By Greig McGill
An old soak’s guide to NZ’s most iconic beer festival
The huge and storied beer festival that takes place in Wellington each August (usually) began life as a way to get rid of excess beer from a brewing competition! The Brewers Guild of New Zealand annually hosted the BrewNZ awards in Wellington, and afterwards, there was a fair bit of beer remaining in kegs. In 2001, the Guild decided to make good use of that beer, and of the many visiting brewers, and put on a bit of a tasting session in the Wellington Town Hall. In 2002, this was formalised into what became known as BrewNZ. These BrewNZ events eventually became extremely popular, and by 2005 had morphed into a weekend of events and a city-wide bar crawl with many bars hosting special festive beers. The BrewNZ festival itself was the crowning glory.
Unfortunately, it became a bit of a victim of its own success, and in 2006 could no longer be hosted at the Town Hall. Local bar-owner and the loveliest Scotsman you’ll ever meet, Colin Mallon, managed to wrangle together a mini-BrewNZ at the eleventh hour in the basement of Wellington’s Old Bank Arcade. As I was trying to jog my fading and booze-soaked memories of this event, I even found the unassuming original ad for what turned out to be a watershed moment in NZ’s beer festival history. It was here that Malt Baron and Man With The Best Hair in the Industry, David Cryer began thinking “what if…”
After a few more Town Hall attempts, and with the festival rapidly growing with the rise and rise of craft beer, Cryer decided to buy the rights to the festival, and moved it from the Town Hall to the Wellington Regional Stadium - definitely not known as the Cake-tin… not even a little bit, right Wellington friends?
Initially nicknamed the “concrete love tunnel” by a friend I shall not name here, Beervana managed to occupy what seemed an endless 33% of the venue. Over the next few years, as the festival expanded to 50%, then 75%, and now finally stretches all around the stadium concourse, it has become a truly mammoth event, and one which every Kiwi beer lover should attend at least once in their life. Owned and managed by the Wellington Culinary Events Trust since they purchased it from David Cryer in 2015, it’s now a crazy and energetic event sprawling across two days and four sessions, and requires some serious planning to get the most out of it.
Having been an attendee since 2004 (possibly 2003… the memory is very hazy!), I have watched every stage of the metamorphosis, from a tiny gathering where everyone knew everyone else, into a massive weekend event where it’s nigh on impossible to even visit every exhibitor, and I’ve developed a strategy or two for making the most of Beervana.
Pour yourself a pint of something tasty, and settle back for Greig’s Guide to Beervana!
Planning is everything. Trust me. When you walk into the concrete love tunnel, possibly after standing in Wellington’s famous weather for a while waiting for the doors to open, you will be overwhelmed by the throng of people, the sights, smells, and sounds that make up Beervana. You will want to have a simple plan to guide your approach.
The plan starts with ticket selection. If you’re a grazer, happy to just experience the event and sample a few beers/some food/live entertainment as the mood takes you, just grab a single session pass. It doesn’t really matter which one, although there are some guidelines. The first session - Friday afternoon - is often the quietest as many people can’t get the time off work that we dedicated booze-hounds can! It’s also heavy with industry people, so you’re guaranteed to bump into like-minded souls. None of the beers will have run out yet, but likewise, there won’t be much “buzz” around what to try yet so you get to forge your own path of discovery, free of the hype and opinions of others. The evening sessions tend to be much more of a party vibe, and although Beervana isn’t known for drunken yobbos, if you’re going to get them, this is the time for it. The final evening session tends to be a bit chaotic, with it being more about social drinking and less about tasting and education. Many of the more popular beers have run out, and most of the brewers have abandoned their stands and have whichever employees drew the short straw running the show. That’s not to say this can’t be fun, but it pays to be aware when buying a ticket! Personally I usually buy two session tickets - the first to graze and see what’s great, as well as socialise with people I don’t see as often as I’d like, and the second to “tick beers off my list”.
And speaking of lists… have one. If you care about trying interesting and unique beers, or there are some breweries you’ve been meaning to sample but haven’t found in the wild, this is where a list is invaluable. We’re drinking alcohol after all, and things can get a bit fuzzy, so I find an old skool piece of paper with a list of the things I really want to try on it is much better than fussing with my phone every 5 seconds. Each to their own, of course, but the key is to know what you want to try the most, and at least attempt to stick to it. The full list of beers will be available here shortly before the event. For the techy types who don’t mind a bit of phone-fiddling, there’s also a beervana app - it’s not out yet but search the app store for your device before you go if you want to track and review your beers.
Finally, I recommend pre-loading credit for your wristband when you buy your ticket. I had never done this before, and last year, it finally caught up with me on the Saturday afternoon session when I wasted about 40 minutes getting to a credit station in the crowd, and then waiting in line to buy credit. That there’s valuable drinking tasting time!
First up, a word for the introverts and the easily overwhelmed… Beervana these days is crowded. Not just a little. A LOT. As mentioned before, the Friday afternoon session is your best bet if you don’t like huge crowds, and even then, it will be a lot more crowded than you might like. I don’t say this to dissuade you, just that as a bit of an introvert myself, it can get overwhelming quite quickly, so be prepared. There are plenty of small alcoves off to the side which are handy for regrouping, gathering your thoughts a bit, and/or waiting for your friends to find you!
Speaking of friends, if you’re going with others, pick several meet up spots as you go around the venue. This might seem like overkill, but I number them. It’s then a lot easier to text “3” to your friends when you inevitably get separated than “you remember that blue table by the place where the band was? No, not the folk band, the punk one with the singer on stilts… yeah, I’m not quite there, but a little further on…” you get the idea.
Due to the nature of the concrete love tunnel, it’s not really practical to follow the common beer festival practice of finding a spot, and taking turns to go grab beer. It can take 30 minutes to make your way directly around the entirety of the concourse, and great beers are to be found at every point! Not to mention the food you will be wanting also. When in a group, I have found the best approach is the “shuffle-disperse-regroup” one. Move as a group a few stands around at a time, find a spot together, then branch out, grabbing beers, and returning to the spot. Again, if this sounds like overkill, well maybe, but wait until you see the place!
It shouldn’t need saying, but stay hydrated. This can be as easy as “drinking the rinse water” each time you get a new beer, or if you find that a bit gross, there are always good hydration options. Over the years, these have ranged from each stand having water, to many water fountains and water cooler points, to roaming event staff with water tanks on their back, dispensing fills via a hose! It can be really hard to gauge your alcohol intake and intoxication level when drinking many small samples of varying strengths in an environment that borders on sensory overload, so drinking lots of water is always a great idea. And if you’re worried about “cracking the seal”, well, the toilets are also VERY plentiful and usually clean. It is a sports stadium after all!
A short word about food. There is a ton of it. If you feel like something specific, there will be some kind of it there, often in very cool forms. Many of Wellington’s top chefs use the event to showcase some of their wackier ideas, and it’s almost as much of a food festival as it is a beer one these days. Line that stomach, you’ll need it!
Finally, don’t forget to visit the Brewshop stand! Meet the cool, smart, and handsome people (the cheque better be in the mail…) who know everything there is to know about home and craft brewing, and can answer your questions, shout you a beer, and show you their sweet shiny toys! The stand can be found in the Home Brew Alley - turn right after coming in the main doors to the concourse.
This one is 100% subjective, as what you feel like doing after such a huge experience will depend entirely on you. If you’re in pretty good shape (warning: beware of false-sense-of-sobriety syndrome!) you might want to hit up one of Wellington’s many excellent beer spots to keep going. Be warned, if this is your plan, it might pay to duck out of your session a little early and secure a spot as pubs are often HEAVING after Beervana in recent years. My advice is to perform your best hipster impression and try to find the lesser known or less popular spots. No, I won’t tell you my secrets!It’s a short walk back to the CBD along the harbour waterfront, but if it’s blowing a gale and the freezing rain makes that seem like an unattractive option, there are plenty of taxis and good spots for a ride-share service pickup down under the concourse at the stadium car park.
If you only purchased a single session ticket, but you’ve decided you’d like to hit up another session, it can be easy enough to score someone else’s unwanted multi-session pass. I’ve often seen people who buy tickets to all four sessions on a deal, or just for maximum flexibility, who don’t want to use them. Just ask people as they leave!
Have a fantastic time, and I might see you there!