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COVID aftershock won’t rattle beer scene

If a craft beer scene was to bounce back from a global pandemic it would be in the resilient New Zealand city of Christchurch as lessons learned through past adversities steel its resolve.

Ava Nakagawa is better placed than most to be the barometer of a nation in terms of where New Zealand’s beer industry is at as the country enters a world-leading level of post-COVID normalcy.

The craft beer pub manager and owner of a brewery and a licensed cafe has most bases in the hospitality scene covered and it’s for that reason Beer & Brewer wanted to hear her thoughts.

Initially we thought it could be a gloomy story – after all, Nakagawa’s businesses are all based in Christchurch – the city that has been on its knees more than once in the past decade.

There was the 2011 earthquake, and the ongoing disruptions of a monumental rebuild and a plateau in population. Then came the aftershock of the mass shooting in March 2019 that once again turned the world’s eyes to this very English of New Zealand cities.

And now COVID-19 to top it off, where Christchurch’s role as the gateway to South Island tourism was sealed off from international travellers and its people were homebound in almost total lockdown for many weeks.

Surely now was the time for a beer baroness to throw her hands in the air and give it all away?

Not Ava. Not in Christchurch. Her and the city have seen it all before. And that fact is why Nakagawa is confident they can once again rise up as people’s freedoms are handed back to them.

“It’s almost like, because we’ve been through things like this before, we were already prepared for it,” Nakagawa said, who manages Pomeroy’s Old Brewery Inn, and owns Little Poms licensed cafe and the Beer Baroness Brewing Company.

“Talking to Sabrina Kunz (Executive Director) at the Brewers Guild of New Zealand, it sounded like the Canterbury beer and brewing community navigated the COVID period better than other areas of the country – because we had already done lockdowns during the earthquake and were used to quickly adapting business models. We had already experienced the likes of government subsidies for wages. We knew hardship and we knew the importance of resilience.”

When restrictions eased to “level 3 and 2”, Pomeroy’s and Little Poms pivoted to takeaway only businesses. Nakagawa said it was an exciting period of “thinking on your feet and diversifying business at a drop of a hat”. They are both now operating without restriction and “business is great”.

The Beer Baroness, which Nakagawa established in 2012, went from a mainly keg only model to packaging what beer they had in stock and in tank and quickly opened up new distribution channels. Conversations are now being had to enhance their package presence across their range of beers.

“There has been such a strong campaign here to support small and independent businesses,” she said.

“There was a sense of ‘is that attitude just going to be lip service?’ It’s all good to say you’ll support local, but are you just going to return to the old ways of eating at McDonald’s and drinking Heineken?

“But the people have been out in force and we’ve been full. Last week (when New Zealand’s lockdown period ended) was like the Christmas silly season we were that busy.”

However, Nakagawa did admit it all felt “bigger this time” compared to past adversities, due to not knowing how long and how severe COVID’s rumble would be, through this very shaky part of the Shaky Isles. She looked to the fallout in parts of Europe and the Americas and wondered whether that would happen in New Zealand as well.

“But at the halfway mark of the total lockdown period, when we saw the progress we were making as a nation, the confidence started returning.

“Our previous experience taught us there was no point hiding away. If we were to capitalise on the positive health situation the country found itself in we knew we needed to fight on.

“Now, as a city, there is a sense that we are completely all in and committed to seeing a better Christchurch born again.”

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