NZ startups flourish with rising beer tourism

New Zealand Craft Beer Tours' 'brew bus'

Beer tourism is becoming big business, with international visitors spending $242 million last year on sculling and sipping local brews.

An increasing number of startups is catering to their interest in brewery tours, beer tastings and beer festivals.

An NZIER report on behalf of the Brewers Association of New Zealand (BANZ) found there were 218 breweries this year compared with 65 in 2012.

BANZ executive director, Dylan Firth, says beer tourism could be increasing in response to the rising number of breweries.

One of New Zealand Craft Beer Tours' groups in X
One of New Zealand Craft Beer Tours' group brewery tours.

New Zealand Craft Beer Tours co-founder Katy Martley says beer tourism has taken off in the past two years and this has been reflected in her business' rapid growth since its launch in November 2017.

It offers tours to many craft breweries within six regions in New Zealand and trips to beer festivals via its brew buses.

It operates across half of the country and her original expansion plans are two years ahead of where she thought they would be. The startup has gone from just one tour guide to eight and "we need more," she says.

Ms Martley says she and another investor launched the Bay of Plenty-based company after observing the interest in small breweries and the popularity of brewery tours in the US.

While the company services many international visitors,  the number of domestic tourists has also been a surprise.

Ms Martley says even non-beer drinkers are interested because they enjoy the tour’s taste-testings and education of each brewery'’ “Kiwiana” stories.

“People are really getting into it.”

Hey Brew founder Scotty Ogilvie says beer tourism is a term that didn't even exist until recently. 

His company, which launched early last year, offers group tours to five Christchurch craft breweries via one 12-seater minibus.

He says before he started there weren’t any craft brew tours and he wanted to be in at "the beginning of this beer tourism craze."

Beer festivals 
Lea Boodee, a director of the annual MarchFest beer festival hosted by Nelson Venues & Events, says the number has shot up in the past four years because more breweries are opening.

“It’s hot in the industry,” she says. The Gisborne Beer Festival is debuting on April 20.

MarchFest’s past two festivals attracted record attendances of more than 4000 people since launching in 2006. Mrs Boodee says this is expanding 20% a year, though bad weather affected gate sales this year.

About 60% of festival-goers are visitors, including foreigners who come just for the event. 

Keith Preen Craft Beer Tour of New Zealand's onset recording
Keith Preen Craft Beer Tour of New Zealand's comic character Keith Preen recording an audio tour outside craft brewery The Laboratory.

Audio tours
Keith Preen Craft Beer Tour of New Zealand, which launched last December, offers audio tours of six Christchurch-based breweries.

The tours are a series of comedic recordings explaining each brewery's history, beers and processes. Visitors can freely access the audio online while drinking at the breweries.

Co-founder Shay Horay plays a comic character called Keith Preen, who conducts the recordings with each of its breweries. 

Kris Herbert, the other co-founder, says the idea stemmed from noticing a demand in beer tourism and being personally interested in location-based storytelling. It’s mostly for “beer geeks” and tourists, she says.  

Breweries want audio tours because it drives traffic to their premises and helps visitors develop a connection with the brewery.

“Most of these places have fascinating stories.”

Keith Preen plans to move into other cities, she says. 

The Brewers Guild of New Zealand launched a website two weeks ago called New Zealand Ale Trail, which is designed to map out every brewery in the regions.

This helps breweries located outside of the main cities to become more visible to tourists, executive director Sabrina Kunz says. 

“The purpose behind it is really beer tourism.”