Kiwi Hops: a Conversation with Jess Wolfgang
After a beautiful hike on the Rocky Mountain track near Wanaka, we had one thing on our mind: a refreshing beer.
On our way back to town, we stumbled upon Rhyme and Reason Brewery. Started by Jessica Wolfgang and Simon Ross just seven months ago in a warehouse space on 17 Gordon Road, they are already producing some of the country’s best beer. We couldn’t believe both the quality and quantity of beer they’ve been produced in such a short time. We were delighted to come back later in the week to share a beer and chat with Jess, Head Brewer and Co-Founder.
What got you into the brewing industry?
I love beer! I’ve always loved beer. Unfortunately my dad never had any good beer in the fridge, so I didn’t find any good beer until I went traveling. I never thought about brewing as being a job, didn’t even think of it as an industry I could be a part of. But I’ve been in hospitality for over 15 years. When I came back from traveling overseas I thought I’d go and learn how to make wine because there was a pretty famous local wine region near where I was living in Newcastle. I drove around and went to a lot of amazing wineries and also drove past a little wee brewery and that got me thinking “a brewery, of course someone’s gotta make beer! Why do I want to make wine? I don’t really drink wine! I’m going to have a look at this wee brewery”
It was just serendipity. They had an assistant brewery leaving...and I said “hey, I love working in hospitality and in bars, and would be quite keen to see how beer is made.” I ended up just starting there, power hosing the floors and [helping] with lots of breweries and tastings. I eventually got invited to do some brew days and just got hooked!
What made you start the brewery seven months ago in Wanaka?
We needed to figure out how we could afford to stay here (Wanaka). Wanaka is an expensive place and you can’t just work in hospitality and pay off a mortgage here, or even pay for petrol here. We needed to become business owners to be able to afford to stay here.
We’ve always wanted to do our own brewery...he (co-founder Simon) has lots of friends here, and we’ve been visiting Wanaka snowboarding off and on for the last 14 years. We finally saw summer here, and we found it was insanely busier than the winter and just as much fun. There was almost more activity in the summer...we thought, “this place is brilliant! We can ski in the winter, mountain bike in the summer, float, camp hike, it just ticked so many boxes.
New Zealand has such an epic beer scene as well, so it didn’t take too much are twisting to get us to stay in Wanaka. It was just about finding a premise once we decided to stay here and start a brewery.
How did you find the space you’re at now (17 Gordon Road, Wanaka)?
A carpet cleaning company was moving out of the premise, so we just swooped on in...got on the phone with the landlord and said “we want to start a brewery, lease us your place!”...they thought, “well if you’re starting a brewery, you’ll probably keep it really clean. You guys can have it!” They were actually excited that we were starting a brewery and a bar.
Can you tell us a little bit about the rise of craft beer in New Zealand?
Even when I first started brewing eight years ago, you were constantly talking people into trying new (craft) beer and explaining why it’s a bit more expensive than the off the shelf commercial beer. That wasn’t that long ago.
I think New Zealand is a little bit ahead of Australia, the scene is a bit bigger over here even though it’s a smaller country. In the last four beers it’s really taken off (in New Zealand). The number of breweries that are growing is on the increase. Commercial beer has hit a plateau but craft beer is rising.
Why do you think that is?
I think people are more careful about what they are eating and drinking these days. There’s so much knowledge and information that people can make the choices as to what they want to drink. That’s good for us.
What’s the brewing scene in Wanaka like?
It’s good! Wanaka has six breweries. Everyone is quite small, we’re a 1,200 liter brewery, I think Wanaka Beerworks are about 1,000 liters, Ground Up just bought a 1,200 liter brewery. There’s a couple of garage operations as well. Ground Up is just across the road from us which is pretty cool. We’re constantly borrowing bits of equipment and ingredients from each other.
We’ve brewed a couple of beers together. One of our most common guest taps is from Ground Up. I keep saying that we need to apply to get the street name changed here to Brewery Lane! Brewery Lane has a real ring to it.
How does collaboration in brewing work?
Brewers love to collaborate! Brewers have so much fun together and it’s always good fun brewing with other people. There’s always new things you pick up, whether it’s mixing those hops with these hops, or even new techniques in processing. It’s always a fun brew day if there’s a couple of extra brewers around. It’s always a bit wacky!
I’ll let the dog run around and go crazy and then just come up with the recipe there, just sitting in the back of the car. The dog is happy, and the ideas start flowing!
How do you come up with ideas for your beers?
It comes from everywhere! It comes from reading cooking books to reading funny names on things. Things will pop up when you want to brew a beer. You could try a cake or even a dinner and think “okay, we can turn that into a beer!”
We’ve got the Christmas pudding beer on tap right now (December 2017), and that came from wanting to brew something for Christmas and then having a look at what’s on the Christmas lunch or dinner table. I love ham, but don’t really feel like making a ham flavored beer. And then there are all sorts of things, like Christmas pudding. I looked at my mom’s and grandmother’s Christmas pudding recipes and thought, “Yep, honey can go in there. Yep, I can get some chocolate in there, yes figs, plums, raisins, all of this stuff can go in there.” It’s just about figuring out what part of the process it’s going to be best to add it to. Normally with fruits and spices I like to add it to the end of the boil. So it actually gets cooked up, the flavors get released, and it actually gets sterilized so you don’t end up with any bugs getting into the beer with the brewers yeast. So the Christmas pudding beer is on tap now and it’s literally like a liquified pudding, which is cool.
I want to do a beer version of Jamaican spiced rum. I want all of those beautiful spices that are in there. We want to serve it in a daiquiri glass with a pineapple wedge on it. I want to do it so I can call it Jamaican Me Thirsty. I’m pretty much making this beer for that name!
Where do you find your inspiration in Wanaka?
Everywhere! I used to come up with recipes while cleaning kegs. But I find it really hard to think while I’m cleaning kegs in the brewery because now I’m thinking mostly about business stuff. So now I need to leave the brewery to come up with new recipes. Normally I’ll grab some old books and recipes that have some information I need to create this new idea. I’ll grab my dog and choose a place either at the lake, or down at the forest, or at the river, or wherever I feel like at the time. I’ll let the dog run around and go crazy and then just come up with the recipe there, just sitting in the back of the car. The dog is happy, and the ideas start flowing!
What is the creative community of Wanaka like?
Lots of creative people here. Like I said before, it’s an expensive town to live in, but it’s because everything is on your doorstep…so people want to stay here and you have to get creative to figure out how you can afford to. That’s why there are a lot of people with their own little businesses. Lots of web designers, graphic designers, occupations where you can work from home or from a shared office space. Lots of creative and talented people around.
What beer are you most proud of making?
The Kiwi Kolsch. The Kiwi Kolsch is so delicate, and approachable and non-offensive. Every brewery should be making a Kolsch. It’s the go to beer. It’s a beer that you can have for breakfast, when you’re hungover, when you’re celebrating, when you want a session, everyone loves the Kolsch. Everybody thinks the Kiwi Kolsch has Kiwi in it though, so we might have to change the name to the New Zealand Kolsch. It’s just a beautiful style.
It’s a really simple recipe. I’ve been brewing Kolsch for eight years...I’ve probably brewed more Kolsch than anyone outside of Cologne, Germany. You just need good ingredients. All German malts, it’s pretty traditional, except that I’m adding New Zealand grown hops. No one really notices, but I usually change the hops every time I brew this beer…this beer is an ale brewed as a lager. So it is an ale yeast, but we’re using a lager malt, which is lovely and clean and has a beautiful, sweet honey flavor to it. We use cooler lager fermentation temperatures and it just throws this beautiful, fruit-salad sweetness into it.
The Kiwi hops we use kind of have Sauvignon Blanc type gooseberry flavors to it, and that works out because I find the Kolsch to be the champagne of beers!
What would you want people to say about Rhyme and Reason?
I want them to say it’s fun! It’s all about the atmosphere here, we want to create a venue for conversation. Somewhere that’s a little bit different. Wanaka is a very busy town, so this is a place for someone to find a chilled out spot that’s a bit of a hideaway. You can come and escape here, hang out with the bartender. The bartender quickly learns your name and your drink. It’s about the experience here, and the beer is good. And it will keep getting better!