The Smith’s NZ IPA Challenge is starting to rival the Malthouse West Coast IPA Challenge as a must-enter competition for the country’s leading brewers.
Perhaps it’s the Queenstown setting, the golf, the bus trips to visit to other breweries, or the ice hockey jerseys. Whatever the reason, getting on the podium with a New Zealand-hopped IPA at the annual mid-winter event — on June 23-25 — is a hotly contested affair.
Chris Dickson is the co-owner of Smith’s Craft Beer House, located upstairs in Queenstown’s Shotover Street.
The hockey jerseys are his thing, a connection back to Canada, where he grew up after being born in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“The hockey jerseys are a homage to where I’m from and it’s also about creating that team environment when everyone wears them.”
Dickson’s parents emigrated to Canada when he was baby and settled in St Thomas, located in the part of Ontario which is surrounded by America on three sides and is equidistant between Detroit and Toronto.
“In Ontario, you’re pretty much born into a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey,” Dickson says of the country’s national sport.
As young man, Dickson and some friends headed west. “We drove across the country until car broke down in Whistler of all places. The rest is history, I discovered snow and mountains.”
Dickson worked in construction during the summer months and bars over winter and it was there he met his Kiwi partner, Kiri. It was, he says, a “no brainer” to head to New Zealand with her and end up in Queenstown.
Sadly, he has left a part of himself in Whistler, where his brother, David, was killed in avalanche last year.
“Dave was an avid outdoorsman; he loved the mountains, he loved being outside. He died just before last year’s NZ IPA Challenge and on the inside of my jersey last year I had a little inscription to remind me of him.”
Dickson got into the craft beer scene through his Smith’s co-owner, Pascal Fillion, who previously owned Wellington’s Bin 44.
“I wasn’t really a craft beer fan when I arrived in New Zealand. Craft beer was emerging in Canada, but Whistler was like Queenstown used to be … a middle of the road domestic market. We were proud of our local beer, like Le Blatt Blue, Molson, Kokanee.
“When I landed in New Zealand, I did the first thing you do after being on a flight for most of the day, which is to reach for a beer – someone handed me a Tui and I couldn’t believe how horrible it was.
“After that, it didn’t matter what beer I tried, I was not a fan of New Zealand domestic beer.”
Dickson was drinking mostly Carlsberg when he joined Fillion to physically help build Smith’s.
“Pascal said, ‘this is never going to work if you don’t like craft beer’. So, during the construction phase he took me to Wellington and threw me into the deep end. One of first places we stopped was LBQ and they had Liberty Yakima Monster on tap and that was it. You know how it goes — once you have a great craft beer you ever go back. Nobody who ever switches to craft beer goes back. That was my turning point.”
Why, the question begs, is the bar called Smith’s when the owners are not called Smith?
“The Smith’s name encompasses everything we do — it’s artisan like a blacksmith, or gunsmith; it’s a throwback to that kind of job. Everything we do is handcrafted, Pascal and myself built the bar, all the food is made in-house, even the sauces and the beer – of course – is hand-crafted.”
The challenge for entrants in this year’s NZ IPA Challenge is to create an international collaboration brew. It’s part of Dickson’s plan to pitch the bar, and Queenstown, as a destination to a global market — especially the Australian market — when our borders reopen. It’s also a way of spreading the word about New Zealand ingredients to an offshore brewing market.
But mostly, the theme behind the Smith’s IPA Challenge is that it’s a holiday for brewers and their families; an excuse to catch some snow and relax over the quieter winter season.
“I’ve always billed this as a brewers’ vacation,” Dickson says. “And the jerseys are part of that. They’re like a concert merch — if you were there, you were there – if not, you missed out.”