Sarah and Jason Johnson took the leap from being full-time teachers to running a brewery and beer bar – then the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
The couple opened Hopaholics brewery and bar in Greymouth just one month before the first lockdown in 2020.
“It was really terrible, but it was also kind of good because it supercharged our e-commerce side,” Sarah Johnson said.
“We were quite busy over lockdown but not as busy as we would have been at the bar, but that was OK.”
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After 18 years as a biology and chemistry secondary school teacher, Johnson was tired.
“I wanted a challenge and I wanted a change. My husband said you’ve got to have a plan B. I was at a beer festival and I thought it’d be great to get paid to go to beer festivals. Beer starts with B and brewing starts with B, I think my plan B is to open a brewery.”
Craft beer was a growing trend, but with limited supply in Greymouth, she knew it was a niche market she could tap into.
The Johnsons had been brewing beer using kits since their university days in Wellington and Otago, but when they moved to Greymouth, Sarah Johnson began experimenting with hops that grew wild around the region.
When she began looking for a career change, the couple signed up for an all grain brewing intensive weekend course at Massey when two spots became available at the last minute.
“That was it. The universe was telling me ‘woo the stars are aligning’. It was fantastic I learned heaps,” she said.
Johnson got a year’s refreshment leave from her job and signed up for Co-Starters – a Development West Coast program for aspiring entrepreneurs. Realizing she needed a bar manager’s license, she started volunteering at the RSA while researching the regulatory requirements for setting up a brewery.
Commercial rents in Greymouth were too high for their start-up, so they decided to build a brewery in a shed on land they owned in Karoro, just south of Greymouth.
They bought 25-litre and 50-litre brewing systems and got to work, but it quickly turned out to be uneconomical and way too small, so they bought a 100-litre system from Dunedin.
Testament to the “really lovely collaborative” brewing industry, the owner of Woodstock Brewing Co in Hokitika, who was opening a bar in Greymouth, offered them the back room for free.
They initially intended to be off-licence only, but within a week opened as a beer bar from 4pm to 7pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. A month later the country went into level 4 lockdown.
Johnson spent the time at home perfecting her hazy beer.
“Oh my god everyone wanted hazy beer. After lockdown the bar went berserk … the graph of our takings was an absolutely straight line.”
She struggled to keep up with demand.
“It was just crazy. I thought, ‘I can’t keep doing this we need a bigger brewing system, and we need a bar manager’.”
They got a 350-litre brew system and employed a bar manager to run the bar, still opening three nights a week to sell the brewery’s eight types of beer.
Business “dropped off heaps” when the country went into the red light setting in January, “and then once Covid got into Greymouth it really dropped off”.
Locals helped them through, Johnson said.
“We love our locals. It’s the people who come here all the time who have kept us going over this hard time – still coming in every week buying six packs or buying them on our subscription scheme. It makes the world of difference.”