Garage Project is covered in black and purple spray paint — street art by locals who’ve made the structure their canvas. Then there’s a gravel drive, a roof over what used to be the filling station, and a gaping maw of twin roll-up doors that reveal giant stainless steel fermenters wherein the famed Garage Project brewers are using yeast to convert sugar into alcohol. The garage, on Aro Street, is in the heart of Wellington — a quick walk from Cuba Street, the Waterfront, anywhere else. It used to be a Jag workshop owned by Sybil Audrey Marie Lupp — a Kiwi who, in 1950, came second in the New Zealand Road Racing Championship. She raced Jags and fixed them up, a revolutionary career for a woman in that era. The boys of Garage Project forge onward, capitalizing on that revolutionary spirit and an endless well of creativity to make the best craft beer in New Zealand.
“We have a custom-built hot rod poker that can go to 300-400 degrees, and we used to flash-caramelize beer in people’s glasses in front of them. We’ll do beer slushies, beer jellies. We’ll make up some beer foams with nitro on the spot,” Jos Ruffell, one part of the three-man team leading Garage Project, says. “A recent beer we’ve brewed is a flat white beer, where we actually get two beers brewed to be blended. So we’ll pour a shot, like a coffee shot, into the glass of the Russian Imperial coffee stout, and then we’ll top it up with a nitrogenated lactose cream ale as the milk.”
The place is like the Weta Workshop of beer — independence and creativity in all things. They began in an original manner, unsurprisingly, with 24 beers sold over 24 weeks. They would keg a new beer and put it on tap, downtown, every Tuesday at 5:00 p.m., for six months. Once the keg ran dry, the beer was gone. Word spread quick, lines formed, and by the end of the 24 weeks, if you didn’t get down there within a half hour of the keg being tapped, you’d get no beer. “We were just holding our breaths and crossing our fingers and hoping and praying that people would respond to what we were doing,” Ruffel says. “And they did.”
These days, brewing is more consistent and the beer’s more readily available, but the independence and creativity continue. They do speciality beers with local bands, for art festivals — even the New Zealand Ballet. Labels are made by local artists — they’ve got 12 in their cadre. They still brew experimental beers in half kegs. “We’ll brew eight different beers in a day,” Ruffel tells me. Innovation is still essential. It’s hard to find their beer here in the States (they’re hoping to change that soon), but it’s been brewed in Norway and they’ve sent cans to Scott Base in Antartica.
Ruffel hands over a can with a sci-fi theme. “This is brewed based on a friend’s science fiction Universe. Greg Broadmore, he’s based out of Weta.” Broadmore’s fictional world is in Venus, so, naturally, “We tried to brew a beer to really capture the intensity of what a beer on Venus might be like. To do that, we brewed it with lime leaf, lemon grass; it’s got some coriander seed and some grapefruit peel along with some really citrusy American hops.” I try a sip, and it’s completely unique, and delicious. “At the end of the day what we do is make beer,” Ruffel says, “and it should be fun.”