By Brian Skaggs
It’s six o’clock on a crisp, clear evening, four days after the winter solstice. I’m practically skipping into Aro Park, right at the northwest end of Palmer Street in Wellington, New Zealand. The mellow, lilting, almost nonexistent, wind – severely atypical in the city aptly (yet embarrassingly to Wellingtonians) described as the “coolest little capital in the world” – greets me with bright, green, sticky aromas of hops just dumped into a boil.
Walking past Aro Valley Preschool, grinning from ear to ear while wishing upon one of the myriad stars dotting the deep azure sky, elation and anticipation begin spilling out of my mouth as sticky, primordial drool. I’m just following my nose to the cellar door adjacent to possibly the most creative, imaginative, progressive, and simply straight-up fun breweries/wild wineries in the brewing world: GARAGE PROJECT.
I was incredibly lucky to spend a couple hours with co-founder Jos Ruffell at the GP taproom, on the bright side of Aro (AHH-row) Street across from the ‘dark side’ gas station-turned-Jaguar mechanic garage (correctly pronounced GARE-uge)-turned-brewery. He also invited me to their eight-year-old Wild Workshop a little over a kilometer’s walk downtown from Aro Street the next day. There are so many cool and unique things happening at Garage Project that it’s nigh-impossible to talk about them all. Many other articles about GP and their outstanding beers have been published in the twelve years since GP was founded in 2011. Although much GP beer love is contained in our beer review companion piece, this article will (mostly) focus on fermentation innovations in the old printing press building that’s the home of GP Wild Workshop.
Yeah, well, we do things a little bit differently around here.
Jos, like many Kiwis, is a master of understatement. His quote above was the answer to a flabbergasted question about GP’s rampant utilization of Brettanomyces yeast – anathema to ‘normal’ winemakers, who avoid even setting foot in breweries that use Brett – to ferment grape juice in the Wild Workshop, but these words might as well function as one version of The GP Creed. For the last half-decade at least, GP has released at least fifty and even as many as eighty-two new beers per year in addition to their ever-expanding ‘core’ lineup/recurring beers that I’ll (extremely) conservatively estimate at sixty-one.
Just imagine my wonder/dismay/liver pain when I walked into Arrowtown Wine Store’s beer cooler to discover there were STILL seventeen GP beers out of the forty-five on their shelves that I hadn’t had the pleasure of trying!
This astounding range of fermented beverages wouldn’t mean much if they weren’t good. GP’s beers aren’t merely good, though; they are sensational. Outstanding! Although it runs counter to the Kiwi way of not being perceived as a tall poppy, no serious discussion of the (already-ridiculous tall poppy) concept of ‘best brewery in the world’ could omit GP from its rankings.
Jos, brewer Pete Gillespie, and Pete’s brother Ian launched GP in 2011 by achieving one in a long line of seemingly unbelievable brewing accomplishments: brewing twenty-four beers in twenty-four weeks on a 50L brewhouse (that’s less than half a barrel). After expanding twenty-fold to a 10-barrel brewhouse less than two years later, and an even bigger system not long after that, GP moved their office space, plus some new brewing equipment, into the Wild Workshop.
Initially, GP thought about opening a second brewery in the Martinborough wine region, about eighty km northeast of Wellington. Jos told me they ultimately decided to remain an urban brewery, based mainy on their deep admiration of Brussels’ Cantillon.
The Wild Workshop has three levels and contains about thirty percent office space, with some of the first floor and a bit of the second dedicated to administration, (top-notch) art and design, and a few dogs. Since my visit, some of the barrel-aging area of the ground level has been converted into a cellar door open Friday and Saturday afternoons. Jos anticipated that some of the front office space – along with a bit of the car park in front – might be renovated into a garden in front to grow varied beer ingredients.
Whā and Weirdo
The majority of the second floor is beautifully strewn with all sorts of sizes, shapes, and selections of vessels, segregated only by being ‘clean’ or ‘dirty.’ They’re all happily aging alcoholic beverages made from fermented grains or grape juice. There are normal-looking oak barrels – truly, as Jos said, from ‘everywhere around the world.’ Some of these American and French oak barrels held wine at one point and were obtained from wineries all over New Zealand. Others held bourbon (from the U.S.). Some held Madiera (surprisingly, from Madiera). One American oak barrel even held tequila for nine years in Mexico. Then there’s the open-topped oak foeders distinguished by numbers written in Te Reo Māori (whā=four).
What about ‘Weirdo,’ a stainless steel tank containing nine hundred kilos of pinot gris juice fermenting and aging on top of a ton of sauvignon blanc skins? Clay amphorae from Spain, so difficult to move around/so easy to break, earthquake-bolted to the walls instead of buried in sand or earth (give GP time, though – I’d put money on some ending up underground)? Jos told me that the barrelmaster – hired after a very brief (failed) period of time where GP attempted to let the microbes rule the barrel room while they tried to be casual and hands-off – had been given the afternoon off to look for a house. Even with all of the accolades and awards, GP is still run by real humans who truly care about other humans.
The third floor loft is pretty much taken up by a coolship – a shallow baking pan-shaped fermenter with loads of surface area to quickly cool wort so that it can get inoculated by wild microbes. The coolship had been utilized to trial a few spontaneous ferments (‘spon’ according to Jos) before my visit by opening the second-floor window during cool Wellington nights below 5° C. Unfortunately, according to Jos, these initial spons were a bit too sour after picking up a little too much sourdough yeast and Lactobacillus from a nearby bakery. Since my visit, though, the coolship has produced commercial beers like Random Acts of Kindness and Chance, Luck, and Magic that, I would imagine, are stunning expressions of Wellington terrior.
It Takes a Lot of Great Beer to Make Great Wine
The genius GP brewers do have plenty of spon experience with their Oh What a Lovely Day. Let’s Go Out and Pick Some… series, where yeast and bacteria living on flowers picked off of trees, bushes, or flowers spontaneously ferment a golden wort. Jos poured me a sample of their second spon brew made from flowers picked off the tarata (lemonwood) tree out of a stainless tank. Lovely complex tart lemon, sour apple, and yuzu flavors with solid but subtle tannic structure in this almost-bottled beer combined to make …Pick Some Tarata a intriguing sour to eventually enjoy at home.
For essentially every grape harvest since opening, GP has co-fermented beer bases with pressed sauvignon blanc or pinot noir juice. Sauvin Nouveau and Chateau Aro taste complex, wonderful, and not quite like either beer or wine. The combination of pinot noir from Escarpment Winery in Marlborough with a Pilsner base, released as Rosé de la Vallée, is the most stunning fermented beverage I have ever encountered. Savoir Faire?, fifty-one percent beer and forty-nine percent sauvignon blanc juice, skins, and stems, was released as part of Firestone Walker’s Terroir Project, where seven breweries made a beer/wine hybrid with grapes picked within 162 km of their brewhouse.
Not content with merely blending beer and still wine, though, GP also experimented with combining beer and sparkling wine. Utilizing a Belgian yeast strain in concert with heartier champagne yeast and the enzyme amylase to dry out the beverage by catalyzing complex carbs into more yeast-edible simple sugars, Pas de Deux, a co-fermentation of pinot noir from Marlborough’s Nautilus and a GP Belgian strong blonde wort followed by eighteen months of sur lie bottle aging, is just another example of their creativity and innovation. Hops on Pointe Grande Cru, another beer/sparkling combination (with the Royal New Zealand Ballet) that had been aging sur lie since 2016, was finally released in November 2023. The sparkling/beer project is clearly a devotion to the artistry of fermentation and is by no means a cost-effective move in an industry that considers a month-long lager ferment an extravagance.
Not content with merely blending beer and still and sparkling wine, though, GP decided to try their dexterous hand at making wine on its own. In true GP fashion, absolutely nothing about their Garage Project Crushed line of wines could remotely be considered standard winemaking protocol. Using the barnyard-smelling oenophile archenemy Brettanomyces as the only yeast to ferment chardonnay? Absolutely (Sacrilege or Fields of Brett)! Riesling and Gewürztraminer, co-fermented on their skins, with wild yeasts, in an amphora? Why not (Never Have I Ever and Sinister Bend)! Natural wines, made in the pétillant naturel style where the juice is bottled before primary fermentation is finished, sometimes even with a hint of Lactobacillus, to give some unpredictable fizz and tartness to the wine? Of course they are (Fun Juice, Devil’s Punchbowl, Fairy Bread Rosé)!
In the six years since its beginnings, GP Crushed has ballooned into a massive operation, churning out tens of millions of cases of wine in a facility that’s at least as large and automated as Cloudy Bay just across the Cook Strait in Marlborough.
I kid! Check out their sole wine press, taking up at least an eighth of the southwest corner of the second floor!
Collaboration and Inoculation
Although GP owns this flash basket press, they don’t currently lay claim to any vineyards of their own. Along with Nautilus, Escarpment, and Palliser Estate, GP collaborates with Alex Craighead from Nelson’s Kindeli and Don wineries, one of the main natural winemakers in New Zealand.
In fact, collaborations in the fermentation industry worldwide make up a large chunk of GP’s DNA. GP has released twelve collaborations with American brewers titled The Hāpi Project since May 2019. Brewed around GP’s Hāpi Festival (‘hāpi’ is Te Reo Māori for ‘hops’) in the (Southern Hemisphere) autumn, Canton, MA’s Trillium, Paso Robles, CA’s Firestone Walker, Torrance, CA’s Monkish, Richmond, VA’s The Veil, Seattle’s Cloudburst, and Inglewood, CA’s Three Weavers have all brewed New Zealand hop-centered beers with GP. The past few (Northern Hemisphere) springs have seen co-brewed hazy IPAs from GP and San Diego’s Modern Times show up in Southern California. They’ve even brewed a Reinheitsgebot-defying beer with Germany’s Bitburger and Ōamaru, NZ’s Craftwerk breweries called Verbotene Früchte (‘forbidden fruit’) with sour cherries, vanilla, and cacao.
Yet it’s not just breweries that GP joins forces with to bring good beer into the world. Hunnybee, a wheat farmhouse brewed with lavender honey, was brewed from the ‘hive mind’ of GP and the truly excellent Palm Springs via Portland, OR/Auckland band Unknown Mortal Orchestra and is named for the fourth track on UMO’s 2018 album Sex & Food. Allbirds, the merino wool shoe company begun in Wellington/currently based in San Francisco, released a limited-edition GP shoe (with metallic shoelaces) at the same time they got together and made WLG, a golden ale that (presumably?) gets its name from Wellington’s airport code. Even Nelson’s Proper Crisps have collaborated with GP to make the perfect IPA/potato chip pairing, with Proper potatoes included in the Proper Crisp IPA malt bill and hop powder flavoring Proper’s collab crisps.
A quick glance at the vibrant, varied, and stunning bottle and can art in the above photos and in our accompanying GP beer review illustrates GP’s dedication to collaborating with Wellington’s – and increasingly the rest of New Zealand and the world’s – creative arts community. More than one hundred different illustrators, typographers, tattoo artists, painters, graphic artists, and graffiti masters have designed can, bottle, and logo magic for GP, ironically leading to an easily identifiable and unified GP style pattern many breweries with one or two artists might kill for. GP is so dedicated to defining their graphic aesthetic of ‘from many comes one’ that every label on their monthly FRESH series of IPAs is designed by a different artist. GP even published The Art of Beer, a coffee table-style book compiling over 100 of their labels with additional gorgeous art divulging initial sketch-ups, helpful diagrams showing hidden messages, and glorious magnifications of intricate details, in 2019.
The collaboration Jos seemed most excited about during our talk, however, was with the New Zealand government. GP is intimately involved in a project to isolate and characterize single yeast and bacteria species present in their spon fermentations. They’re specifically interested in examining whether brewers can manipulate fermentations by adding specific bugs to chew up different complex sugars present in wort at different times during the process. If GP succeeds in identifying altered expression of certain starch-chewing enzymes (amylases, glucosidases, invertases, etc.) in novel yeast and bacteria, they could revolutionize not just fermentation, but any process dependent on sugar hydrolysis (baking, biofuels, or possibly even pharmaceutical synthesis).
I want my GP!
These studies, along with the demanding schedule of brewing and releasing a novel beer practically every week, has led GP to refocus their distribution. In an excellent article by Matthew Curtis published at Good Beer Hunting in June 2017, Jos discussed opening a taproom/brewery in the United States. In June 2018, however, Jos told me that US domination is a little farther out on the horizon, and with the worldwide COVID pandemic that began in March 2020, it’s realistic to guess GP beers will not be on US shores any time soon.
The few GP beers that were distributed in the States back in the mid-twenty-teens were delicious, but GP was never comfortable with the limited beers available in the U.S. representing the immense depth and breadth of their astonishing range. ‘Our main focus is the New Zealand market,’ he said (to my tremendous dismay), ‘and Melbourne (Australia), with a population similar to New Zealand [Melbourne around four million; NZ around five million]’ would utilize a much easier Trans-Tasman distribution center. Lucky Melburnians living from Brunswick to St Kilda in central Melbourne can even get same-day bike delivery on in-stock GP beers!
In addition to exporting beer to Melbourne, GP planned on opening a satellite brewery in Victoria. Unfortunately, COVID got in their way. Their collaborative spirit allowed them to make an arrangement with Hop Nation Brewing to brew a few of their core beers at their Mornington Peninsula brewery in late 2020, giving those lucky Aussies more access to GP wonderfulness.
With all of the joyous complexities and raucous experimentation happening at Furness Lane’s Wild Workshop, it might surprise you that GP strives towards a singular goal – the true version of the GP Creed – when it comes to the beer drinker. “Our main goal is to make people happy when they’re drinking our beer,” Jos emphasized. That’s obvious at any festival where GP is pouring – you might get a blend of two (or three) beers that look like a sunrise, or a hot rock in your beer to caramelize sugars, or even a beer that tastes like the white bread/butter/100s and 1000s (sprinkles) Antipodean oddity called fairy bread. You’ll also taste a seriously delicious beer whether at a festival or any place you’re fortunate enough to track down a GP beverage.
At the end of the day, no matter what side of the equator or date line you’re on, don’t you just want to be happy too? Garage Project’s beers (and wines)(and beer-wine hybrids) will do that for you.
Crisp Wellington wind,
Hāpi days! Garage Project,
You’ll try something new.