Like the greatest feeling of deja vu ever, the NZ Craft Beer TV crew reunite after a little hiatus (to do some of that proper work stuff). After a whirlwind tour organization week, Luke and I decided that the best way to start the North Island Craft Brewery tour would be to have a serious American craft beer tasting the day before we left. It's possible that some of you would likely see the error of our ways and choose not to taste three dozen or so strong American beers, but our good friend, The Mule was in town for one day only. Seeing as he was responsible for bringing said beers back to NZ, we spent a great afternoon and evening making our way through a plethora of sensory apocalyptic activators… from Brooklyn Brewery, Dogfish Head, Southampton, Nebraska and Alesmith to Southern Tier, North Coast, Cigar City and Avery, we overloaded our taste buds with inspirational liquid.
The next morning came around slightly too quickly and before we knew it, we were back in a camper van with our trusty film crew, Scott and Jacob and on our way over the Bombay Hills towards Mount Maunganui. It's probably a good time to remind you all again what it is we are doing. The goal for NZ Craft Beer TV is to capture the passion and the people behind the fantastic craft breweries of New Zealand. At the end of visiting everyone that we can in our restricted timeframe (and restricted budget… no television channel wanted to fund such a trip) the plan is to pull off a collaboration brew that pulls in the essence of what New Zealand brewing is about. Once we get that beer out there, then the recipe goes out to all the breweries that are interested. They then brew the beer with their own water and yeast, tell their locals and followers and fans about the beer, add their own brewery terroir in the process, link it back to the NZ Craft Beer TV website and with that full circle, hopefully everyone in NZ and abroad that loves what the small producers are doing then helps promote craft beer! Simple, right?! We need your help!
So with that synopsis done, back to stage two of our journey… We had toured the South Island in 12 days, pulling out 2424 kilometres in the process! This time we were looking at 2000 or so kilometres in 6 days. That's a lot of driving! We hit the Mount and pulled up at Brewers Bar. This is pretty famous in the area for its amazing live music. Loads of great NZ bands have played this place throughout the years and with a glass window behind the stage that looks in on a line of small shiny copper kettles, it's definitely unique. We met up with Larry Kurth and his new understudy, Carl and began doing what we do best… talking beer! Larry is a really passionate guy. Previously an accomplished homebrewer, he began working in the brewery when it was a U Brew. Essentially, it was a series of small kettles and fermenters where people could come and brew their own beer and take it away with them, hence escaping excise duty (they were brewing it for themselves, after all!). These were really popular in Canada for a time, Australia still has a handful, but the concept never took off in NZ, even though there was one in Rotorua and one in Christchurch.
The U Brew kit then became the Brewers Bar and Larry began brewing the great beers he is still brewing. He converted the brewery from a malt extract setup to a full grain brewery and when we arrived, the spent grain bed was still throwing up light malty aromas and the wort had just begun boiling, filling the place with a great Horlicks smell. We had a look around the brewery as Larry explained his past and the processes and the beers that he brewed. We talked about the support the pub gets from the local community and how he helps out home brewers in the Mount, by acting as a supplier and a small home brew shop. Larry is great. He loves what he does and has given a lot… he told us that he was about to retire and hand the reigns over to new recruit, Carl (who has just spent 5 years abroad in the UK being involved with cask ales and pubs in Hampshire). It's evident that Larry will always be about though… with 750 brews already on the little 600 litre kit, I reckon there may be a few more that he'll have a hand in!
We tasted the brews, a tasty Lager that is the biggest seller in the bar and in flagon and a fascinating Draught beer that had big hints of berries and orange sherbet. Larry explained that the ale yeast he was using had been throwing up these flavors of late. Luke and I were impressed and amazed at how much character was coming from the yeast. A really unique and interesting beer!
With the clock ticking, we busted a move and headed towards Rotorua. Croucher Brewing were next on the cards and we really excited to get there and check out what it was the team had been up to for the last six years. We headed over the Pyes Pa Road with cameraman Scott at the wheel when we noticed that the camper didn't really want to go anymore. With foot hard to the floor, we were only creeping along at 20 km/h or so. This wasn't cool, we had a deadline, the Croucher team had a meeting to attend and at this rate, we were never gonna make it! We pulled over, panicked at our lack of cellphone signal (Vodafone seems to have a lot of dead spots everywhere we have visited in the country) and then remembered the Telecom phone we had! We got hold of the Maui camper crew and they sent someone out. An hour or so later, he jumped in, the van was sweet, we mocked Scott the cameraman and his boneless jelly foot and we were back on the road.
Paul Croucher and Nigel Gregory met us at Croucher Brewing in Rotorua, grins on their faces and eyes gleaming. No, it wasn't due to them imbibing the fine Croucher brews, it was because these two absolutely love what it is that they're doing. Nigel is in charge of marketing and sales and gave his executive life away to make great beer. Paul comes from a slightly different background. A PhD in Chemistry under his belt, he had been lecturing in Wine Science over in Australia and then in Auckland when his love of home brewing pushed him towards brewing full time. Winning NZ Champion home brewer (like another friend of mine, James Kemp, ex Thornbridge Brewery and now Buxton Brewery in the UK) was proof that he knew how beer should taste, so the next step was a simple one. Maybe simple isn't quite the right word… these guys put successful careers on the line to follow their passion, telling us that some thought they were bonkers in the process.
From small acorns however… The guys tell us of their recent victory in the BrewNZ awards, with their Pilsener taking out Best in Class in the International Lager category. No mean feat in a fiercely contested competition and proof that their beer is exactly where they want it to be. We gave it a taste and were blown away with the body and mouthfeel, the crisp, NZ hop characters on the nose and the persistent bitter finish. This was a great beer. We went on to try the Pale Ale, a nice hoppy number with a solid malt backbone and yet another example of a great bottled NZ Pale Ale.
Nigel went into their refrigerated container and pulled out a couple of really special samples. A Christmas Ale, that yelled spicy complexity with wisps of dried fruit and nutmeg on the nose and a remarkably clean mouth and finish and the ridiculously impressive Patriot. Patriot is an India Black Ale… this is taking a big, bold, hoppy American style India Pale Ale and playing around with speciality malts to get a dark brown/black colour without an overload of roastiness that you would expect to find in a dark beer. I really like this style of beer because of it's ability to educate. Some people love hoppy beers but don't like porters or stouts. Others are the opposite. A beer such as this provides a gateway for both types of people with often surprising results!
Surprised I definitely was. Huge passionfruit, guava, lime and mango notes dominated the nose and this was balanced well in the mouth with lovely speciality malt sweetness and a clean, but not assertive bitterness. We all loved this beer and I hope to find it in a bottle one day! It's great to see the Croucher crew playing around with interesting styles, aromas and flavors and pushing the perception of what beer should be… not just bland and tasteless and something you drink as a vehicle for alcohol, but something to make you raise your eyebrows and be amazed and fascinated by. We don't eat the same meal everyday our whole lives, yet so many of us insist on drinking the same type of beer day in and day out.