Christopher Barber, owner and brewer at Zeelandt, is the youngest of four boys. He grew up on a vineyard in the Kumeu River area of Auckland, New Zealand, learning about wine from his older brother, Philip (of Petane Wines). He remembers already developing an interest in wine at 11 years old. He learned about food, coffee and beer too and says, “it all went from there.”
For his brother, Philip, wine became the choice, but for Christopher, it was good, traditional, local craft beer. He noticed that in New Zealand, “there was good wine selection and development but beer was lagging behind.” He loved Belgian beers and recognized that “there was something missing in New Zealand; there was a lack of choice. There were so many good beers that were all imported.” As a passionate supporter of local businesses, he “wanted beer that was locally made.”
Family is important to the Barbers, and Christopher was inspired by his Grandfather, who was an entrepreneur. From a young age, he wanted to follow in his Grandfather’s footsteps, and own a business. His great, great Grandfather had also started a brewery in New Zealand. Naturally, he ended up combining his dreams and passions to open Zeelandt.
He first had the idea in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2003 that he decided to go to the UK to work in some breweries and learn the trade. He ended up at St. Austell Brewery in Cornwall, then worked in a few different English pubs, on boats in France, and even picked grapes in the Mosel with his brother, Philip. When he returned to Auckland, a new craft brewery had opened up called Hallertau Brewery. At that time, it was still small, and Christopher got a job there as the only employee alongside the owner, Steve Plowman, where he gained 2 years of experience. He then decided to pursue formal education in the industry, and went back to the UK to complete a 6 month Brewing Diploma in Sunderlan. Christopher comments that the schooling was “really good to bring it all together,” and it added the finishing touch to his hands-on experience.
He was ready to start Zeelandt, and looked for land in Auckland, but found it was so expensive. His Dad and brother had recently expanded the Petane vineyard property and suggested Christopher put the brewery there; he agreed that Hawke’s Bay would be a great home for Zeelandt, for a few reasons. Besides being near to family and them being able to work together, Christopher recognized the growing eclectic food and wine scene in Hawke’s Bay. The weather and climate were draws, and Eskdale reminded him of his Kumeu River childhood. It was 2011 when he decided to go ahead; as Christopher was still working in Auckland, he commuted back and forth every weekend to build the business; during this time, he also met his wife. She was flatting with Sarah, who ended up marrying his brother, Philip! He made the official move and opened Zeelandt in the spring of 2012. He and Luciana married in 2014.
History and legacy is important to the Barbers, and the Zeelandt name reflects that. It honours the legacy of New Zealand, and ties in the European influence of beer that Christopher loves. Zeelandt means “sea land,” and was the original province in Holland that Able Tasman sailed from when he discovered New Zealand.
Christopher’s labels are edgy and cool, and they all reflect the history and origin of each beer style. The Good Thief, for example, is his Pilsner, and the name and art on the label tell the story of a brewer from Munich who went to Bohemia, stole some yeast, and invented Pilsner.
One thing that amazed me about Chris was that the first official brew he ever did on his own was large scale; it was the first brew Zeelandt did. He didn’t start small in his garage like people might assume. He had more of the ‘go big or go home’ mentality and used his experience at other breweries to jump in straight away. Other than a “hop volcano” explosion, which he assures me is part of the learning experience for many brewers, it’s really gone well for him!
Christopher spends his time at work doing a variety of things, as everything is done on site. Some days are spent bottling, some labeling, and some he is out delivering to his clients in the Bay, in his beautiful 1976 Kingswood ute.
As beer isn’t quite my specialty, I asked Chris to give me a basic overview of his day when he brews a beer, which he does about 5 times a month. It’s basically a full day that starts at 6:30am and entails heating mashed barley to get sugar for alcohol, which has to go through several stages, including the addition of hops for flavour, different yeasts for style and fermentation, and cooling and stabilizing over a few weeks. For the full details of a Zeelandt brew day, check out this article: A Brew Day with Christopher from Zeelandt.
By the end of the 3 to 4 week process, the beer is ready to be bottled, labeled and put in cases, all of which is done by Chris and Tom at Zeelandt.
Christopher describes brew days as “intense days,” that are “quite cool, because you’re working together and coming out at the end and hitting your targets. It’s a good feeling.” He also appreciates working with Tom, and says “with two guys you can focus on little things and get to really know the brewery.”
I was amazed at the whole process, and how complex and scientific it actually is. His brewery is quite cool, and if you visit, you can see all the equipment inside. He sources his barley largely from New Zealand, and will bring in hops from wherever he needs to in order to stay true to the style of beer he is making. The grains aren’t wasted after use either; some lucky cattle are getting the remainders!
Christopher’s mission statement for the brewery is simple. He wants to produce “full flavoured, true to style beer” for consumers “both in Hawke’s Bay and throughout New Zealand.” He also expresses how important it is for him and his company to be known as “good people,” and says, “we want to be commercially good to deal with, good in the community like my grandfather, and good environmentally. We want to do good things with what we’ve got here, because if you want to take from the trough you’ve got to put something back in.” He sees the value in being involved in the community and is part of the recently formed Esk River Care Group that protects the biodiversity of the local area, which is one reason why he’s so excited to get the new Zeelandt Beer Garden open next summer. It will double as a Cellar Door for Petane Wines, also in the family and on the same property.
Christopher says, “the Beer Garden will be our way of telling our story. We don’t want to be behind closed doors. It’s something we can use to show people the family and the story, the vineyard and the brewery.” He knows that for him, it will also “bring more fun into the work,” and he sees it as a positive change to the way they do business. “Rather than just send product out, bring people here,” he believes. Chris knows that many share his sentiment that “there’s nothing better than relaxing and having a beer,” and the Beer Garden will be a place for exactly that, and trying all the styles!
Zeelandt produces 6 beers in the core range, but also adds seasonal beers each year, because Christopher enjoys trying new ones, like “Mary,” for example, this year’s Christmas beer named after his grandmother. His core range focuses on the European classics, because they’ve been “made for centuries. They’ve got it down. There’s a reason why over hundreds of years people come back and drink them time and time again.” He’s even looking into a low-alcohol craft beer once the Beer Garden is open, which will be great for him, and the restaurants that stock his beers. I asked Christopher if he had to chose a favourite, which one it would be. His go to is the Helles Jerry Rig Lager, but it depends on the weather, and his mood too.
Challenges Christopher faces include many of those that come with running any small business. Being small, and doing everything on site, means he has to keep a lot of plates spinning at once. Thinking about brewing is the easy part for Christopher, as that’s where his passion lies. Thinking about the business side has been a learning curve. There are multiple side issues that come in as well, like health and safety, food safety, managing employees, and sales and marketing costs.
How to sell different beers in a market that sometimes just wants one mainstream style can be challenging. He says, “I thought, ‘beer sells itself. Wow, it’s going to sell itself in Hawke’s Bay.’ It does not happen that way!” He also notices that “there’s not the terroir and weather and all of that to talk about with beer,” like there is with wine. The story is different. How much to make of each new style has been something Chris has had to experiment with, because he’s running the brewery at full capacity and doesn’t want to have any particular brew sitting in a tank for long.
He made some interesting comments comparing beer and wine sales. People are looking for bargains with both, but Christopher points out that “people will spend a lot of money on wine, not necessarily beer. There’s a real price cap and bracket for beer. With wine you notice the difference between a $12 bottle and a $27 bottle. With beer do you notice between $8 and $12? Maybe not.” He also points out that “wine can age. Beer you’ve got to get it out the door and into the fridge.”
Owning a craft brewery has taught Christopher some valueable lessons. As a husband and father to two young children, Chris is still learning to balance family life with work, which so many of us can relate to. He and Luciana have Oliver, age 4, and Sofia, age 2. He admits “the business requires a lot, but you have a family,” and that family is the most important thing. He also says it’s tough to find free time for himself, but that he’s learned the importance of trying to enjoy what he’s doing and bringing enjoyment into it, and that’s another thing he knows the Beer Garden will do. “It will bring the people and the fun to us, and it will be an important part for our well being and the business.”
Is it worth it to Christopher now that he’s living the dream he’s had for so many years? “Yes, absolutely,” was his answer. He’s had his times away from the brewery doing sales when he had more employees. As soon as he was away for a while, he had a realization. “I really missed running the brewery and just loved getting back into it” as soon as he got home. He loved “getting back into the beer and the recipes and the brew house.” It really is his passion.
He also acknowledges his wife, Luciana, and his brothers and parents. “This would not happen without the family,” he knows.
Although the Beer Garden is scheduled to open next summer, the brewery is open already. Head to Zeelandt this summer in the beautiful Esk Valley, and you can try some samples and buy in bottles or flagons. Christopher is there Monday to Friday, 9.00-5.00, and he’s also open Saturday afternoons 12.00-4.00. Check out his website at zeelandt.co.nz, for more info on the beers, and follow him on Instagram @zeelandt_brewery to stay in the know for hours, new brews and special offers!