New Zealand’s “Island find of Wine” Offers Fine Breweries, Too

a sampling from Wild on Waiheke

a sampling from Wild on Waiheke

Where to find craft beer on Waiheke Island

All photos by Phil Galewitz

The mid-morning Wednesday ferry was packed as we left the harbor in downtown Auckland, New Zealand headed into the Hauraki Gulf. Hardly an empty seat could be found on the boat’s upper deck on that gorgeous April morning as the sun began to melt away the morning mist on this crisp fall day in the Southern Hemisphere. As we departed the ferry terminal, the downtown skyscrapers and massive shipyard dominated our view along with dozens of sailboats, yachts and shipping containers. Quickly, the scenery beyond the clear blue waters turned mostly green as we slid past several islands including one with an extinct volcano. After about 25 minutes, our destination came into view: Waiheke Island.

While we had been in Auckland less than 18 hours, we knew there was no reason to delay our visit to this 13-mile picturesque island that locals (Kiwis) and tourists call “the island of wine.” With nearly 30 wineries that dot the hilly and lush terrain, along with gorgeous beaches, art galleries and posh restaurants, Waiheke is like a fantasy island.

Indeed, Lonely Planet has ranked it the fifth-best destination in the world to visit and Conde Nast Traveler lists it as the fourth best island in the world.  Visiting multiple wineries on a single day is easy thanks to an affordable hop-on hop off bus that meets the ferry and deposits visitors at the vineyards across the island that has full time population of 7,000 but attracts 800,000 people a year.

But a pleasant surprise awaits, somewhat hidden amidst the thousands of acres of vineyards: Two amazing breweries.

archery in the vineyards at Wild on Waiheke

archery in the vineyards at Wild on Waiheke

Wild on Waiheke

The first was Waiheke island brewing, one of the oldest craft breweries in New Zealand that has been brewing since 1998 at Wild on Waiheke, part vineyard, part outdoor game center and part brewery all together on a luxurious and lush retreat.

It was just before noon and we were starving and thirsty. We quickly found some seats under a big white tent that put us just a few feet away from vineyards. We ordered a flight of beers and one of their specialty pizzas with roast chicken, avocado and jalapeño cooked in a stone oven. While waiting, we saw employees setting up archery targets amidst the vineyards and a laser clay shooting field.

We devoured the pizza, and beers were a perfect complement. Among our favorites were a Cologne-style Kolsch Pale Ale called Baroona. The beer, we would learn, was the first to come out of the brewery and featured a special New Zealand hops that gave it a distinctive grapefruit peel aroma and floral character. Another beer we enjoyed was No Summer’s Day, a wheat beer that was cold and refreshing with its aromas of cloves, banana and even bubble gum. We found few dark beers in New Zealand but Our Dark Ale was one of our favorites—a porter that hit the right balance between bitterness and aroma. With soft chocolate notes from the eight different types of malted barley, this porter was lighter and easier to drink than the typical rich and heavy porters found in the United States.

Our last Waiheke Island beer was its IPA that’s like a palate of chewy toffee and chocolate with a generous amount of Cascade hops that provide a tangy, yet smooth finish. At 7.2% ABV it was one of the higher alcohol beers found on our trip. We were able to walk to the Te Motu vineyard next door for some red wine. That’s where a server told us about Alibi Brewing, which was connected to Tantalus Estate. Best of all, we could walk to our next vineyard/brewery it as it was just down and around some vineyards.

Alibi Brewing Co.

Alibi Brewing Co.

Alibi Brewing Co.

Within 15 minutes, we found the spacious Tantalus Estate and its upscale restaurant and wine tasting bar. In the back of the winery and housed under the vineyard’s main restaurant, Alibi was like a dream. We took our seats on the small brick lined patio bar looking out on a mountain of vineyards and a farm in the distance. Inside the French doors, we peered into the Alibi Brewers Lounge, a speakeasy style affair that oozes old-school charm, with its brick-lined walls and dim lighting.

Alibi brewery produces a wide array of styles along with seasonal releases, incorporating flavors, flora and fauna from the estate grounds—aging wine barrels, crunchy grapes and freshly harvested honey. We sampled several excellent IPAs including their top selling Hopsdweller, which leave peaches and watermelon on the nose. The Barrel Aged Saison called Waihesian Pool Party was conditioned with cabernet sauvignon grapes grown on the property, and while it was definitely a beer, it still had hints of wine flavor.

Alibi has an ambitious sour program as well, and we tasted The Slush, a heavily fruited strong berry ale brewed with blackcurrants and blueberries. It was only modestly sour but its fruitiness was unmistakable.The Kolsch Rules Everything Around Me was perfect for the 70-degree day as well.

Among the many good food choices at the brewery was a spicy fish salad, BBQ Prawns and tongue sliders. Even the pretzel bites with cheese and beer dip were exceptional. We could have sat there all day with those views and brews. But we were determined to see several more wineries  before dark and our ferry ride back to the city.

While New Zealand is known worldwide for its terrific wines (see the winners of the 2018 Melbourne International Wine Competition), Waiheke Island showed us craft beer has also found a home here too.