Beginning amid the in-demand hop vines of New Zealand's upper South Island, this journey combines newer, smaller craft breweries with some of the region's more established players. Common threads are the surprising influence of brewers from the West Coast of the United States in the area, and a strong focus on harnessing the hoppy bounty growing in the rural hinterland.
Savvy craft brewers around the world are now using fresh and fragrant Riwaka hops, and this welcoming place in the heart of New Zealand's hop-growing region kicks off this journey around the northern South Island. Formerly the quirky Monkey Wizard brewery, the rural space has been re-imagined as a rustic but stylish tasting room for Hop Federation, and the previous experience of head brewer Simon Nicholas at other New Zealand craft breweries shines through in well-made brews including an excellent American red ale. Consider detouring to nearby Kaiteriteri beach in the Abel Tasman National Park – less than 10km – for sea-kayaking or boat trips taking in local marine life and spectacular coastal scenery.
Make the 26km journey south from Riwaka to Mapua by hugging the coastline along the Moutere Inlet. Launched by southern Californian expat Jim Matranga in 2008, Golden Bear's location on the rustic Mapua wharf includes views of the birdlife of the nearby Waimea River – look out for colourful banded dotterels – and some of the South Island's best Mexican food combined with bold West Coast IPAs with more than a hint of San Diego or Santa Cruz. Try the chicken quesadilla with the hoppy Seismic IPA harnessing local Rakau and Pacific Jade hops. There's plenty more to see along Mapua's wharf including local artists' cooperatives, and you can also rent a bike and make the short hop by ferry across to forest tracks and sandy beaches on Moturoa (Rabbit Island).
Moving from the United States to make beer in New Zealand is an obviously valid career choice. With experience running the Eddyline Brewery in Colorado – 'eddyline' is a river kayaking reference – Mic and Molley Heynekamp kicked off the New Zealand operation in 2016. A few of the Colorado brews have been successfully imported to Nelson – the Crank Yanker IPA is deservedly popular – but only-in-New Zealand brews using local hops have also been introduced. After travelling the 20-minute drive south from Mapua, order the Hoppy Kea IPA, named after New Zealand's native alpine parrot.
Housed in a restored 19th-century church, The Free House in Nelson was one of the first New Zealand pubs to focus purely on smaller, independent craft breweries. That means more than a 1000 different beers and ciders have been poured since they opened in 2009. Expect a strong focus on local brews, usually also including ciders from Peckham's in the nearby Upper Moutere Valley. There are occasional gigs in the onsite yurt, and on Friday and Saturday afternoons, well-known New Zealand music journalist Grant Smithies runs his pop-up record store called Family Jewels in the adjacent beer garden.
Flying somewhat under the radar in New Zealand craft beer circles, the Sprig & Fern are hugely popular in the local Nelson region for their understated and well-made beers. There are now six Sprig & Fern taverns in the Nelson region – and even a couple north across Cook Strait in Wellington – and they're all great examples of relaxed New Zealand pubs. Seek out the central location on Nelson's Queen St and partner a tasting rack of Sprig & Fern's beers with fish and chips from the humble fish and chip shop next door. How's that for a classic Kiwi combination?
Another well-established New Zealand craft brewery, Renaissance began in 2006, and while they don't currently have a taproom, their beers are served in several bars and restaurants around town. Also started by a couple of Californian expats – there's definitely a pattern here – Renaissance's standout beers include the 8.5% M.P.A, a double IPA also known as Marlborough Pale Ale. More experimental beers are brewed under the Enlightenment range. Try the raisin-infused Belgian ale, and while you're in Blenheim, don't miss the nearby Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, where many of the carefully-restored vintage First World War aircraft are owned by the New Zealand director of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Sir Peter Jackson.