everything from nothing.

“When naming the brewery we felt this fitted in really well with us. We didn’t have the means to start a ‘real’ brewery so we made do with what we had and contract brewed until we could build our own. Furthermore we have always tried to be adventurous and apply a lot of ingenuity in our recipes and brewing methods.

“We don’t have an official ethos but we’re always striving to make the beers better and keep developing the creative side of our business.”

“The community is the best thing about the scene for sure. We’re a small industry in a small country and the community is really tight. Almost everyone gets along and will happily help out the next brewer if needed.”

“A couple of years ago I would have said the next big trend would be light lagers and sours. Both of these have grown but I wouldn’t say they have become huge trends as such. IPAs in all it’s shapes and forms will probably continue to dominate for year to come. Personally I would like to see more dark beer in the market but these are becoming harder and harder to sell here.”

“We’re going to be focusing on more barrel aged sours, more variations of Hippy Berliner and more cans. We’re close to buying a new canning line, so will be putting this to good use.”

Destinations: The Sawmill Brewery & Smoko Room, Auckland (New Zealand)

I’m not at all ashamed to say that beer (or food and drink culture more widely) was one of the primary reasons I chose New Zealand as my destination when I made the decision to up-sticks, quit my job and move to the other side of the world.

Hence, it is of little surprise that less than a week after arriving in this green and beautiful country, I find myself heading north out of Auckland hunting for breweries. My destination is Sawmill Brewery, one of New Zealand’s most exciting and up and coming brewers.

After a brief stop in Warkworth to say hello to Soren Eriksen, the founder of 8 Wired (more on this visit another time), we pull off the windy road just past the town of Matakana and lay eyes upon the Sawmill’s purpose built brewhouse and Smoko Room restaurant.

 On arrival we are greeted by brewery manager Sam Williamson, who offers us the grand tour. The brewery was originally located further down the road in the small coastal community of Leigh. Back then it was run by Peter and Decima Freckleton, who rented a shed from the owners of an adjacent café.

These days Mike Sutherland and Kirsty McKay are in charge, and the brewery is a much more professional affair. Sutherland and McKay took over the brewery in 2008, and moved it to the current site in 2016. And what a site it is; packed to the rafters with conical fermenters and fronted by an ultra-modern bar pouring a generous range of Sawmill beers.

I’m tempted by the sight of the brewery’s flagship pilsner – recently awarded a gold medal in the 2018 Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards – but resist in favour of a sample of the brewery’s North By North Fest, an Oktoberfest ‘Festbier’ brewed in collaboration with nearby 8 Wired and McLeod’s.

A malty, sweet base of German malts combine with two Noble hop varieties, resulting in a superbly balanced interpretation of a style rarely brewed on this side of the world. There will be plenty more chances to try the pilsner before the year is out, I reason to myself.

We head outside through the elegantly decorated restaurant and events space, ordering a flight of beers and some light bites to eat. The prices aren’t cheap, but then again nothing in New Zealand is, and when it arrives, the food is well worth our hard earned bucks.

The succulent smoked pork cheek is so soft it almost resembles a pate spread over soughdough and slathered in barbeque sauce, while the spicy venison ribs slide tenderly off the bone and wallow in the blue cheese dipping sauce.  

The rest of Sawmill’s beers are equally as impressive. The extra pale ale is like Bud Light on acid; exceptionally clean yet bursting with stonefruit aromas, while I’m yet to find a better interpretation of a Belgian Dubbel out here than The Doctor, the brewery’s dark beer offering (by and large, New Zealanders don’t appear to be big stout drinkers).

Leaving the brewery after a couple of hugely enjoyable hours, it’s easy to see why, despite its rural location, Sawmill remains a popular destination for both locals and tourists alike. If the venue were in central Auckland, it’s not hard to imagine that the queues to get in would stretch around the block.