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.

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