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Hop farming around the Nelson region dates back to the 1840s after European settlers found the plains perfect for growing hops. Their legacy is an enduring industry, with credit due to government hop breeders who developed the world's first seedless hop in Riwaka in the 1970s.
The hailstorm that hit some local hop gardens back in December will not dampen spirits for Marchfest, which celebrates the annual hop-harvest festival. But "New Zealand's Best Little Craft Beer Festival" is just one reason beer-lovers should consider a trip to beautiful Tasman Bay. Nelson doesn't tout itself as New Zealand's Craft Brewing Capital for nothing.
For a beer tour that is fun, flavoursome, low carbon-footprint and no threat to your driver's licence, we recommend biking Tasman's Great Taste Trail, the 177km-long cycle network looping from Nelson to Kaiteriteri and everywhere in between, including all stops that follow below. Allow at least couple of days to explore if you can.
Bike hire (including e-bikes) is readily available from numerous local bike tour operators including the Gentle Cycling Company, which has a perfect Marchfest tour.
Unsurprisingly, it's not hard to find good beer in downtown Nelson. Your first port of call ought to be the Free House, an independent pub housed in an old church surrounded by pleasant gardens. Local beer and ciders are a constant offering across 11 taps dedicated to New Zealand brews.
Another essential stop on your city pub crawl is one or both of the Sprig & Fern taverns, taprooms of the longstanding eponymous local brewery. They offer a bamboozling array of their own brews including several delectable pilsners. There are three more Sprig pubs in the outer 'burbs of Tahuna, Stoke and Richmond, plus several more further afield.
Pizza-lovers and petrolheads should cruise into The Workshop, a garage-themed, retro-vibe brewpub with good guest taps in addition to their own range.
Those with long memories will recall that for much of the late-20th century, Kiwi beer-drinkers were subjected to mass-produced brown fizz with names like Red, Brown and Double Brown. That's until 1981 when Nelson's McCashin family set up the country's first microbrewery in an old cider factory in Stoke, and produced a naturally brewed lager, Mac's Gold.
The McCashins remain a mainstay of Nelson's brewing scene, producing beer and cider in the original factory under the Stoke and Rochdale brands. See, smell and taste what they're up to on scheduled daily brewery tours or a visit to the taproom bar and cafe. Our pick of their tipples is their sessionable Stoke Hazy.
Up the Moutere
A champion of good beer, the Moutere Inn is also one of New Zealand's oldest pubs (1850), located in the heart of the original hop-lands. It remains refreshingly ungentrified, with hardy carpet, timber leaners, pool table, historical photos and hairy motorcyclists, along with honest fare and a 13-tap array with a strong local focus. It's a spectacular spot for an al fresco session but beware of sunburn and the possibility of stranding yourself after one pint too many. (Been there, done that.)
Māpua Wharf's Golden Bear
Māpua village is a hospitality hotspot centred around a wharf tucked up the estuary just shy of the Tasman Bay coast. The must-visit here is Golden Bear, a stalwart owned by former Californians Jim and Anne Matranga. Recent expansion has taken this brewpub to the next level, complete with 40 taps and a sun-drenched patio. The Bear's Seismic IPA and LA-inspired Mex food is highly recommended, and do check their website for regular gigs.
Ale & arty Motueka
Further west is the Motueka, a vibrant coastal town surrounded by fruit orchards and hop farms. At its eastern end is Toad Hall, a rustic cafe and groovy grocer where Townshend Brewery relocated after moving in from the Moutere hills a few years ago. Crowned 2014 champion brewer by the Brewers Guild of New Zealand, Martin Townshend does a particularly good line in English-style ales, often available on handpull. Toad Hall's garden bar is an atmospheric spot to sample his beers, or fill a flagon at the onsite taproom.
This tiny townlet just beyond Motueka lends its name to famed Riwaka hop, the cult classic of Aotearoa's crafting brewing scene. It's also home to the historic Riwaka Hotel, which has recently emerged looking flash-as from a year-long renovation and now presents a paddock-to-plate menu and 23 beers on tap.
Riwaka is also home to Hop Federation, where you can fill a flagon (Red IPA recommended). While you're there, you'd be crazy not to cross the road for a pie from Ginger Dynamite cafe, and luscious fresh fruit and icecream from the neighbouring stall.
The Great Taste Trail runs out around here, but just over the hill is glorious Golden Bay. Here you'll find one of New Zealand's most beloved brewpubs, the Mussel Inn, complete with eclectic clientele, creaking timbers, composting toilets and a rambling beer garden with a brazier. Their wholesome meals are best washed down with a pint of Captain Cooker, an amber lager infused with mānuka. A must-do for the dedicated beer-lover; check their website for upcoming gigs and events.
If humanly possible, time your visit for Marchfest at Nelson's cutesy Founders Heritage Park on Saturday, March 20. (Note that the park is also home to the Hop & Beer Museum, which you may wish to visit at a quieter time.
Marchfest sees a dozen breweries from the top of the south mash in with Waikanae's North End (arguably New Zealand's finest brewery, IMHO), Wānaka's Rhyme X Reason, New Plymouth's Shining Peak and Lower Hutt's Abandoned Brewery. Festival-goers are promised special brews yet to pass the lips of the general public. A Brew Zone demo area will satisfy the geeks, wannabes and other sundry enthusiasts.
Cider and wine drinkers are also well catered for, as are foodies, who can feed-up from a horde of food trucks.
As if all that weren't entertaining enough, there's an all-day musical line-up featuring The Eastern and up-and-coming Auckland band, Racing, among others. A dedicated Kids Zone should keep things seemly.
A beer tour by e-bike
Want it all and want it now? Combine Marchfest with the Gentle Cycling Company's three-day Hop Harvest E-Bike Tour departing March 16. Escorted by local beer guy Peter McGrath, the tour includes six breweries and a very special visit to a hop farm and private micro-museum.
Check out the NZ Herald Hot Deal for a $100 discount off the tour price, and ask about the Abel Tasman National Park add-on.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newfinder.co.nz and newzealand.com