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Beer Pioneer

Cityscape caught up with the ‘Mother of New Zealand Brewing’ Tracy Banner, owner and head brewer at Sprig & Fern Brewery, on her 35 years in the brewing industry both in New Zealand and in England, and what she’ll be drinking this summer.

This year you celebrate 35 years in the brewing industry both in the UK and in NZ. What are some of the notable/biggest changes you’ve noticed within the industry during that time?
When I started in the 80s it was the bigger players/brewing giants and mainstream products. When I came to New Zealand in the early 90s the beer selection was very mainstream – you had your Steinlager, Rheineck and Double Brown. Myself and a handful of other brewers started the craft beer revolution. I went into a bottle store before I started working at Lion and bought some beers and found them to be quite thin and quite sweet. Twelve months after, I started working at Macs in Nelson and we started looking into craft and more flavoursome beers. Around that time Emerson’s and Harrington’s were proudly craft beers also. But craft beer really started to hit in the last 10 years.

What attracted you to the industry?
I left school as a 16-year-old and I had done well in languages and science, so I followed the science and worked in the lab of one of the brewing giants in the UK. I would analyse every aspect of beer you could think of. The company wanted me to further my education so they sent me to the local polytech for 2 days a week for 4 years and the rest is history. I’m still as passionate and driven about it after 35 years in brewing.

In the early days, what was it like being a woman in what was quite a male-dominated industry?
It was hard in the 80s. Men would stand there with their hands in their pockets watching me roll big 163-litre barrels; I had to roll and then upend them to get the sample out and then return them while the men watched. It was part of the job and I thought ‘Just get on with it, Tracy’. It wouldn’t happen today, due to health and safety, but also a lot has changed since then.

Tracy medals cc

You’re a pioneer in the New Zealand craft beer scene, having been dubbed the ‘Mother of New Zealand Brewing’ – how did you know NZ was ready for less commercial beer?
I guess it was after that trip to the bottle store all those years ago. I came from a country where there were lots of different beer styles. What has changed is the number of women who have moved from drinking wine to beer. People used to think beer was too bitter for women, but that’s changed.

And how do you like the title?
It makes me laugh – as long as they don’t call me the grandmother! No, I’m very, very proud and I have a nice medal that the Brewers Guild of New Zealand gave me as the first Honorary Member.

What inspires your Limited Releases?
I like to do styles we haven’t made before. When I’m developing a recipe, I’m thinking about the types of hops and malt we could use, I can taste it in my mind. I’m working on our next Limited Releases now, which will include our Harvest Pilsner [New Zealand’s highest awarded Pilsner with four golds in four years], a fresh hop Pilsner – we are about 20 minutes from the hops field so the hops are extremely fresh!

What’s the secret to making a killer craft beer?
It needs to be well made, with good balance and good drinkability. For me it’s being able to have a glass and then thinking ‘You know, I’d love another’ – not leaving a quarter of a glass behind.
What will you be drinking this summer? If this weather continues it will be our Pilsner and/or our Tasman Reserve premium lager, which is quite fruity with notes of passionfruit – it’s just a really beautiful beer.

Merivale Sprig & Fern Tavern
7 St Albans Street
sprigandfern.co.nz

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