Brew Hui Meets: Kelly Ryan

The great (and very-unfortunately late) comic Mitch Hedberg once said: “You have to start a show strong and end a show strong. You can’t be like pancakes: all exciting at first, but by the end you’re f**ken sick of ‘em.”

With the Brew Hui project drawing to a close, it’s time for my strong finish – and so in the penultimate post, I sit down and play Fan Boy with a personal hero.

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At the end of 2013 – when I was wrapping-up my last silly project – I wrote about the fall and rise of brewer Kelly Ryan. The year had been a monumentally tough one for Kelly, full of loss and upheaval; and in my piece, I bestowed upon Kelly the highly-inconsequential honour of being my Brewer of the Year – not for anything he’d actually brewed, but rather for the manner in which he’d stared adversity in the face and then kicked it in the balls.

When planning the structure of the current project – and yes, there was a structure; how dare you suggest otherwise – I knew that I had to finish the Brew Hui Meets series with Kelly. It just felt right; like a consonance to resolve the inevitable dissonance.

Kelly’s story had been told before – even from the horse’s mouth – so I didn’t want to spend our hui lingering on biography; but it’s worth running a quick highlights-reel, if only as a refresher…

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Kelly is, first and foremost, a scientist. He studied under none-other than Professor Jean-Pierre Dufour – JP, a man deservedly honoured by Emerson’s via a seasonal Belgian ale bearing his name. Classes with food scientist-extraordinaire JP were the stuff of legend; Kelly described ‘labs’ where bottles of Duvel and Chimay would be produced, and students tasked with detecting various aromatics and then comparing their results to gas chromatographs.

As a talented JP protégé, Kelly was destined to be a brewer. His first break came at Tui, where he learnt and practiced the science of brewing; then Fyne Ales and Thornbridge, where he learnt and practiced the art. Then came the triumphant return to New Zealand, where he yinged Luke Nicholas’s yang – before taking up his first Head Brewer role at Good George, a gig overshadowed by the declining health of his Dad, Olympian Pat.

The months following his Dad’s passing were spent, amongst other things, floating a brewery with his Taranaki whānau – when, at the beginning of 2014, an opportunity knocked for Kelly to become the sole mash-paddler at blossoming Wellington brew-pub Fork and Brewer.

As I walked up FnB‘s stairs for the first time since Kelly took charge of brewing operations, my stomach flipped with a flutter of butterlies. It wasn’t nerves – I’d met the man before, and he’s the antonym of intimidating – but rather pure, child-like excitement. When I’d last written about Kelly, he was in flux – to borrow his own words, a brewer with a brewery problem – but one short year later, here he was: at the helm of a microbrewery, in the most important craft beer market in New Zealand.

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Ask anyone in the know – anyone – for a list of those brewers with the most potential to shape the future of New Zealand’s brewing landscape, and Kelly Ryan will almost certainly stand on their podium. With Kelly at the kettle, the Fork and Brewer quite genuinely have the pedigree to build a Galbraith’s-esque dynasty – with fewer and fewer taps dedicated to ‘outsiders’, and instead dedicated to Kelly’s own creations.

If the management of FnB have got their heads-screwed-on – which they clearly do, given that they hired Kelly in the first place – they’ll soon (if not already) realise that their point of difference in the Wellington scene is swiftly moving from their envy-inducing number of taps to the quality and range of their in-house product. Just as beer nerds travel to Galbraith’s for a pint of Bob’s – supped whilst watching Sam Williamson at work – so too should visitors flock to the FnB for a pint of honest deliciousness produced by a resident prodigy. Kelly isn’t just an Ace up FnB’s sleeve, he’s a fu*king nuke – one who’s been sitting dormant for far too long, just itching to blow shit up.

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Sitting in the shadow of the fermenters, we ate, nattered, and sipped our way through Kelly’s wares – all of which were, of course, universally outstanding. I’m reticent to name favourites, since they were all superlative-inducing – but I must make mention of Tainted Love, a Sour brewed in collaboration with Gigantic Brewing and Wild Rose Brewery.Those of you playing at home may recall my unabashed distaste for Sours; so it’s a credit to Kelly’s brewing excellence that, after sampling Tainted Love, the tide has finally turned in this regard.

(Kelly’s top tip for the Sour-shy: just get the first sip out of the way. Kelly reckons that the first sip sends your palate into shock, since it wasn’t what you were expecting – and thus you really can’t judge whether you like Sours on the basis of that first rinse. Getting the first sip out of the way – as quickly as possible – hits the ‘reset’ button on your palate; at which point you’re ready for a second sip, and to make a call on whether it’s to your taste.)

I couldn’t sit down with a man of Kelly’s breeding and not ferret some homebrewing tips; and so, with as much subtlety as a punch in the face, I hit Kelly up for some desparately-needed help – which led to a discussion about the development of his extraordinary palate, and those infamous labs with JP:

Walking back down those stairs and on to bustling Bond Street, I was filled with a sense of journey’s-end – not only for the Brew Hui project, for which active duty was now over; but also for Kelly, too. He’s had a bloody topsy-turvy couple of years, but now has a place to hang his hat – and, more importantly, a platform from which to pounce.

Kelly is home. And all is well.

Twitter: @jasegurney | Facebook:

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