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Nelson is the epicenter of one of New Zealand’s core industries (well, at least in the eyes of any beer fan): hop growing.
Nelson and the surrounding towns have lent their names to several hop varieties, including Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, Riwaka, and Wakatu. As such, I figured that the area would also have an amazing craft beer scene. After all, they do call themselves the Craft Brewing Capital of New Zealand.
Well… after having travelled to Wellington right after, which had one of the best craft beer scenes I’ve ever encountered in a small city, I think Wellington should get that name instead. That’s not to say that there isn’t some good craft beer in Nelson, but the title they have given themselves is a just a bit of stretch.
Here is my guide to best places to drink craft beer in Nelson:
The Free House
Let’s start with my runaway favorite craft beer bar in Nelson, The Free House. It was closed for Boxing Day on my first night there, but it was open on the second, and I was glad it was. This place has almost everything I look for in a good beer bar.
As you’d expect by the name, The Free House has a selection of rotating taps of beers from all over New Zealand since they aren’t tied to any one brewery. While there are only 10 taps and 3 pumps, it feels like the selection is even bigger due to how frequently different beers are tapped. On a busy day like when I was there, you might find two or three new selections added while you’re drinking.
There’s a huge outside yard with lots of places to sit, plus a tent, or you can also sit inside. Inside or out, the vibe is laid-back.
Their snacks are tasty & well-priced. This salami & cheese plate was just $12 NZD.
Thanks to their selection & dedication to serving the best beer, The Free House should be at the top of your list when visiting Nelson.
Sprig & Fern
Sprig & Fern is a brewery with several locations around New Zealand, though their headquarters & brewery is located near Nelson. There were two Sprig & Fern pubs in central Nelson, plus several more in the surrounding towns. On Boxing Day, it was one of the few open places. As a result, it was packed, but I dealt with it.
I managed to find a place to sit and drink and eat that was nowhere near the back patio. Although the patio looked nice, it had a live band playing Incubus & Everclear covers, so it wasn’t the most relaxing spot to sit. Again, New Zealand didn’t disappoint with its love of 90s music.
The beef, beer, and cheese pie I had was excellent, and the beer was decent. I had a flight of six beers including their IPA, Pale, Galactic Pale, Fern Dark, Porter, and American Pale. Since they brew their own beer, there are no guest taps.
Mac’s The Vic
Mac’s The Vic is part of a chain run by the brewery Mac’s. I went there after I had exhausted the beer options at Sprig & Fern. It was a huge space, with lots of inside seating options, plus a huge outside patio.
There was a large selection of beers, but like Sprig & Fern, they only offered their own.
Here are a few notes about additional places I wasn’t able to try:
Aside from the wine & beer tour I took around the Nelson area, I only visited bars within walking distance of central Nelson. Further away in Tahuna is The Bel-Aire Tavern, which looks like an excellent spot with a great beer selection featuring 27 taps, many of which are local.
The Urban Oyster Bar & Eatery features beer from the local Golden Bear Brewery, but it was closed for the holidays when I was there, so I couldn’t visit.
There is a beer & hops museum on the grounds of Founders Heritage Park, but it was closed as well.
Overall, the craft beer scene in Nelson was smaller than I expected based on their marketing & hop reputation. There are 11 breweries in the area, though they are spread out. While there is a “craft beer trail” to follow, it’s not the sort of trail where you can do an easy walking or bike crawl in a day and get to everything. I searched on Untappd & Ratebeer to try and find other bars with a similarly varied selection to The Free House, but the vast majority of bars in Nelson are either owned by specific breweries or aren’t beer focused. Bars owned by breweries are of course fine, but in my opinion Nelson needs more pubs like The Free House and The Bel-Aire Tavern if it truly wants to be a craft beer capital in addition to being the hop growing capital of New Zealand.
The good news is this is starting to happen. While I was finalizing this post, I noticed a new craft beer bar & shop in Nelson called Craft Beer Depot that just opened in May 2016. It looks like a great addition to the area, so hopefully the Nelson beer scene will continue to grow.
Do you love craft beer? Check out more of my recommendations for the best craft beer around the world!
Read below for all of my posts about my trip around the Pacific Rim!
A trip around the Pacific Rim – Introduction
OneWorld Business Lounge Los Angeles LAX review
Cathay Pacific Business Class Boeing 777-300ER Los Angeles LAX to Hong Kong HKG review
Cathay Pacific Business Class Airbus A330 Hong Kong HKG to Kuala Lumpur KUL review
Aloft Kuala Lumpur Sentral review
A layover in Kuala Lumpur – Street markets & Petronas Towers
Cathay Pacific Lounge Kuala Lumpur KUL satellite review
Plaza Premium Lounge Kuala Lumpur KUL review
Malaysia Airlines Golden Lounge Kuala Lumpur KUL satellite review
Malaysia Airlines Business Class Airbus A330-300 Kuala Lumpur KUL to Auckland AKL review
Air New Zealand Economy Class Airbus A320 Auckland AKL to Queenstown ZQN review
Queenstown Motel Apartments – Queenstown, New Zealand review
Queenstown, New Zealand – A Lord of the Rings tour
Day trip from Queenstown, New Zealand – Milford Sound
Queenstown, New Zealand – Skyline Queenstown
Craft beer in Queenstown, New Zealand
Queenstown to Franz Josef, New Zealand by bus
Hiking to Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
Franz Josef to Nelson, New Zealand by bus
Fellworth House – Nelson, New Zealand review
A beer & wine tour through Nelson, New Zealand
The best craft beer in Nelson, New Zealand
Nelson to Wellington, New Zealand by bus and ferry via Picton
A nerdy day at Weta Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand
Exploring the museums & parks of Wellington, New Zealand
The best craft beer in Wellington, New Zealand
Wellington to Auckland, New Zealand by bus
New Year’s Eve in Auckland, New Zealand
A rainy New Year’s Day at the Auckland War Memorial Museum
A rainy day at the Auckland Art Gallery & New Zealand Maritime Museum
The best craft beer in Auckland, New Zealand
Emperor Lounge Auckland AKL review
Malaysia Airlines Business Class Airbus A330-300 Auckland AKL to Kuala Lumpur KUL review
Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur review
A layover in Kuala Lumpur – Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia & Jalan Alor
Malaysia Airlines Golden Regional Lounge Kuala Lumpur KUL review
Malaysia Airlines Business Class Boeing 737-800 Kuala Lumpur KUL to Hong Kong HKG review
A visit to Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong for dim sum
A rainy day in Hong Kong – Science Museum & Kau Kee noodles
Hong Kong – Victoria Peak & more great food
More dim sum in Hong Kong – Din Tai Fung & Dim Sum Square
A day trip to Macau from Hong Kong
Grand City Hotel Hong Kong review
The best craft beer in Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific The Cabin Business Class Lounge Hong Kong review
Cathay Pacific The Bridge Business Class Lounge Hong Kong review
Cathay Pacific Business Class Airbus A330-300 Hong Kong HKG to Osaka KIX via Taipei review
A layover in Osaka – Ramen, sushi, & exploring the city
JAL Sakura Lounge Osaka KIX review
JAL Business Class Boeing 787 Osaka KIX to Los Angeles LAX review