Sunday 30 March 2014

In Hot Water

I was standing ankle deep in what felt like near boiling water that was being produced by the hot springs beneath the sands at Hot Water Beach. I was contemplating two things, the first was that I was potentially standing on the mouth of an underwater volcano that could very well erupt at anytime and engulf me within its magma-caked maw. The second was that I'd seen a sign pointing to a brewery a few miles up the road and that I'd really like to investigate whether or not they were any kop.

After whiling away a couple of hours on the beach, soaking in the New Zealand sun Dianne, her family and myself hopped in the car and headed towards the small town of Whenuakite, home of Hot Water Brewing Co, the latest addition to a small holiday camp that opened in 2006. My first thought when pulling up to the modestly sized taproom was how much it resembled those of the breweries in Fort Collins, Colorado that made me fall in love with beer in the first place. We were in a location that felt to me like the middle of nowhere so to come across this little brewpub was a little like discovering a verdant oasis in the middle of a dry and dusty desert.

They had several beers on tap including four of their own and a few guests. I immediately tucked in to some samplers including the pleasantly refreshing Golden Steamer Ale and the robust yet drinkable Walker's Porter. The beer of theirs that really piqued my interest however was the delightful Kauri Falls Pale Ale. Hot Water Brewing choose cans over bottles for their off sales and feel so passionately about this particular receptacle that even their branded glassware is shaped like a beer can. My pint of pale ale produced aromas of kiwi fruit, limes, gooseberries and passion fruit. New Zealand hops can range from being juicy and tropical through to being grassy and a little prickly and this particular beer combined these different flavour profiles to great effect.

Flavours of sweet, smooth passion fruit, mango and spiky gooseberries fill the mouth as the bitterness builds over a backbone of malts that feel like they aren't quite sweet enough to support these big hop flavours. Then just as quickly as it builds this bitterness washes away leaving you longing for another sip and at a sensible 5.2% ABV it's a beer that demands that you have another after you've finished your first. I left with a six pack of this beer but not before I'd tried a few others that were on tap.

I'd heard a lot about Hamilton's Good George brewery mostly thanks to the fact that they co-produced one of my favourite beers of 2013, the stunning Shnoodlepip which was brewed along with Burning Sky Brewery at the Wild Beer Co in Somerset. Their signature IPA was pouring today and again it was another NZ hopped, well balanced beauty of a beer that had a certain tang to it that strongly reminded me of some of the best Kernel beers I've had. This was a 5.4% ABV beer which by my own standards isn't that strong but it went down like a four percent-er and I could have sat around drinking it all afternoon but shadows were starting to lengthen and so we retired back to our campsite in the small seaside town of Hahei where we were staying that weekend.

It was our last night in the gorgeous Coromandel region of New Zealand's North Island and we were heading for dinner at a nearby restaurant called the Church. I was pleasantly surprised by the range of beers that had taken up residence at the foot of their wine list with bottles on offer from the likes of 8 Wired and Epic breweries. Earlier in the day at Hot Water Brewing I had been impressed by a beer from a brewery called Liberty which from my short time in NZ seemed to be the one brewery that was on every beer geeks lips. That beer was their C!tra Junior pale ale, the juicy, citrus heavy American hops shining like a grapefruit-shaped beacon in the sea of New Zealand hops that surrounded me and now I was drinking their Sauvignon Bomb, a homage to the beautiful Nelson Sauvin hop. This beer had a huge malt platform of bread and caramel flavours to support the immensely bitter quality of this revered hop. Eventually, after I had taken the time to work out this beer I was getting lime juice and gooseberries in spades, the vinous quality helped cut through the fat of the chorizo I was eating and the light fruitiness mingled beautifully with the accompanying clams. 

My thoughts drifted back to Hot Water Brewery and then to this restuarant in its remote location and I thought again of my oasis in a desert analogy. This was so very wrong. I had wanted and hoped to find good beer when I was in New Zealand and here I had found several breweries producing world class pale ales without much effort. It turns out that I wasn't lost in a beer desert at all but was in fact happily wandering around a lush, sub-tropical rainforest with rich pickings hanging low for beer lovers like me.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Why I'm going to #EBBC14

The 27th and 28th of June will see the fourth annual European Beer Bloggers Conference which this year is taking place in Dublin, Ireland. A quick look at this years registered list of attendees shows me that, disappointingly there are currently less than half as many people attending this years conference than there were at last years fantastic event in Edinburgh.

I can understand that travel and hotel costs as well as the 95.00 Euro (refundable) fee to attend the conference might make this tough for some to get to but I want to take an opportunity to try and convince as many of my fellow bloggers to attend as possible. Last years conference was a total hoot, I made a lot of new friends, ate some fantastic food and drank a metric shit-ton of beer. Importantly the conference seminars were incredibly useful and I came away from Edinburgh feeling both enthused and refreshed. Then, using the knowledge I'd gleaned I went on to double the number of hits my blog was getting over the past twelve months. It's an incredible opportunity to meet and befriend like minded people who you may already talk to regularly via channels such as Twitter but that's not the same as getting shitfaced with them in a great pub in an unfamiliar town, that builds a special kind of camaraderie

Some of you may be put off by the fact that this event is sponsored by two of brewing's corporate giants, Guinness and Molson Coors but I say to you; put your prejudices to one side, give them a chance to show you what they do and afterwards if you're still not convinced, use your blog and the knowledge gained to educate and inform your readers. I, for one am incredibly excited about having dinner in St. James' Gate, I'm not a Guinness drinker but this is a brewery steeped with history and to have a dinner there should be an unforgettable experience. 

This years Beer Bloggers Conference promises to be a festival of great beer, good food, informative, useful content and new friends. I had my doubts about attending too but when I sat and thought about last years event I decided I had to be there. If you register before the 31st of March then you pay a discounted registration fee of 95.00 Euro which is refunded when you get there* (* The refunds are first come first served, by my calculation there are about 30 stipends left). You are required to write two blog posts about the conference but the organisers haven't stated a required length or subject for these posts so even a photo of me unconscious after having fallen into a maturation tank full of Guinness would probably suffice for one of those. Plus you get to take part in one of my favourite events, a live blogging session which is a special kind of frantic fun.

I'll say this again, do not let your opinions of the event sponsors prevent you from experiencing what should be a fantastic weekend. 

If I have changed your mind then check out this post for advice on hotels and travel from local Reuben Grey and be sure to take an empty suitcase with you as attendees are lavished with plenty of samples to take home and review. I look forward to seeing you there!

Please note neither the event organisers or the sponsors put me up to this, I am simply expressing my genuine opinion. Come!

Sunday 23 March 2014

Dr. Gonzo visits the Coromandel

It takes me a few seconds to register the voice talking at me through the megaphone, especially with the noise of the waves crashing against the beach but I soon realise what's happening. I turn around and see the police car and the officer repeats himself "Can you come here please Sir." I turn away from the roaring Pacific and head towards the car with my head hung in shame, a bottle of cheap Canadian whisky in one hand and a bottle of Tuatara APA in the other. 

We had arrived in the beautiful Coromandel peninsula region of New Zealand's North Island two days earlier. We were staying in town of Whangamata (which I'm told is not named after Manchester United attacking midfielder Juan Mata despite my protests that it was) where in a couple of days time my girlfriend Dianne's uncle, Warren would be getting married. The day before the wedding Dianne and I were ambling around the small seaside town in the blazing sunshine. We had cast away the British shackles of trousers and socks instead replacing them with garments known as 'shorts' and footwear known as 'Jandals' (flip-flops to you and me.) I wanted some beers and strolled into a local chain store called Super Liquor hoping that I'd find something pale and hoppy.

The Kiwi's know how they like their beer; cold and wet and I was constantly reminded by the locals that all British beer is warm and flat (the locals are wrong, of course.) The result of this is that all specialist bottle shops, regardless of size have a walk in fridge where beers and pre-mixed drinks are stacked high on shelves ready for immediate consumption. This is great for the craft beer movement as all of the beers people like me love that are packed with volatile hop oils are kept in the best possible way for maximum flavour preservation. I scan the shelves and there's not much to excite me, it's mostly Kiwi common beers but then I spy a shelf containing a few beers from Wellington's Tuatara Brewery and pick up a six pack of their APA. You'd expect APA to mean American Pale Ale but in this case the first A stands for 'Aotearoa' which is a Maori name for New Zealand (it literally translates to 'Land of the Long White Cloud'.) That, coupled with an ABV of almost 6% told me that this might just be the kind of beer I was looking for.

The beer was elegantly packaged in a bright, attractive six pack holder but the effort that had gone into the design of this beers packaging didn't stop there. A Tuatara is a species of lizard that is endemic to New Zealand and the neck of the bottle had been designed to look like the distinctive spiny back of this creature. In a final twist the bottle cap was made to look like the eye of a lizard, it's the kind of design and manufacturing expense that many UK breweries balk at the cost of but Tuatara had gone all out to make their beer stand out in a crowded marketplace. I couldn't wait to crack one open so as they were already nice and cold I did as soon as got home. Passion fruit and mango aromas jumped out at me as I poured the amber beer into a glass. The tropical fruit flavours were clean and defined, the quality and elegance reminded me of Thornbridge beers, quite simply it was stunning. The finish was dry and left a pleasing bitterness despite being perhaps the tiniest bit astringent. It was a real gem of a beer, one of the finest I drank during my entire trip.

We wiled away the day waiting for the wedding to come around, Dianne's Mum had bought me a mixed six pack of beers from Harrington's Brewery in Christchurch. These were elegantly packaged like miniature bottles of wine, resplendent with green glass bottles and smart labels. They were nice beers, not all of them terribly exciting but a couple of them made me stand up and take notice. The Rogue Hop is a pilsner finished off with New Zealand hops and these lent it a gooseberry and citrus Sauvignon Blanc character that prickled the tongue. Perhaps the most surprising of the small selection was a dark mild called the Pig and Whistle. This beer was brewed with native Riwaka hops and for me Kiwi hops leave an unmistakable signature in the brews they are used in. They can range from brash and spiky to mellow and tropical but they are always unmistakably New Zealand and the tiny flash of tropical fruit that they lent to this accomplished dark beer was very satisfying indeed. They may not have all been beers to write home about, they were certainly a long way from the shining brilliance of Tuatara APA but these two of the six I tried were most enjoyable.

Soon it was time to suit up, I had a wedding to attend and it was my favourite kind of wedding, one with a free bar. A cocktail of Speights, Lion Red and Steinlager (which I'm convinced is actually Heineken that's had a different label stuck on the bottle) was washed down with lashings of decent Kiwi Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. After talking to many of the wedding guests I found it interesting how much almost everyone I spoke to understood about wine. New Zealand is a big wine producer, many vineyards exist solely to pump Sauv Blanc into the export market but the good shit that they keep for themselves is both affordable and accessible with none of the pretentiousness I associate with old world wine. The result of this is that the average Kiwi seems to grasp the basics of wine more than the average Brit. This same attitude hasn't yet transferred to beer but there are signs to suggest that this is changing rapidly. Older NZ breweries have reacted by either launching a 'craft' range or are using a marketing campaign that takes a pop at flavourful brews. Tui's billboards that read "Fancy beers are fine but would you order a floral scented pie?" are a prime example of this and to me this says that the big breweries are scared of the craft scene and how much business it could potentially take away from them. Kiwi's aren't like us Brits, they aren't weighed down with the stigma of history and it's their nature to find something good and to embrace it. Craft beer will be mainstream here long before it is in the UK.

We finally arrive back at the house after the wedding reception, bottles are being opened, people are laughing, cheering, there are no signs of the party slowing down. I change out of my suit, grab a bottle of whisky, fill my pockets with bottles of Mac's Hop Rocker and more delicious Tuatara APA before a small group of us heads to the beach. It's a beautiful night, the arm of the Milky Way streaks through the sky above us and I stare at it in awe. Dianne disappears into the darkness of the beach and then there are murmurs of trouble from a local youth who's hunting down a gang that have stolen his Dads car. I send Dianne's cousins who'd joined us at the beach home in case there is trouble and stay behind to try and locate where she'd wandered of to. Truth be told, I could barely stand and yet I still kept swigging away at this awful bottle of Canadian Whisky which looked so enticing on the shelves of the duty free store in Vancouver airport. 

"Don't drink on the beach, it's illegal here." Warren had warned me earlier but I had dismissed this thinking what could happen in a sleepy seaside town such as this? Then there was the voice in the megaphone, then I was standing in front of the police car, its lights flashing at me as if to mock my drunken stupor. "Please, I'm sorry, I'm a Pom on tour and I've no idea what I'm doing!" The words leap out of my mouth before I even know what I'm saying. "Can I take a look at that bottle please sir?" The officer asks "Yes, I bought it in Vancouver Airport, it's not very nice." To my surprise he hands the bottle back to me and says "Do you realise that drinking in public is against the law in this town?" I pause for thought "I had no idea." 

As it turns out he was in fact looking for a band of car thieves and as I was clearly not one of them he thankfully decides to take my details and let me go home. At this very moment Dianne emerges from the darkness of the beach, the officer leaves us in peace and we hobble home, both of us having had our pride badly bruised by booze.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Long White Cloud

It's 6.30 in the morning and I've just stepped outside the terminal building at Auckland International Airport after completing the 28 hour journey from the UK to New Zealand. I feel unusual, despite my love of travelling I don't fly well and somehow I need to stay awake for the next 16 hours in a dire effort to adjust my body clock thirteen hours ahead. The beer on the first flight was average, Air Canada offered me the choice of Budweiser, Heineken or Molson Canadian and as I hadn't had it before I plumped for the latter. Think sparkling water, a little bread, a little sweetcorn and not much else, not great, not unpleasant but it helped me get some sleep thanks to it at least being alcoholic. A brief stopover at Vancouver airport provided me with an opportunity to try the locally brewed English Bay Pale Ale from Molson Coors subsidiary Granville Island Brewing. Again, it was ok, sitting at the terminals only bar helped me kill an hour but I couldn't help thinking that what should've been a fairly decent pale ale had become stale and sweet from sitting in its keg for far too long. On the Air New Zealand flight I switched to wine, I was nearly asleep and I needed something stronger to help me slip off to lala land.

I was travelling to New Zealand with my girlfriend Dianne who was born here, we were going to be staying with her folks at their farm about an hours drive north of Auckland but were also going to be doing a bit of travelling around the North Island. This was never going to be a beer holiday but when I made the same trip back in 2011 when I was in the embryonic stages of my beer geekery and this blog was a mere glint in my eye I was pleasantly surprised by a brewery called Epic (not to be confused with the Utah brewery of the same name) and their pale ale which strongly reminded me of Brewdog Punk IPA in its pomp. It's because of this and the extensive research I had been doing for several months that I knew I was in beer country and that there were hoppy pale ales out their awaiting to be demolished by this somewhat over-enthusiastic Pom.

We were collected at the airport by our friend Steph, another Kiwi ex-pat living in London who was also out here visiting friends and family. After a second breakfast in Mount Eden (we had our first on the plane) we made our way north and said our goodbyes to simple pleasures such as Wi-Fi and a phone signal. The day grinded on as we fought our jetlag and eventually we turned to drink. Mac's Hop Rocker Pilsner was something I drank a lot of on this trip, think Camden USA hells but instead of the smooth, subtle bite of citrus you instead get a prickle of passion fruit and elderflower. With the majority of the beers I would be drinking using mainly New Zealand hop varieties this would become a recurring theme. 

Mac's isn't a brewery that beer geeks get excited about which is a shame as their beers although not terribly interesting are really well made and provide an excellent gateway for the less adventurous beer drinker. Like many things in New Zealand Mac's was founded by a former All Black, in this case one Terry McCashin back in 1981 and although their beers are a long way from the flavour bombs being brewed in New Zealand at the moment they might have gone a long way towards kick starting the Kiwi brewing revolution. These days Mac's are owned by Australasian drinks giant Lion Nathan which also own the brewery that brew my next beer, Speight's Gold Medal Ale.

Speight's brewery was founded in the town of Dunedin on the south island way back in 1876. As well as the brewery in Dunedin which was at one point New Zealand's largest they also have a second facility in Auckland to keep up with demand. At the moment Speight's are going through something of a transitional phase with a new 'Craft Range' joining their more familiar line up. When looking at their new beers such as Triple Hop Pilsner and Golden Pale Ale (not to be confused with their Gold Medal Ale) I quickly drew parallels with British breweries such as Brains and Batemans who are also desperately trying to find their footing in a rapidly changing beer landscape. It was a relief to see that this situation is not confined to the UK.

Gold Medal Ale is crisp, refreshing, very dry and incredibly boring. It's cold, brown and wet which to be honest is still the kind of beer that most Kiwi's want but the sales and popularity of modern beer styles are increasing rapidly. Even major supermarkets are now stocking an incredibly large range of beers from smaller New Zealand breweries as well as craft offerings from the USA such as Rogue and Bear Republic. I asked a few Kiwi's what style of beer they thought Speight's was and many replied that it was a lager. It's not, it's an ale but its light body and incredibly dry finish suggests that it was fermented at lower, lager temperatures so I can see where they get this idea. The great thing about Kiwi beers like Speights, Lion Red and Tui, the latter calling itself an India Pale Ale (it's most definitely not one) is that on a hot day it's really enjoyable to drink a lot of them, they're ideal for the sub-tropical climate. They belong to a family of beers which all taste remarkably similar which I started referring to as 'NZ Common' as they reminded me a little of the easy drinking steam beers of California.

Thankfully after a few beers and a good feed I got a great nights sleep which set me up perfectly for the two weeks that were ahead of me. I barely had time to catch my breath though before we loaded up the car and headed east towards the Coromandel Peninsula for a wedding, some incredible scenery and a very close call with an officer of the law...