By Parley Reynolds – MOA Asia Market Manager
Like many good stories, this one also starts out with a few beers…
On a cool March mid-spring evening in Shanghai, the MOA General Manager - Gareth Hughes and I were sitting outside the Hop Project on Dagu Rd enjoying a few brews. There was a beer tradeshow in town at the time, so we were soaking in the bustling Shanghai atmosphere and the chance to catch up with a few old friends. Most importantly we were waiting for the owners of M99 to meet us for a drink. M99 is a large craft beer retail chain based in the western Chinese city of Chengdu where I live. The owners Alex and Kite are good friends of mine and they soon appeared. A few more beers were downed shortly thereafter as they shared stories of their recent beer purchasing trip to California.
Both Alex and Kite make a point of traveling to the countries where they source their beer. We soon got to talking about a planned trip to NZ. Other than drinking a lot of great kiwi beers, they were interested in activities we could suggest for them to do while they were there. They wanted to do something beyond the usual Queenstown bungy, Hobbiton, whale watching etc. Being a keen hunter, Gareth suggested they come visit the MOA brewery and he could take them for a deer hunt. After showing the boys some pictures of his recent hunting successes, they were dead set keen on the idea.
The ideas kept flowing as fast as the beers were being poured. Rating himself as a bit of a brewer, Kite floated the idea of doing a M99 collaboration brew with MOA using some special NZ ingredient that would be attractive to their customer base. Sure, but what? Kiwifruit, cherries, honey? Circling back around to the hunting trip, Kite suggested doing a deer velvet beer. “Good for man” he said… I thought he was joking, but as I laughed and sipped my beer he was still looking at me with a serious expression. “Good for man” he repeated. I looked at Gareth and he shrugged his shoulders. I guess we had settled on a collaboration brew idea.
As it was going into winter in NZ we decided to hold off on the trip until summer, a much more pleasant time to go hunting and travel in NZ. Of course, it was also the best time to catch the deer while in velvet too.
Velvet is the soft furry stuff on the outside of the deer antlers before they turn hard. Male deer grow a new set of antlers every year to both how their dominance and attract females. They can grow up to 2cm a day! Wowee! Once they’re done dealing with the busy mating season, the antlers dry up and drop off as they wait around for the fun and games to start the following year. Deer Velvet is valued in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a way to balance yang deficiencies (too much yin and not enough yang bruh!). Don’t ask me what that even means… Spread over 2000 farms across the country, there are around 1 million deer farmed in New Zealand for venison and velvet. According to Deer Industry New Zealand market manager Rhys Griffiths, New Zealand exports of velvet to China doubled over the past year from $20 million to nearly NZD $40 million. I didn’t realize how popular this stuff is! It’s got to be doing something good for some fella out there!
Come January, with freshly issued visitor visas and their empty suitcases in hand ready to fill with NZ beer, I picked up Alex and Kite from Auckland airport. Even after a 13-hour overnight direct flight from Chengdu to Auckland they were surprisingly full of energy and keen to go out and try some local beers. After checking into the hotel, we found a nearby supermarket that was open until midnight. As it was 10:30pm we hurried down to the store and headed straight for the beer section. The boys were impressed with the selection that supermarkets in NZ and took their time to choose the best mixture of craft beers that the store had to offer. A young fella stacking the shelves called over to us “Hey, you know you guys are gonna get cut off at 11pm aye”. No, we didn’t, but cheers for the heads-up mate! Being 10:57pm we ran the checkout counter and were stoked to have made it in time. “I’m gonna have to check your IDs” the elderly woman behind the counter insisted as I pulled my wallet out to pay. Being in our mid to late 30’s we were quite taken back by this request but also sort of flattered at the same time. As she fumbled to enter in our birthdates into the system the clock struck 11:00pm when she finally finished. “I’m sorry, I can’t process this purchase, it’s after 11:00pm and I’m locked out of the system”. Gutted! I guess they take the concept of countdown seriously…
Being in South Auckland on a Tuesday night our options were limited. Embarrassed by what had transpired and with two distraught and thirsty Chinese boys in tow, I had no other option but to take them to the local TAB for a beer. The beers on tap were obviously limited to a few industrial mainstays of the NZ beer world but at least they got a beer along with an authentic welcome to NZ. It wasn’t quite Skycity but they had a fun time sinking a few pints behind the pokie machines while sitting next to a local character with facial tattoos and a warriors jersey. I suggested they were probably best not to ask for a selfie.
First thing the next morning we were on the morning flight down to Marlborough. Gareth and David Nichols, the head brewer for MOA, picked us up from our Airbnb just before lunch. After a quick stop for supplies were on our way up to Stronvar Station just out of Marlborough on the northern most tip of the Southern Alps. We met with our hunting guide Dave Evans who gave us a quick tour of his place and after an introduction to the history of the area and a breakdown of the health & safety protocols for the hunting newbies amongst the group (i.e. me and the Chinese boys), we were in the truck and on our way up into the valley.