In the backstreets of Wellington, nestled somewhere between Willis Street and Victoria Street sits a small but famous beer bar.
Home of the finest craft ales in the city, Little Beer Quarter is a secret gem, hidden from view of the main thoroughfare of the outside world, a place of respite. If you enter those doors, passing through to the other side, you find a cosy hideaway. That’s exactly how owner Stacey Walsh likes it. Although her name now commands deep respect and earns chucked chins of ‘chur bro’ from beer mavens around town, like her own bar Stacey is low key yet truly splendid.
When you meet her, her eyes gleam as bright as her warm blonde hair. That smile conveys a sense of both deep sincerity and gentleness with steely determination. Stacey (along with her band of merry gal pals Lydia Suggate, Maria Boyle, Maura Rigby and Kelky Ammundsenand who between them all run Little Beer Quarter and Basque) are the real deal when it comes to bringing that beer, bitches.
"When you meet her, her eyes gleam as bright as her warm blonde hair"
I wanted to find out how one such lady finds herself running one of Wellington's best bars (the team of self professed “beer bitches” - not just Stacey but her friends as well - also have Beach Babylon, Bebemos and Basque) in cahoots with her old friends. So, over a pint and fries on a Wednesday night, Stacey and I sit down and unravel a little Walsh history.
“My mum is definitely a feminist. She wouldn't like that word but she absolutely is."
Stacey’s great grandfather on her mother's' side came to New Zealand in the 1920’s. Her grandfather was born on the ship coming over from Ireland. Stacey’s parents met in Wellington but she was brought up in Dunedin.
Growing up, in her family of five (Stacey is a twin), Stacey’s found a strong female role model in her banker mother. “My mum is definitely a feminist. She wouldn't like that word but she absolutely is. She’s always worked at banks. If she was born in this day and age, she might have been a politician. She’s very opinionated Raeleen Walsh is!” Stacey says. As a child, Stacey’s father worked for the TAB when and after being made redundant got a job with BP where he still works to this day. “They both refuse to stop working” Stacey half laughs.
“If I imagine them now, I can see them all with a book in their hands” Stacey explains. “Trixie Belden (author of girl detective mysteries), Enid Blyton - The Far Away Tree was a favourite."
Stacey acknowledges that her family background (her father is Irish-Catholic from Taranaki, her mother is Polish from Dunedin) strongly have influenced her world view. I ask if she was brought up Catholic “Sure was” she chuckles. “I wasn’t friends with a non-Catholic until I was about twenty. It’s a really close community in Dunedin. I had a group of really tight friends growing up so we all just hung out together. When I started working at a Supermarket, I was shocked that other people weren’t. Catholicism to me was always a culture rather than a religious thing. So now I’m good at the quiz questions that have biblical references.”
Stacey’s family are also passionate readers. “If I imagine them now, I can see them all with a book in their hands” Stacey explains. “Trixie Belden (author of girl detective mysteries), Enid Blyton - The Far Away Tree was a favourite. My mum kept all her old books from childhood that smelt like mothballs and I would read them. I wasn’t allowed to read the Babysitters Club or Sweet Valley High. Mum took one look at it and declared it absolute rubbish.” The Walshes also are a strong sporting family.
Stacey would play with her brothers growing up, out in the back garden. Her other childhood passion was the Smurfs. I ask if she got on with her brothers “Yeah, in that ‘they would make me eat grass’ way” she says. Long family trips are also a strong memory for Stacey.
The Right Course
When it came to school, Stacey first attended St Joseph’s and then high school at Kavanagh College. Like many schools, Stacey was aware of a bullying at college so she made an active effort to keep her head down. “Not sticking my hand up too much, keeping under the radar, not getting too many A’s. Just not wanting to stick out. It’s stayed with me today. I don’t tend to be like “Ta-da - here I am!” While Stacey did well in English, she struggled through Maths.
Half way through seventh form, she started at Teachers College, following her friends who had applied. “It wasn’t for me. I finished but I never did placements and never registered.” Still in Dunedin, Stacey pivoted and did a short course in social work, thinking that was what she wanted to do. While she didn’t know what she wanted to do, she was enjoying life, wearing rugby Jerseys drinking Speights and enjoying living out of home at 19. “My family on both sides have high tolerances. For me, drinking is a really emotional thing. If someone is happy or sad. If someone is dancing or not. If they’ve eaten? So much is part of it.” Stacey would often find herself in the position of carer, taking on looking after her friends. “It was like I had the natural instinct to look after people. And that’s vital of hospitality. Maybe it’s a Polish/Irish thing!”
Moving to Wellington
At 22, Stacey decided to move to Wellington with her friends Lydia and Maria. “When we came to Wellington, a Friday night was like a New Years in Dunedin. We were rather starry-eyed. It was great to go out in a city where we didn’t know everyone” Stacey says. “It was, and still is, like the New York of New Zealand - everyone has a different story, a different upbringing.”
Stacey’s first job in Wellington was at Countdown in Johnsonville. However, after seeing her friend Lydia, who was working at the Malthouse, Stacey quickly decided she wanted to work at the bar. “At the start, I couldn't even carry three plates!” There Stacey met many influential figures, including the famous Sally - future patroness of Mighty Mighty bar. “The Malthouse was its own animal. Sean Murrie who started it was passionate about craft beer. It was one of the only places in the city. Everywhere else was DB and Lion. The Malthouse had Tuatara, Emersons and Mammoth - those brands are now grand-daddy but then they were babies back in 2000. It changed my life really.”
Travel and a new beginning
Stacey worked at the Malthouse for five years. She then traveled to Australia and Scotland before returning at age thirty-one to Wellington New Zealand. “Wellington has a real community feeling that is missing from other cities like Sydney. I don’t drive so I can walk everywhere. I love that I go to beer events now and someone who was a glassy once now has his own bar.” While she had been away, Stacey’s friends had opened Beach Babylon.
After a bad break up, Stacey was down and out on her parent's couch in Wellington (they moved to Wellington four years before Stacey had originally moved). “After a while, I thought ‘Bugger that - I’m gonna go do something’,” Stacey says. She took a job at Beach Babylon before her friends and her decided to open a bar. “I had the bar experience” she explains. “I didn’t know a lot. I’d never been big in management. But sometimes you just have to start doing something.”
“After a while, I thought ‘Bugger that - I’m gonna go do something’,” Stacey says"
The group found the perfect small space on the back of Edward Street where Watusi bar had used to be. “We didn’t want anything too much. But then we found this place. I hadn’t been to Watusi much but it had potential. People said, “Oh I don't know - there’s not much foot traffic.” It ended up being the best thing about it. Everyone then pitched in to do it up - there was no million dollar fit-out - and people’s interests were on the line.”
A Little Beer Quarter
Since it opened LBQ as it is now affectionately called has become a twenty-four hour job for Stacey which she operates flawlessly with her right hand man Dan Hargreaves - her talented bar manager - alongside to help out. “Recently I was asked to go and brew a beer.” Stacey says “It’s a great community the craft beer community - and Craft Beer Capital - and the hospitality crew are tight. There’s more collaboration and less competition like there is in other cities. You hear how bosses treat their staff.”
“It’s a great community the craft beer community - and Craft Beer Capital - and the hospitality crew are tight"
To unwind, Stacey heads to the gym or goes out with friends. “There are a lot of events in Wellington - there is always something to. I’m an extroverted introvert. I do a lot but I need to have quiet time or I go a bit nuts.” Sometimes downtime is literally just lying on the couch at home watching Netflix and having a beer with her flatmate Shannon. Stacey also enjoys walking around the city, checking out where a new barber shop has maybe opened on the street corner or a new coffee shop.
Stacey admits there are challenges about being in the industry. From time to time, it can be lonely. Her business partners now are having families so Stacey is on the front line. “It can be tough - there’s heaps of hard work involved.”
There’s also battles with the local alcohol laws. “I feel a bit sorry for my cousins on Courtney Place - I wish was a bit more organised so it wasn’t the bars problem that young people are out drunk” she explains. “The pressure is always on the bars to close early. There needs to be more for young people to do. We are following our liquor licences but young people are coming in drunk from pre-loading. The advice needs to be ‘Eat Dinner - Don’t skull a bottle of Fat Bird at a BYO.’ Our customers at LBQ are responsible and know their limits. We don’t feel like we have forums with the council where we can talk directly to the council. If Wellington wants to be an amazing al fresco city, we need help to do it within the letter of the council laws. The upsides, she says, outweigh the downsides, though.
"The advice needs to be ‘Eat Dinner - Don’t skull a bottle of Fat Bird at a BYO.'"
How does Stacey handle being a girl beer boss and feminist in what has been traditionally a mans world? “It’s a great industry to be in as a strong woman and a feminist. The majority of our customers are women, beer drinking or not. There are other strong women like Sarah Miekle - head of the Wellington Culinary Events Trust - and when I went to the launch of Wellington on a Plate 2016 I looked around Shed 6 and was surrounded 60/40 by great women in hospitality. I want to hire women because their CV looks good - not just because they are women. I don’t have to change my ways for one sex or the other. I do have to change my ways for one personality or another.”
Stacey admits she has a great deal of empathy for her staff, because of some of the negative experiences she has had in hospitality, such as not being able to speak to customers unless they spoke to her first.
“It’s a great industry to be in as a strong woman and a feminist. The majority of our customers are women, beer drinking or not"
Stacey says she now feels like a Wellingtonians - although she still supports the Highlanders. “I get homesick for it. Great coffee, great food, art, sculpture, the waterfront. I have such great customers at LBQ - and they get what we’re doing.”