When Rhyme x Reason rolled up its big doors for the first time on an industrial street in Wānaka in June 2017, it was the first brew pub in town.
Now, it might be one of a few — but it remains one of a kind.
The brainchild of head brewer Jess Wolfgang and her partner and co-director Simon Ross, Rhyme + Reason has become one of the community hubs of the small resort town in the middle of the southern alps.
But while most of what they’ve done so far has been for the people within those mountain ranges, RxR is now spreading further afield — much further.
This isn’t how it was meant to happen. Jess and Simon were going to move to Byron Bay, in New South Wales, and open Rhyme x Reason there. They both loved Wānaka, having spent many winters skiing the slopes and hanging out with family, but they had never spent a summer there. Luckily, before leaving for Australia, they did — and discovered there’s a lot more to Wānaka than its skifields, with the small town becoming a hive of activity under the glorious summer sun. And so NSW’s loss became Wānaka’s gain and they never really looked back.
The couple — partners in business and in life — are a match made in brewing heaven. Jess is a brewer, Simon is an engineer. The result is a brewery that is truly transforming the way beer not only gets made but also arrives to the customer.
And while they’re at it, they’ve also created a neat community with their brewery, attracting groups of all kinds to their regular events, from local musicians to poetry slams and comedy clubs — there really doesn’t seem to be much the RxR team won’t try.
The same “give anything a go” attitude applies to their beers. Sure, their most popular is still the Joy Rider Pale Ale, an honest does-what-it-says pale ale that has remained a consistent favourite among the RxR crowds. But they also dare a lot — like with the Yeehaw Habanero Saison which Jess says was the first beer to “raise eyebrows” and draw attention to RxR. It was meant to be a one-off but it accidentally developed a bit of a cult following, with people protesting when it’s not on tap.
More than a brewery
Drive over to Rhyme x Reason on any given weekend and you’ll invariably find a street party vibe. There’s usually a food truck parked outside, people hanging in the outdoor area (which includes an old ski lift chair as part of the seating plan, of course), and a local musician playing inside.
There’s hospo day every Tuesday, with discounts for the hospitality industry, and on the last Sunday of every month you get to “Hop Across the Block”. The initiative is the brainchild of Kate Mitchell, RxR’s marketing whiz, and it started when fellow brewery Ground Up opened their brew pub almost right across the road (where they had already been brewing for a while). Instead of seeing them as competition, RxR is stoked to have GU as neighbours, bringing even more beer lovers to their yard. With “Hop Across the Block”, you pay one of them and get three samples from each brewery.
Inside RxR, there are three distinct spaces: the taproom, the production brewery and the manufacturing business. Yeah, you read that right. Unhappy with the canning systems available in the market, which were too costly and required too many people, Simon got his engineering hat on and came up with MicroBrewTech, his own canning system, that is now being sold to breweries across New Zealand — including Duncan’s, Te Aro and Wanaka Beer Works.
The little brewery that cans
You see, Simon and Jess like to do things right. Jess is passionate about her beer recipes (her Crema Di Limoncello milkshake kettle sour recipe took five years to perfect), and Simon knows how to improve on a technology that isn’t quite there yet.
They’ve recently released their first line of cans, with all their core range, and even beyond the sleek label design, there’s a lot more than meets the eye about these cans.
Simon’s canning line, called Phoenix, is responsible for all the cans going out to the world. As an engineer, he saw a gap in the market for a DIY machine.
Simon had previously made bottling machines and is able to keep costs down by doing everything himself. There’s no team of engineers and departments with overheads. And buying locally eliminates the import fees. He believes he is using the best pneumatics available with the best seamer tooling.
“He does all the design work here, and hundreds of parts that he has designed, plastics and a lot of the frames are done in Oamaru. He works with a colleague in Melbourne who helps with all the programming.”
Jess believes bottles are well on their way out, as cans are “easier to recycle and, thank goodness, sustainability is becoming a bigger thing”. Plus, you can get more branding on a can, which is an added incentive for breweries to make the move.
In Wānaka in particular, cans are definitely the preferred way to drink. “Here, everyone is always doing outdoor activities. You don’t want to hike into a hut with a bunch of glass,” Jess points out.
“‘Adventure-ready deliciousness’ was a tagline we tried a few times,” Kate says. “We want our beer available wherever you want to drink it. A lot of people in Wānaka want to drink it on top of mountains or in huts.”
For now, the core range is available in cans. But in the future, well, they’ve got pages and pages of plans: from beer ideas that will reach anyone in the country to community events for their Wānaka regulars, there’s a lot brewing (sorry!) inside the roller doors.