New Zealand's own Beer Baroness, Ava Nakagawa

Although she claims to be a shy-type, Beer Baroness Ava Nakagawa is a familiar face in the New Zealand beer scene, and the hospitality scene in Christchurch. She owns a brewery that produces her Beer Baroness beers (and contracts for others, like the up-and-coming Southpaw Brewing Company run by her head brewer Cam Burgess).

Along with the brewery and Beer Baroness, Ava manages Pomeroy’s Old Brewery Inn and its delightful Bed and Breakfast, along with Little Poms Café. And, although she is all about beer and hospitality, Ava describes herself as “first and foremost a mumma”. She is a mother of two gorgeous young children, and she is a wife.

We started our chat asking Ava how she manages so many successful businesses and a busy family life. Her response was, “with lots of help”. Ava clearly values her staff and sees them as important to her success and the success of her businesses. She also comments that she has a great life. Her busy-ness has led to this and she doesn’t mind being stressed “in a good way”! That said, she is looking forward to the holiday shut-down at Pomeroy’s – don’t visit in the two weeks after Christmas. They’ll be closed.

Ava’s parents bought Pomeroy’s when she was 16 years old, and she soon started working a Sunday shift behind the bar. They had eight taps of Harrington’s beer. Ten years or so later, Ava nudged the family into branching out and putting Emerson’s, Three Boys and Tuatara on tap, “before craft beer was cool”. (Now, all of those cool-kids, besides Three Boys, belong to Lion Nathan or DB).

Ava credits a trip to Wellington, to Beervana in the old Town Hall, as being part of her beer epiphany. Yeastie Boys had just released Pot Kettle Black. 8 Wired Brewing had just started (and were the first to bring us a New Zealand hopped IPA). Those times gone by are a bit blurry – but it must have been around 2009.

We asked Ava if shifting the taps from Harrington’s, and branching out felt risky. “It’s still is a risky business – it’s still hard – hard going up against the bigger breweries and the money”. But, her parents were always up for the challenge. They had been offered taps by the big breweries (a practice where they install a beer tap and you guarantee to flow their beer through it) but were firm in their “freehouse” stance. And, Ava found herself captured by the excitement of the emerging craft beer community and “jumped on the wave, and never looked back”. She’s definitely proven herself a step ahead of the trends in Christchurch over the years.

The beer community had a long and wide reach at the time Ava jumped in – from Invercargill and Dunedin, all the way to Sunshine Brewery in Gisborne and beyond. We asked her about the reach now, and whether it felt like the community was localising? She comments that it’s changing, with the likes of Richard (Emerson’s) Stu (Yeastie Boys) and Søren (8 Wired) being the old guard now! Gone are the days where she goes to a beer event and knows everyone, “now I might only know a quarter of the people. It’s exciting and bittersweet at the same time”. Ava comments about how special that initial beer scene was, but also how amazing it is that it has grown so quickly.

We chatted about the challenges associated with the growth in craft beer, and Ava rightly notes it’s still just “a small slice of the alcohol pie”. There might have been growth in craft beer, but there’s not been much growth in beer overall. Her view is that this has led to more competition between craft beer businesses.

Ava says owning a brewery and a brand is hard work. It’s also hard to make money. Some days she’d like to be a contract brewer and just get an invoice at the end of the month. That might be less risky but she notes that contract brewing comes with its own challenges, not the least with people saying “oh, you’re just a contract brewer” and being less keen to put your beers on tap. Plus, lots of our New Zealand contract brewers have other, full time jobs!

The conversation about full time jobs leads to a question about all of Ava’s – and whether any of the challenges she’s faced in them have been impacted by her gender. It’s a hard question for many women to answer; generally, the people we work with will be great but we’re all confronted with curmudgeonly sexism from time to time. This is the case for Ava. She still gets the boring and old, “what, you’re in beer?!” question on a reasonably regular basis. But, she challenges that as part of breaking down the stereotypes. She’d like to think that the stereotypes, and the sexist advertising and the likes were getting better, but points to a few instances in the last year where breweries and brands have “forgotten themselves”. Her view is that the heightened awareness of the impact of sexism should lead to less of it (and, we agree).

Ava points to the recent work the Pink Boots organisation has done to get sexist branding and advertising off the market. Pink Boots is a community of support for women in the beer community which operates all over the world; Ava helped set it up in New Zealand as the founding Chair. With the birth of her second child, she handed over the reins to Lucie Campbell in Auckland (another woman with more than one job!). She’s looking forward to the future of the organisation and its reach growing. We had a brief chat about some of the amazing women in beer. Ava notes, “there’s a tonne of us”!

Ava’s own Beer Baroness brand has also helped to break down stereotypes, with her own face gracing the labels of her beers from the start. She comments that it was never her intention to have her own face on the brand and they’ve recently re-branded with the concept that every woman is a beer baroness. She’s looking to take a few chances with the new branding and send a few messages. (We hope to see women of all sizes and shapes, and colours and looks)!

We chat a bit about how challenging branding is and about beer sales. The Christchurch craft beer scene is dominated by Cassels and Sons Brewery and Three Boys Brewing. There are, however, a whole bunch of new bars opening which will add to the scene which is something Ava is looking forward to. She comments that Wellington is actually Beer Baroness’ biggest market. You can head to Goldings, Malthouse and Moon bar in Newtown (amongst others) to try one of her beers.

In terms of Ava’s future, it’s clear that what’s most important to Ava are her customers. She focusses on giving them a great beer experience and a great hospitality experience overall. The Christchurch Great Kiwi Beer Festival gets a mention – they are going to have a huge bar at the event. She’s also focussed on the Beer Baroness sour beer range.

In terms of the future of the beer community, Ava’s keen to see how some of the new breweries and brands settle in, and what happens in Auckland. We both agree it’s a huge market but we have no idea how or who will really crack it. The Hāpi Project also gets a mention. We both agree that it’s an exciting development for New Zealand hops.

There is a lot of fuel in the future to stoke the beery fire in Ava’s belly – long may it burn as no one wants a Christchurch without Pomeroy’s or a beer scene without Ava!

The final questions, for a bit of fun

What’s in the fridge and what are you drinking at home?

Ava doesn’t actually drink that much as it doesn’t mix so well with motherhood. But, one benefit of being the owner and manager of all things is that she gets lots of samples. There’s a Grapefruit Sculpin and a New Human from New New New (which she hasn’t tried yet), along with a bunch of others including some Souths Cider and some Hallertau.

What are your “beers you must try before you die”?

Ava’s response to this was a mix of beers she loves – Two Birds Taco – and, beers she’d love to try. Much to our surprise, no one has ever brought her home a Russian River Pliny the Elder. We comment on our recent delight in the Fork and Brewer/8 Wired collaboration – Barbed Wire. Ava missed out on buying a keg and promptly puts it on her list. Try it if you can.