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Emersons 1812 IPALast week I was lucky enough to stay at The White Swan Hotel in Greytown, home of the modern Arbour Day celebrations and claiming what is apparently one of the most complete main streets of Victorian architecture in New Zealand.

The White Swan began life as the New Zealand Railways administration building at the Woburn railyard in Lower Hutt, but in 2002 the building was cut into six pieces, relocated over the Rimutaka Range and reassembled in Greytown.

When I visited last week it offered great food, stylish rooms and warm service. The only thing missing was some great Kiwi craft beer.

Craft beers in New Zealand have moved from the fringe to the mainstream thanks to outfits such as Christchurch’s Three Boys and Harrington’s, and Wellington’s Garage Project and Yeastie Boys. No such tasty brews were available at the White Swan, which I thought a tad unusual for such a tasty pub.

Then I noticed a pattern to all the brews on offer – which included Monteith’s, Sol and Tiger – all were brewed or distributed by Heineken-owned DB.

It’s pretty well known, by drinkers anyway, that New Zealand’s brewing market is dominated by Japan-based Kirin and Netherlands-based Heineken. Together this duo controls virtually all of the big beer brands sold locally, from Steinlager and Canterbury Draft, to Heineken, Tui and Stella.

And last week Kirin grew a little larger thanks to its acquisition of Dunedin’s Emerson Brewing Company, via its 100 per cent-owned local subsidiary Lion.

The purchase was more than a little ironic, given the colourful Richard Emerson set up his craft brewery in 1993 selling unpasteurised beer after becoming disillusioned with the generic taste of the big breweries’ offerings.

I first sampled Emerson’s when a Dunedin scientist mate sent me some London Porter claiming it had aphrodisiac qualities. Soon after, I discovered Bookbinder which became a quick favourite. Thereafter, if I was within 300 kilometres of Dunedin, I would detour via Wickliffe St and fill the boot of my gently corroding MGB Roadster.

Subsequently Richard Emerson became a central figure in the craft beer vanguard, celebrating taste, tradition and idiosyncrasy. The quality of his output became recognised globally, and invariably he attracted the attention of the Dutch and Japanese giants.

Contrary to the PR spin, I’m not convinced brewing moguls like acquiring small breweries. The little guys spend too much on ingredients and their volumes are too small to deliver the cost efficiencies of the mainstream brews, so the moguls begin “value engineering” them. And the iconoclastic founders often make poor team players. However, as the popularity of their product grows, so do the value of these crafty brands until they reach the point where they become too painful to ignore.

I don’t blame the big brewers for buying brands like Emerson’s, Mac’s and Monteith’s – it’s commercially astute, as long as they don’t overpay. And I have nothing but admiration for the likes of Richard Emerson who turned a vision of quality ales into a global brand and a commercially successful company.

But there are two things that make me cough into my beer glass.

The first is, what will happen to the diverse and tasty lineup of unpasteurised beers that Emerson’s offer up? Big brewers make money out of volume, and I would be surprised if the likes of Taieri George or Whisky Porter will last for long. Mind you, as my wife constantly reminds me, I am not in the middle of the bell curve when it comes to beer.

The second and more worrying thing is the impact of the large breweries tying up distribution in New Zealand. Pubs are not always particularly profitable businesses, so the rebate structures offered by the big brewers are hard to resist.

But enticing pubs to enter into these exclusive supply agreements keeps craft breweries out of pubs, and tasty brews away from customers’ glasses.

More important from a commercial perspective is the exclusionary effect such control and incentivisation has on new entrants.

The Commerce Act has provisions which are designed to prevent a business taking advantage of its dominant position in a market for an anti-competitive purpose. I wonder if the independent brewers have ever thought of taking a class action against one of the two biggies?

If you go to Greytown, you should check out Stella Bull Park, named for the Wairarapa woman who did so much to make the town beautiful. There is a park bench there which notes: “Only God can make a tree.”

I’m of the mind that only an iconoclast can make a truly great beer. It’s just a shame that the incentivised distribution structure barricades these brews from the fridges of so many pubs in New Zealand.

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Wild Food Festival Giant Beetle Jelly

 

I clearly remember my first visit to the West Coast.

I was in my final year at Canterbury Uni and completing a landscape assignment for a photography course.

I needed to shoot some limestone landscapes so my girlfriend and I headed across Arthurs Pass in my terminally ill Ford Escort .
A combination of voluminous rain and a wonky distributor shaft meant that it took almost seven hours to get to our destination, just on dark. The petrol station attendant there was just closing and flatly refused to serve us. Moving further into town it proved impossible to scare up a proper meal, the best we could do was get the Southland pub to microwave a couple of frozen pies.
Everyone we met on that trip were well balanced, they had chips on both shoulders and seemed none too pleased to have out-of-towners about. My American girlfriend was none too impressed and kept on cracking Deliverance jokes. After a couple of days in a leaky campground cabin we were delighted to escape to back to civilisation.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the world has changed. That town is now the dynamic regional capital of adventure and eco-tourism and boasts more tasty eateries and Kiwi-host qualified providers than you could poke a manuka stick at. What’s more it has boiled down what makes life unique there and moulded it into an internationally recognised celebration of food and fun.

That town is Hokitika and last weekend I was lucky enough to be a judge at its 22nd Wild Food Festival. For two days this village of 4000 swells to 19,000 as local and foreign tourists flock to the local domain to sample such unlikely dishes as tahr salami, hard boiled seagull eggs and garlic slugs.

But it’s much more than that, it’s a two days festival of music, history and frontier lifestyle that showcases what the Coast has to offer and draws in serious revenue to the region. My back of an envelope calculation suggests that 15,000 people would spend on average $200 on accommodation, eating and ancillaries while they are there.
That equates to $3 million of direct benefits to the town, plus a good dollop of indirect revenue to the broader region that the visitors pass through.

I asked the Wild Food grand poobah Mike Keenan how it all got started 21 years ago. He told me it was initially an offshoot of the 1990 New Zealand Sequi Centennial Celebrations, when many community groups were finding it tough to get funding. They looked around and saw an abundance of wild food and a frontier location. “It was sitting in our face but til then we hadn’t seen it,” says Mike. The rest is history.

Across the Southern Alps with the large majority of emergency short term need addressed, Canterbury is formulating its long term plan for the rebuilding of Christchurch. Decades ago Christchurch moved from being a rural service centre into manufacturing and then tourism. It’s become a core part of the global tourism trail and will be again. But not today and not this year.

According to the Ministry of Economic Development, Canterbury has 11,600 people directly employed in the tourism sector. Right now a fair whack of them will be taking a hard look at the options open to them and seriously evaluating whether they should move elsewhere in New Zealand, or head overseas.

While you can’t blame them for this, it will likely have a throttling effect on the local tourism industry once the city is rebuilt enough to start enticing visitors back. There won’t be chefs to cook their meals, guides to host buses or operators to provide them with mountain bikes, historical tours or just clean beds.

Right now downtown Christchurch is battered and reeling like a punch drunk fighter. But it will come back and with it will come the tourism dollar –until then the region needs to diversify tourism away from downtown Christchurch to retain the income and importantly the workforce.

Hokitika’s Wild Food Festival might provide a useful example of what is possible. Over the last week I had the pleasure of visiting Waimate, Geraldine, Hanmer and Little River – all easily reachable from Christchurch. Each has personality in buckets and a physical environment that suits special events.

What’s to stop Waimate from hosting a wallaby celebration, Geraldine a jazz carnival, Hanmer a huge winter solstice and Little River a blossom festival? With a mixture of inspired destination marketing and solid event execution there’s no reason that Canterbury couldn’t play host to a ongoing series of festivals to help hang onto the $2.3 billion of revenue that Tourism delivered to the region last year.

Twenty years ago I remember my first visit to Martinborough, an hour from Wellington. It was a dusty and forgotten little rural service town. Today it fair ripples with energy and plays host to a huge rolling calendar of events and festivals.

I wonder what will be Canterbury’s Martinborough?

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