We’re currently in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, the cluster of accommodation, Department of Conservation (DOC) buildings and an aggregates operation that lies just down the magnificent, glacier-carved valley from the mountain – “Cloud Piercer” in the Maori – that is New Zealand’s highest, at 3,754m (12,316 feet).
We arrived yesterday lunchtime and as the room in our slightly shambolic hostel wasn’t ready, we headed up to the DOC visitor centre and the Hermitage, a version of which has been hereabouts since 188something (first incarnation destroyed when a glacial lake broke its moraine and flooded, second in a fire in 1957) and providing succour to generations of climbers, hikers and bus loads of Japanese tourists. We had a pizza on their balcony. The pizza was nothing to write home about, but you couldn’t argue with the view of old Cloud Piercer. Thankfully not too shrouded. Friends had warned us it’s very commonplace to visit here and never actually see the peek for the clouds.
After my last post, we had another day in Dunedin, and visited Green Man – which is not only possibly the last independent, New Zealand-owned brewery in town, it’s one of only two organic breweries in NZ. (The other is Mike’s in Taranaki.) It also uses a foliate head as its logo, which is cool, especially for an Old World kid like me who used to enjoy spotting them in England’s great cathedrals and chapter houses.
Looming large over Dunedin is the Speight’s brewery. The brand, which was established in 1876, still pushes its tradition and heritage, but, like so many NZ companies, it was bought out. And like so many NZ beer brands this means it was bought out by Lion, part of Kirin, part of Mitsubishi. We toyed with a brewery visit, but didn’t really have the time. Possibly a shame, as I’d composed a load of questions to ask the guide about how the production, and the nature of the product, has changed over the decades, especially with becoming part of such a conglomerate.
A visit to Green Man was far more rewarding, as the guy there, Kelly, gave us plenty of his time, and we went away armed with several of their brews. They have a core range of six brews: a Czech Pilsner, a Premium Lager, a Schwarzbier (which I’m drinking now – fairly mild, bit metallic, but sweet and refreshing), an alcoholic ginger beer (which I found a bit acrid), a Tequila Beer (lager, lime) and an IPA (which was pretty good – more robust and flavoursome than many NZ beers I’ve been trying). In summer, they also do a wheat beer and Cyclist, a shandy (or a “radler,” as it’s known in NZ – except that name’s been part of a controversy when someone, mentioning no names, tried to copyright it). Kelly said they’re also working on a cider and a bock aged in whisky oak.
It sounds like it’s been a difficult year though – not only do they only have only four hop varieties to choose from due to the limits of organic production, there was also a bad summer last year that resulted in a general shortage.
It was a great brewery, with its open fermenters and open attitude, and a relief in the face of all the corporate and no-longer-NZ that seems to dominate here. Kelly even gave us a recommendation for a pub. The Octagon, Dunedin’s centre, has a Macs (ie Mitsubishi) pub and a Monteith’s (ie Asia Pacific Breweries) pub, but it was trickier to find actually NZ beer. Kelly pointed us towards the Albar, which not only had a couple of beers from Cassels and Sons (The Alchemist, a citrussy pale ale, and Milk Stout, a stout with a lot of dark fruit syrup and charcoal) a craft brewery in Christchurch, they were even on handpump and kept at the right temperature! The barman (Scots) said the Kiwis “just don’t understand” about keeping beer at the right temperature. These were the best pints we’d had so far in NZ, I reckon – not too cold, not too gassy.
The true South Island
After Dunedin, we headed on down to Stewart Island – a decidedly not summery, magical place, and as far south as we’d been not just in NZ, but ever. Really right round the bottom of down under. The signpost at Bluff, where you get the Stewart Island ferry, said London was 19,000km (11,800 miles) away. (We had visited the equivalent signpost at the top of the North Island six years ago.)
I believe it used to have a brewery, but now the pub only served Speight’s – dull, generic and far too cold, especially when served in glasses that were kept in the fridge! Still, the Sunday night pub quiz was a blast after we’d done some hikes in the Antarctic winds and surprising sunshine. We – me and Fran, a Scots couple, a young Californian orthnithologist (who even managed to see a kiwi) and our hostel host, Jacqui (who was Welsh-Scots with an Irish boyfriend, NZ employment and a unique accent) even managed to come fourth out of 16 teams. If only we’d guessed the Wallace and Gromit clue!
Drinkable Lager Shock!
After Stewart Island we had a few nights in Wanaka, a rapidly growing, temperate town in Central Otago – an area defined by the rapid introduction of British style sheep farming, the ensuing deforestation highlighting the drama of the local mountains. I hiked up one (Roys Peak, that is a peak of many Roys, not a peak of one possessive Roy) and I’m still feeling it a few days later.
After my hike, we treated ourselves to a few beers, then a curry with a lake view. The beers were from Wanaka Beer Works, which is just outside town at the airport. The brewery only seems to produce lagers, which puts me off slightly, as I prefer bottom to top fermented beers, but actually their Cardrona Gold “All Malt Lager”, named after a high hill pass outside town, is pleasant, one of the few drinkable lagers I’ve had. (Even though it’s a variation on the classic “NZ Draught” formula – see below.)
Wanaka also boasts not one but two idiosyncratic independent cinemas. Our friend Benny had recommend Cinema Paradiso, but it was all booked for an event, so we went to Rubys (which I assume is actually “Ruby’s”), a great place on the edge of town that has an atmospheric lounge bar – a great spot for a cocktail, glass of wine, or beer. I had an IPA from Three Boys, a brewery in Christchurch. It was served too cold, in a cold glass, and was more malt than hop, but was a pleasant amber, fruity ale.
She’ll be right
So now we’re spending our second night in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, parked up. As Designated Driver, I crave these moments where I can put the car keys down and actually enjoy some of the bottles we’ve been collecting along the way. The past few evenings, this has included a couple from Invercargill Brewery, both of which I found a bit metallic, as well as several Green Mans and even a few from Brew Moon still.
To be honest, as much as I’m enjoying visiting these breweries and sampling their wares, I’m a little disappointed by NZ craft beer. NZ changed how I feel about beer back in 1994, but now it’s changing how I feel about NZ beer. So much of it, even the craft beer, feels like it’s pulling its punches. Are NZ beer drinkers really so afraid of more body, more robust flavour, bigger hop hits? So afraid of anything other than cold pale lagers and pilsners and, more specifically, cold, too cold, “NZ draught” (a mildly malty, minimally hoppy amber or brown lager, like Tui, Canterbury Draught, DB Draught and Speight’s Gold Medal Ale, which isn’t really an ale).
So many of the beers, aside from being served too cold, are just so generic and mild-mannered, the liquid expression of the easy-going “She’ll be right” attitude. I’m really hoping that during our last few weeks here we’ll discover some feistier beers. In the meantime, I think Brew Moon and Garage Project might be my favourites so far. But I’m craving those big flavours, like the APAs we were finding in the US before we came here. Come on NZ, you have just great hops, so many skilled breweries, let’s have some attitude!
[PS – someone give me some real WiFi please. Another blog brought to you after hours of wailing and gnashing of teeth.]