[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ro Valley in Wellington possesses a secret asset that may well see house prices in one of the city’s more affordable suburbs skyrocket in the near future. That asset can be described as a liquid one, and it’s got youthful drive and passion fuelling it.
When I entered the premises on Te Aro Road on Christmas Eve the garage-cum-brewery was teeming with people – all walks of people – brandishing not just beards, fedoras and wide-brimmed librarian glasses, but also bad-ass brown one and two litre glass flagons with skull-and-cross bone insignias impressed into their surface. There were other people too – there were first-time naïve enquirers trying to make sense of this almost surreal set-up, swept away in the industrial beauty of it all, and there were chanceful passers-by who thought all their Christmases had come at once when thinking they’d really only called into a defunct suburban garage.
Having been open since March 2013, the brewery and now cellar door – aptly called ‘Garage Project’ – has had rapturous support from locals that seems to border on piousness. Indeed Jos Ruffel, one of the main men behind the operation, claims the micro-brewery undergoes a “religious pace of experimentation” – perhaps why the outfit has been so darn popular in the first place – constantly churning out new and exciting brews.
“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
The most memorable of the projects within the Project has been 24/24 – a near insurmountable challenge to brew 24 beers in 24 weeks. This dare was based upon Garage Project’s guiding philosophy penned by none other than Ernest Hemingway: “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” I’m uncertain of the context within which this challenge arose but by heck Peter Gillespie, Garage Project’s brewer is obviously a man of his word. Some of Garage Project’s greatest beers have come out of 24/24, demonstrating that a little bit of duress and time pressure never hurt many, nor the result’s quality.
When I met Jos on the day of my visit he was proud as punch to show me what they first began commercially brewing with – something that indeed looked like it belonged in a garage with just a 50L brew capacity. I’d say a perfect size for experimentation and quick turn-over but a frustratingly demanding brewing model! Thankfully, they’ve moved on from this (though I’m sure they still have a play with it every now and again), yet it acts a constant reminder of just how far they’ve come in a short space of time. They now employ 5-6 people on the ground in the brewery and are quickly occupying every spare inch of the garage floor with shiny stainless tanks, mash tuns and bottling equipment.
To delve a little deeper into the man-power behind Garage Project: Jos Ruffel and Ian Gillespie have been the best of mates since they were pretty much ankle-biters growing up in Wellington. Ian’s older brother Pete, mentioned above, actually grew up into the physical brewing maestro. Jos was just mad on beer, enthusing in its every nuance, shape and form. He convinced Pete to move back to his homeland after his obligatory big O.E. in which he’d worked at numerous breweries around the globe, including in England and Australia. Pete acquiesced to these requests, agreeing that that point in time could be fortuitous for setting up a craft brewery in Wellington, the three of them in cahoots.
It is clearly this brotherly / life-long friendship formula that has enabled these guys to do so well. It was also a matter of timing and clever vision to get Garage Project to reach the upper echelons of most-talked-about-cool-thing-in-Wellington-among-cool-locals. It’s so successful that you can’t really get the beer anywhere outside of the Wellington principal boundaries – much to my frustration and hence visitation when in the capital. At present, Garage Project are barely keeping up with local demand, and their current work-in-progress involves some much needed expansion on their leased ex-garage station site that had seen better days until now.
The involvement with the community is conspicuous also – you just need look at the wildly popular ‘El Día de los Muertos’ (Mexico’s Day of the Dead) special brews done in can format. Local artist Autumn completed a brief for the trio which they’ve then formulated into an eye-catching brand design plus merchandise that she was simply overwhelmed about seeing come to life within the urban on and off-trade. What’s interesting about the beers is their unique compositions: La Calavera Catrina is a Blonde Maize Lager brewed with smoked habanero and conditioned with rosewater and watermelon, while Day of the Dead is a strong black lager brewed with smoked chipotle chili, refermented with organic blue agave syrup and conditioned over raw cocoa nibs, taking on a real Mexican theme.
Jos was incredibly busy the day I arrived to Garage Project’s Aro Street, so I took myself through most of the beers available to taste. Later we had a bit of time for a tour and chat. Here are my thoughts on the beers.
Trip Hop E.S.B (Extra Special Bitter) 5.6% abv
One of Garage Project’s 24/24 beers and a great concept – a clean divide away from the general style of New Zealand craft beer (Pale Ale and I.P.As) without too much straying from what N.Z. does best – hops! This one is triple hopped with Pacifica, Motueka and Riwaka hops. Clean, loads of passionfruit and just ripe orange citrus on the nose, aromatic without overt resiny notes. Lovely bitterness on the palate. Very good, one of the best. $11.50p/L (9/10)
Pernicious Weed New Zealand Hopped I.P.A. 8% abv
Another of the 24/24 beers. Nelson Sauvin evident here with passionfruit and grassy/lemongrass notes, quite clean. The hop bill is organic Rakau and whole cone Nelson Sauvin. Pretty good but alcohol tastes a bit more than what is stated. Nice clean balanced malt. $14.00p/L (8.25/10)
Cockswain’s Extraordinary Ordinary Session Bitter 3.4% abv
Clean and lives up to its sessionable denomination. It is what it it’s supposed to be! Malt-focused with biscuity caramel nuances and dry finish. Good but it would be great with a touch more aromatic hop influence here. 8.25/10. $9.50p/L
Pils n’ Thrils U-Hopped Pilsner 5.5% abv
Quite reductive, with a stressed yeast note on the palate – is Pilsner more prone to this than other beer styles?
Aro Noir 7% abv
This is a very good stout. Gorgeous notes of chocolately, raisiny richness with balanced molasses notes and smokiness. Smooth silky mouthfeel which goes down extremely well. Is in the same vein as Emerson’s London Porter but darker, smokier and, well, just darker! Three different black malts are combined with crystal and pale to make up the malt grist while the hop bill is balanced with US Cascade and Centennial hops. 9.5/10
Hops en Pointe 6.7% abv
Brewed specially for Royal New Zealand Ballet. Tasted from tank – great nose, very passionfruit driven (Nelson Sauvin specifically). Brewed with premium German malts, Nelson Sauvin hops and finished with champagne yeast. Bright, fresh and definitive aromatic profile. Lovely balanced bitterness with delicate maltiness and a fine mousse this just makes me want to use ballerina-derived descriptives. Pirouettes across your tastebuds. 9/10.
My safe prediction is that you’ll be seeing more of these guys in the future; once their planned expansion is complete they will be able to propagate the Garage Project seeds throughout the country and most likely, beyond. Fedoras must go off to them for their excellent branding (the glass flagons are very covetable), in general very good beers and their “religious pace of experimentation” which will no doubt continue to give enlightening experiences for all those consuming from this hip garage-cum-brewery in Te Aro valley.
68 Aro Street,