A night out with girlfriends in Wellington is always a chance to catch up, enjoy some delicious tapas or pizza and sip something cold. More and more however I’m steering friends away from ‘playing it safe’ at the local watering-hole with Sav and towards some of the best little taverns in New Zealand - Sprig & Fern.
Historically, I wasn’t really a beer drinker. Sure, I’d sip the odd Corona on a hot day. But on the whole, I believed (and had been told by ads) that beer was best left to the boys. Thanks to the craft beer explosion, nowadays I love nothing more than to pick up a delicious cold pint of something and swill it in the sun. However, sometimes I feel like a self-conscious novice. With so many varieties, it can be overwhelming to know what to get. But what if part of appreciating beer - all kinds of beer - is about understanding the basics better?
Fortunately I was recently invited for a tasting at the Sprig & Fern with none other than Owner and Master Brewer, Tracy Banner. My friends Rachel and Josie (of @PetoneEats and @LostinSilverFern respectively) were keen to join me for a girls evening together. We arrived at Tinakori Sprig & Fern, unsure what to expect. A friendly looking lady descended the stairs: “Hello” she said “I’m Tracy.”
Quick background - Tracy is rather a big deal: Why? She’s a bit of a living legend who has a remarkable career. Cutting a sharp figure with a cool blonde bob, tailored blazer and Sprig & Fern tee, Tracy been brewing since she was a teen, living in Liverpool. “I decided to get a job because I wasn’t interested in college - but I was quite good at science. There were two jobs advertised at the time; one was for a local beer brewery in Warrington, Greenalls. I applied and I got it” Tracy explains.
As a woman in the male dominated beer industry in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Tracy raised eyebrows. However, she threw herself into the immersive world of brewing, learning all the tricks of the trade (she even met her husband Ken at work). “I had to roll barrels which weighed much more than me!” she remembers of the early years.
Despite her enjoyment of her newfound vocation, it was a rocky time. As the dynamics in the brewing industry changed, more local British institutions closed down, were bought out or merged, leading to the closure of their house-owned pubs. “On the eve of our wedding day, I was told that the brewery where I worked for was closing down. We left for our honeymoon not knowing what we were coming back to! Imagine that!” Tracy explained. Eventually, Tracy and her husband decided to look for something different and made the move to New Zealand in 1994.
Originally arriving in Auckland to brew for Lion, Tracy and her husband didn’t settle immediately, and in fact nearly went back to the UK. “We didn’t feel like it made sense - trading one big city for a slightly smaller city. It was only when we moved to the South Island and I went to work for Mac’s that it all started to come together.
Together, Tracy, along with other original craft creators, like Emersons, Tuatara, Mac’s and later Epic and Yeastie Boys all worked together to raise the bar for beer in New Zealand. This paved the way for contemporary Wellington breweries like Garage Project and Parrot Dog. In 2009 Tracy and her husband bought into Sprig & Fern and never looked back.
Sprig & Fern now has pubs all around the Nelson and Wellington and one in Christchurch, and is continuing to expand. These classy taverns are influenced by Tracy’s memory of English pubs and aimed at those who want to relax with a pint and chat without sports screens, gaming rooms and pool tables. If you’re looking for somewhere reliable yet character-filled, they’re a great place to organise a quiz or light meal with pals. And of course, they stock delicious Sprig & Fern beer and cider.
During our Sprig & Fern tasting with Tracy, we tried some very interesting styles, starting with the classic lagers. A personal favourite of mine is the Tasman Reserve which I recommend to everyone. Bold and bountiful, it blends five hops for a balanced premium larger with a fruity aroma, a citrus passion-fruit flavour and a smooth hoppy finish. Their Pilsner was crisp and refreshing, even on wintery evening, with a good malty balance. “We’ve left the high hop bitterness of a typical Pilsner behind” explained Tracy. Finally, the Fern Lager: It’s a classic kiwi style golden lager which was easing drinking with a good balance of malt sweetness and bitterness.
Next, we moved onto one of our favourite beers of the evening - British Best which Sprig & Fern’s take on a classic English bitter pint, renamed. “It reminds me of home!” echoed Josie and Rachel together. This was followed with an IPA, the classic English brew with Fuggle hops. These hops gave it a soft, woody, earthy flavour profile (India, not Indian Pale Ale, apparently) but it also had a little bit of bitterness, complimenting the malt base.
We then contrasted this with the APA - chinook hops, US cascade hops…so many hops…which creates big flavour and a warm, citrus and floral character. “I can’t decide which one I like best” fretted Rachel. Up next, Scotch Ale was heavy on the malts (no less than six) creating coffee, caramel and chocolate notes plus more Fuggle hops (maybe I just like saying Fuggle). Last of the beers was a Porter - coffee and liquorice with a full-bodied finish. It only came out half way through the tasting that Rachel admitted: “I thought that I really didn’t like beer - but this experience has change my mind!”
But our tasting experience wasn’t yet over. Before we left, we were treated to a full and fruity berry cider (this was possibly one of my favourites of the evening - it has to be tasted to be believed!) and a splendid Apple Cider. Polishing it all off, we drank a “Grown Up” Lemonade (homemade lemonade with a dash of vodka in it). Fortunately we had tasting glasses with smaller pours so we were able to leave the tavern feeling enlightened and educated, rather than rolling out drunkenly in a hoppy mess (Tracy prefers a tulip shaped glass because she considers that it captures the aromas of the beer better than a straight sided glass).
Getting to know Tracy’s story - and to better understand the beers that she creates - was a humbling experience. It made me reflect that while we may think we’re pioneers of craft beer in Wellington, there is a long history of those who made this new wave of craft beer possible. Although this may be well known to beer enthusiasts, there’s an important story which is only just starting to be told more widely. I already enjoyed Sprig & Fern beer, but, after a tasting experience with Tracy, I love that l now know the method in her ‘madness’. I’ve also learnt the difference between beer in clear, green or brown bottles and light can affect the flavour of the contents.
There’s a lot to love about this Nelson Brewery’s expanding presence in the Wellington region. Place in prime locations, such as Thorndon, Seatoun, Petone and more recently Berhampore, they’re licensed to local Wellingtonians (such as Sue who served us on our recent mission). This means the economic benefits of these pubs stays in the Wellington community and are serviced with a steady stream of some of New Zealand’s finest original beer.
Hops are native to Nelson and the malt used is from New Zealand, and just a short plane or ferry ride from the Capital - so rest assured you’re drinking beer which is as fresh as they come. I hope that you’ll join me around the corner and make a beer tasting your next girl’s night out.
A huge thank you to Tracy for taking the time out of her busy training schedule to meet these Residents of Wellington.
This blog post was created in paid partnership with Sprig & Fern but my love of this premium New Zealand craft beer brand is all my own.