Category Archives: Travelling

Round the bottom of Down Under, and to its highest point

Pork sandwich and pizza at the Hermitage, Aoraki/Mount Cook in the distance

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.

Green Man brewery, Dunedin

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.

Really Kiwi
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.

Open Fermenter md

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.

Cassels and Sons beer at Albar, Dunedin

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!

Cardrona Gold, Wanaka

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.)

Fran curry beer Wanaka

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.

Three Boys IPA at Rubys, Wanaka

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!

Green Man IPA, Mount Sefton

[PS – someone give me some real WiFi please. Another blog brought to you after hours of wailing and gnashing of teeth.]

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On granary row

Harbour Street Oamaru

As readers of this blog will know, I’m somewhat obsessed with humanity’s relationship with grain. So it was a great pleasure to discover a single street (more or less) in the old Tyne-Harbour Street historic district of Oamaru, a town on the southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island that had not just an excellent bakery, but also a shop selling NZ whisky, and, just across the way, a craft brewery.

We had arrived in Oamaru on a wet and miserable Wednesday night. Our hosts at the excellent Oamaru Creek B&B warned us that it might be hard to find much open on a Wednesday, but had told us about the brewery, Scotts, which had a tasting bar (and, like so many names, seems to have lost its possessive apostrophe).

Soggy ghost town
Dashing under the Christmas decorations, which in the 12-ish C temperatures and rain felt very much like a familiar south of England take on seasonal festivities, over the railway line, which goes all the way from Picton in the north to Invercargill in the south but steadfastly refuses to run any environmentally pragmatic passenger services, then past the steampunk museum, with its steam engine lurching skyward, we went down Harbour Street, with its handsome 19th century whitestone warehouses – and found Scotts… just closed.

Scotts brewery, Oamaru

They gave us a few tips about where to find their wares, but the wine bar they mentioned was closed and the nearby Criterion Hotel only carried one, Nineteen 05, a kolsch – a lager-like ale style that, not being a lager drinker, I’m not a big fan of. Otherwise, the Criterion had an Emerson’s ‘Bookbinder’, but Emerson’s is one of NZ’s many breweries (Macs, Speight’s, Monteith’s) that’s been bought out by Lion – that is Kirin, that is Mitsubishi. So really not very NZ any more at all.

On this mission (and always) I’m much more keen to drink beer from independently NZ owned, smaller breweries. Like the decidedly rustic Brew Moon in Amberley, just north of Christchurch, which we visited while driving south.

Brew Moon, Amberley

Kiwi cuisine
We did however, have a decent dinner in a new, nominally Italian restaurant round the corner on Itchen Street. Oamaru is a place of streets named after British rivers, but this one was perfect for me as I grew up playing by, on or in the Itchen, in Hampshire.

The restaurant, Cucina, presented its menu in approximately Italian meal-structure terms (antipasti, primi, secondi, as well as pizza), but they didn’t have any Italian staff and much of the food was basically Kiwi. NZ seems to have confidence problems with its cuisine. Many places call themselves “French” or “Italian” but with a few tweaks, they could assert their food as proudly, distinctly Kiwi. Especially as NZ has such varied climate zones and is surrounded by relatively rich seas, so much good produce is available here.

Here comes the sun
The following morning, the sun, and the summer, revived itself somewhat, and we returned to Harbour Street. At number 4, there’s Harbour Street Bakery (site – may not be working), a small artisan bakery run by Dutch expat Ed Balsink.

Master baker Ed Balsink at Harbour Street Bakery, Oamaru

Ed’s been in here around a decade, arriving at a point when bakers were among the skilled professions the NZ government was keen to encourage to immigrate. After a fairly frustrating sounding experience in a small town north of Auckland, he made his way south.

NZ, like the UK and US, is dominated by the industrialisation of the food chain, but people like Ed are exponents of and envoys for quality food made using traditional skills and no-nonsense ingredients. “Everything is available here,” Ed said. NZ grows a great selection of grains for flours (and brewing), and imports other stuff from Australia. He says his bosses up north just wouldn’t believe people would be interested in naturally fermented products, but that’s an argument his current success is disproving. Indeed, I’ve talked to other people who’ve faced similar prejudice and ignorance – like a north Devon publican who was told his clients only wanted industrial lager, but then they embraced his real ales, and his pub won awards.

Ed, who trained in a special Dutch school that focussed on baking, cheffing and waiting, and became a master baker, provides a great array of naturally leavened breads, breads made with fresh (aka cake, aka bakers’) yeast, in various European styles, as well as pastries and biscuits, including speculaas. This is a Dutch spiced almond biscuit, and Ed uses a 1742 recipe from Delft.

Speculaas at Harbour Street Bakery, Oamaru

It contains cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and “a special mix”, and comes from that medieval tradition when such spices were worth a literal fortune. Indeed, Ed said the Netherlands had “the first stock exchange in the world because of the spices” and mariners returning from Indonesia would be searched much like contemporary diamond miners.

It was great chatting with Ed, and I’ve just very much enjoyed one of his almond tarts and some of his multiseed sourdough.

Cake and coffee at Housekeepers, in the Loan and Mercantile, Oamaru

Southern hemisphere prohibition
Afterwards, we blundered into a whisky shop, New Zealand Whisky Company, down the street at number 14 in the 1882 Loan and Mercantile warehouse building, which also houses Housekeepers, a new café and design shop with some decent coffee and chocolate cake (“award-winning” apparently).Despite my love of beer and bread, I can’t really handle whisky, so am totally ignorant about it.

It’s an interesting place though – they have the last remaining stock, around 600 barrels, from the Willowbank Distilllery, in Dunedin, just down the coast from Oamaru. One of the world’s most southerly distilleries. It was bought out by the Canadian Seagrams in the 1980s, then later sold to Fosters (before that Austrailian brand itself became part of SABMiller). Fosters “mothballed the company in 2000, and sent the silent stills to Fiji to make rum!”

We learned a lot more about the history of boozing in this part of the world when we went back to Scotts – now open. Phil Scott, the director and head brewer, served us a taster of their three new beers. They have four currently (including a gluten-free beer), but are developing a new range, including a Vienna lager. Phil explained how they’d operated in Auckland for seven years but have moved back to his hometown, opened “last Sunday”, and are going to be fully licensed “hopefully by tomorrow”.

The brewery is something of a landmark for Oamaru, as it represents the first beer being brewed (openly) since 1905. The town was apparently the fastest-growing in the southern hemisphere, with four breweries (and sundry brothels), until an unfortunate election saw prohibitionists take power in Northern Otago. They killed the breweries and effectively put paid to the port as sailors really did have certain very specific requirements. Amazingly, the prohibition was only ended in the 1960s.

Phil Scott of Scotts Brewery, Oamaru

The three, very bright and direct, Scotts beers we tried were the kolsch Nineteen 05, which suits the Kiwi taste for cold, easy lagers but is top-fermented like an ale and doesn’t require lagering (cold maturation): “it’s grain to glass in a week and a half” Phil says, unlike the six-eight weeks for lager. Then the Boulder Pale Ale, which uses five malts and four hops, and is a mild balance between citrus, gooseberry fruitiness and a subtle maltiness. And finally the B10 Steam Porter, named after a local steam train. This is a sweet, fairly carbonated dark ale that’s much lighter than many porters.

All were served a bit cold, but Phil explains this is really just a requirement of the Kiwi taste for cold beer. Despite how much such beer-consumers are be depriving themselves of the full organoleptic smell and taste sensation!

Real Kiwi cuisine
Phil gave us some tips for other beer venues to visit, and we headed off down the coast, to the little seaside village of Moeraki, famous for a clutch of spherical boulders on its beach. And for Fleurs Place, another place that’s lost its apostrophe, but not its character. This is a great example of a place that does a uniquely NZ style of cuisine with a quiet pride.

Giant biscotto and creme brulee at Fleurs Place, Moeraki

They’re right beside the old jetty, and get their seafood fresh from a small cluster of boats that land their catch mere metres away every day. They also use local produce, such as asparagus from just down the road in Palmerston. They seemed to have a good local wine list, though their beer list was strangely at odds with the local, quality ethos, featuring no good local brews, only generic international tosh or Mitsubishi-owned formerly NZ brands. They really should start stocking Scotts, from 40km up the highway!

Our seafood tasting plate was stupendous – simply cooked, no nonsense, nice sauces, and couldn’t be fresher. The crème brulée and huge biscotto wasn’t half bad too. All in all a great day.

Now if only our hostel in Dunedin could include genuine WiFi I could finish this post a bit more damned easily. Honestly, internet in NZ really is like going back 10 years. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised about that though, as when I first came to NZ in the 1980s it did indeed frequently conform to the old joke that said it resembled 1950s Britain. It doesn’t any more, at all, but the internet thing is frustrating, especially after the ease we’d experienced across most of the USA.

[It’s now the following morning, and we’re on the WiFi in the Octagon in the centre of Dunedin. It’s infuriating hit and miss, at times as slow as dial-up, but at least it’s genuinely free.]

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Wellington: ugly buildings, splendid beards and fine beer

Havana and block md

We’re big fans of train travel, but NZ seems to have decided it’s a novelty, not a basic, logical sensible part of a sustainable transport policy: so the train from Auckland to Wellington only runs every other day. And is a tourist attraction, not really a quotidian mode of transport. So instead of a stately cruise down through the North Island on two rails, put in at great expense and manpower in the 19th century, we headed south in a coach instead.

We arrived in Wellington, NZ’s pint-sized, hill-and-ocean-hemmed, notoriously windy capital around 8.30pm after 12 delightful hours in the combustion engine behemoth that is the InterCity coach.

The wind – which had kept the first European visitors to NZ, Abel Tasman and James Cook, out of the harbour – wasn’t blowing, which is probably a good thing, as we found ourselves on the 22nd floor (actually the 14th or something, after all the superstition non-floors – 13 etc – have been factored in) of the generic chain hotel we’d accidentally booked. If the place had been being gusted it would have freaked Fran out even more; as is she was already worrying about what this elevation would be like in the event of earthquake.

Earthquakes are of course no joke in NZ. Christchurch, the South Island’s principle city, was terribly mangled by quakes in 2010 and 2011 and as a result building legislation has been revised. Now Wellington is a city that boasts fascinating topography, with craggy bays and hills, but it’s also defined by plentiful dull modern architecture, notably, but not exclusively in the CBD, and piss-poor town planning. The fact that the only characterful historic areas, notably the idiosyncratic Cuba Street, will probably get a massive makeover due to the combination of the new legislation and your predictable developer greed (lack of vision, aesthetic insensitivity etc etc) means the city will probably look very different if we come back in a few years.

In the meantime, we enjoyed trying to find interesting eating and drinking places, scrabbling through our hefty NZ Rough Guide, pottering up and down Cuba Street, round into backstreets, where older buildings are just about hanging on amid the identikit modernity. Having slept badly in our air-conned eyrie of blandness, we fancied the comfort of a cinema, so bought tickets to go to the Light House on Wigan Street. (Great little cinema, which even had some local craft beer like Tuatara; profoundly manipulative film One Chance.) Beforehand, however, we managed a quick beer across the street at the Havana, a bar, or pair of bars, in two old huts dwarfed by depressing modern buildings.

At the Havana we had a couple of beers from ParrotDog, a local brewery. Both – Bitter Bitch IPA and Flaxen Feather Blonde – were bottled, too cold straight from the fridge, very carbonated, but featured a decent amount of tasty NZ hops.

Angry Peaches beer and dinner at Olive, Wellington

After the film, we went to dinner at Olive on Cuba Street. This was a really nice restaurant, one of the best meals we’ve had for ages. It felt kinda posh, and I felt kinda scruffy, and I agonised about what wine to have (I settled on a very pleasant Milton Te Arai Vineyard Demi Sec 2009 Chenin Blanc) before changing tack after a glass and deciding I’d much rather try a beer from Garage Project, another Wellington brewery, a micro operation based in an old petrol station. The eccentrically hospitable waitress accommodated this with aplomb, as did the amiable waiter with his stupendous beard (if he’d had a black t-shirt showing off tats he’d look like a classic craft beer hipster). Jeepers, I’m getting serious beard envy. I’d love one of those dense lustrous beards, but unless I glue one on, I know I’ll go to my grave without every having that experience.

Anyway, the Garage Project beer was called Angry Peaches and was it great. The scent was fruit, cranberry, lemon and “Fairy Liquid” (Fran) and it was pleasingly not over-carbonated, mellow (despite the name) and sweet.

Fran Malthouse bar

The following day we went to the Malthouse (Courtnay Place), a great beer bar with an impressive selection, including more from Garage Project. There was even another guy with a great beard, damn him. We were served by a helpful, knowledgeable barmaid (no beard) who gave us several samples before we both alighted on the two beers on the hand pumps as an alternative to all the carbon dioxide on other taps. Our choices were from another local brewery, Fork & Brewer: Moon Blink Black IPA (5.8%) and Base Jumper (6.3%). The latter is a really smooth, surprisingly mild APA, with caramel and cereal tastes, and several hop varieties (Simcoe, Cascade, Centennial from the US; Orbit and Motueka from NZ) while the former is floral and blackcurranty.

Afterwards, we went to Chow, a kinda pan-Asian tapas place, with more good food – and, shock horror, actual spiciness, something that was very elusive in NZ a decade ago – and good beer. I had another ParrotDog, Dead Canary Pale Ale (5.3%), a gingery, orangey, malty ale while Fran had a Stoke Amber Ale. Stoke is part of the sprawl south of Nelson, original home of Mac’s, and Stoke is the McCashin family’s new brewery’s new brand. It was a delicious beer too, smooth but crisp. Good to see the McCashins back in business. Be interesting to see if they sell (out) this brand in a few years too, or keep it a microbrewery.

Beers in Chow, Wellington

So all in all, Wellington hasn’t disappointed on the beer or food front. Oh, and that thing I mentioned in the last post comparing its food options with NYC – the Rough Guide 2012 actually says “Wellington has more places to eat per capita than New York and the standard is impressively high.” Yep.

Now we’re on the ferry taking us across the Cook Straits to the South Island, aka the Mainland, aka the Middle Island. This route seems to be where old English Channel (and other European) ferries go when they retire. Just a week or so ago, one of these veterans dropped a propeller. Hopefully ours will make it, as at the other end, Picton, we get a smaller boat back up into the Marlborough Sounds to meet my wonderful old friend Nadia, who was one of my principle baking (and cooking generally) teachers and has a wood-fired oven with a view of the sea. Hopefully we’ll do some baking together, and I can get some bread back onto this blog, which has, I know, become somewhat ale-focussed of late.

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An Auckland craft beer hunt

Recreation of a historic Auckland boozer in the Auckland Museum

Considering New Zealand was the country where I learned to love real beer, and considering last time we visited (in 2007) we encountered a range of interesting craft beers, Auckland has proved a bit of a damp squib on the real beer front the past few days. Everywhere we went, there were your classic Kiwi blokes with pints and jugs of generic lager in front of them.

A restaurant (-ish) we went to on the waterfront in the recently redeveloped Wynyard Quarter had a few interesting craft beers – but they were Australian. Then further along the quay, a nominal brewpub just had Mac’s on tap. Now Mac’s was indeed the very beer that taught a teetotalling 24-year-old that beer could be delicious. The Mac’s brand was named after former All Black Terry McCashin, who founded a brewery in Nelson, in the north of the South Island, in 1980, in a former cider factory. McCashin’s a figure comparable to Italy’s Theo Musso of Baladin, in that he was at the forefront a nation’s new wave of real brewing establishments.

I was living not far from Nelson in 1994, and gallon jugs of Black Mac, filled from the tap in the nearest pub (15km away) introduced me to beer that could… gosh… taste nice, and be interesting – unlike all the foul filthy lagers that had been available to me as a teenager growing up in 1980s Britain, and put me off the whole concept of beer and booze.

Like so many interesting brews, though, the Mac’s brand was bought out by Lion Nathan (a part of Kirin, itself a part of Mitsubishi) and, really, the quality deteriorated, while the availability increased. Indeed, it reached a point where Mac’s was no longer brewed at the original McCashin’s brewery. Hence my lack of interest in the aforementioned brewpub. Mac’s tipped too far from craft into conglomerate-industrial for my liking.

I was starting to despair of Auckland being a washout for craft beer. Despite the rest of the country’s international fame for its hops, its array of craft beers, and some, like the Epic I mentioned in the last post, being made right in Auckland, it seemed the city itself didn’t have that many, if any, decent brewpubs or craft beer bars.

I’d really expected to see at least a couple on the Ponsonby Road, with its slew of cafés and eateries of varying degrees of poncyness. But nope. One promising looking place that called itself a “tap house and eatery” on the sign looked rather defunct, and another cool place we’d read about, well… it was too well stashed for our jetlagged selves to find the first time we walked past. In our defence, most of the block it sits in is being redeveloped, it’s got no sign, the address is on one road but the entrance is round the corner, and even that entrance has no sign or name. We found it yesterday though. And very nice it is too.

Hallertau taps at the Golden Dawn, Ponsonby, Auckland

It’s the Golden Dawn (134 Ponsonby Road – but entrance on Richmond Road). It’s got an atmospheric bare brick wall bar, and a fairly large courtyard, with another bar. It’s a gig venue; it does food that sounded intriguing (we didn’t eat); and it has a pretty extensive wine menu. It also had a reasonable amount of bottled craft beers, and five taps, with beer from Hallertau, a microbrewery in Riverhead, northwest of Auckland. (Warning – if, like my mum and my wife, the use of the word “pop”, in the sense of visit spontaneously, annoys you, don’t read the copy on the homepage of the brewery’s site.) The barman was friendly, and we even discussed Mac’s – apparently the McCashin’s are brewing again in their original brewery. Their whole story is available as a book, but it might be easier to just visit their new brand’s site.

As for beers at the Golden Dawn, Fran had a Hallertau #4 Deception Schwarzbier, which looks and tastes like certain porters: it’s very black, has a smell of dark berries and taste of charcoal and chocolate, but it’s actually bottom fermented, that is a black lager. I had one of Hallertau’s seasonal beers, a KomissionA NZ Pale Ale, which was a fruity, sweet, crisp ale, quite carbonated and bitterly hoppy only in a fairly mild-mannered sense. A mellow, easy-drinking beer, good for a summer’s evening. (Swapping hemispheres is odd. My body is confused.)

Hallertau pints, Golden Dawn

Anyway, we’ve only been in Auckland three days, so I know there will be more better beer bars out there somewhere. It’s such a sprawly city (1.5 million, but the size of LA – one of the least densely populated cities in the world), it’s hard to cover the ground by shank’s pony, the mode of transport I’m really preferring to stick to given my current unfitness.

For example, wandering around Grey Lynn earlier, I did spy Malt (442 Richmond Road). This looked like a place to check out… I restrained myself, and looking now, it’s branded as a Monteith’s bar. Monteith’s was another of NZ’s smaller scale breweries, based on the West Coast of the South Island – and like Mac’s, it was bought out, in this case by DB Breweries, one of the two big, internationally owned NZ beer brands. It’s a Dutch-Singaporean conglomerate these days. (The other big NZ beer brand, Lion, is also owned by Kirin/Mitsubishi.) So that kinda put me off, except that Malt at least had guest craft beers.

If I was here longer, I’d check out a few more places, like brewpub Galbraith’s, Three Lamps (also in Ponsonby – but we keep walking in the opposite direction, so I only just discovered it), Deep Creek (in Browns Bay, northeast Auckland) and others.

At least we’ve fitted in some cultcha, with a visit to the beautifully refurbished Auckland Art Gallery, and the Auckland Museum, which since my last visit a decade or so ago has also had some handsome new additions. Its curation leaves a little to be desired though – more contextualisation please!

Anyway, tomorrow we’re off down to Wellington. NZ’s capital is a great little town and one that, I read somewhere, has more cafés per square km than Manhattan. So hopefully some of them will also be craft beer bars. Certainly the last few years Wellington has started claiming to be the “craft beer capital of NZ”, vying with Nelson.

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A few of my favourite things

Thirteen hours of sleepless trans-Pacific flight; a Monday 11 November that, mind-bogglingly, didn’t exist; a lively early morning meet-up with some old Auckland friends, some of their kids, their parrot, their amiable chihuahua and not so friendly Staffy mutt; a pleasing discovery of how much the New Zealand artisan cheese scene has progressed in the half-decade or so since our last visit, and ensuing silly spend… and exhaustion caught us up; I had promised myself NO BEER today so I’d sleep better tonight and get in sync with the new time zone more swiftly but wandering a bottle shop, how could I resist these? Products that encapsulate three of my favourite things: real beer, NZ itself, and the apocalypse.

image

They’re from Epic Brewing Company, a brand currently contract brewed out of the Steam Brewing Company facilities, right here in Auckland. And not to be confused with the Utah brewery of the same name.

Currently drinking the Hop Zombie, while really feeling like a bit of a jetlagged zombie. It’s a serious hoppy hit with a scent that’s floral, fruity (grapefruit, passionfruit) and salty-sweaty (ok, even cheesy-feety) and a taste that’s bitterly crisp, sweetly dry and a little salty. It’s strong too, at 8.5%. And, as we’re back in the modern metricated world, it comes in 500ml bottles.

image

Delicious, but I’m not sure I’ll last much longer today with jetlag and such strong ale.

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Craft beer penetration in the USA, and the question of temperatures

Speakeasy beers at Embarcadero Center cinema

Nothing saucy, I’m just amazed and impressed at the ubiquity of real beers and craft beer in the US. It seems to penetrate every corner of booze retailing: I’ve seen it in a stinky, deeply unprepossessing neighbourhood general store in Bed-Stuy, in posh-ish restaurants in Manhattan’s West Village, in a decidedly not posh barbecue joint in smalltown Kansas, and in another general store in the sparsely populated Big Sur, California, which had maybe 100 different beers.

Never mind the Downtown San Francisco cinema we went to yesterday where the bar included 11 craft beers. (Though it fell down on a few more salient cinema practicalities: an obvious, tangible place to buy, you know, tickets, and clear signage to the actual, you know, auditoriums.) We drank local SF ales from Speakeasy brewery. The design is great; the beer was good too; and it was especially pleasant to be able to take it into the auditorium. (Despite then being told by an old biddy that I was “harassing” her, even though I was just sitting quietly minding my own business, supping ale and watching Dallas Buyers Club. I suspect she was riled by my tallness; but hey, I didn’t design the place and I had tried to sit right at the back.)

Embarcadero Center cinema bar menu - 11 craft beers!

Small and wide
I’ve seen small breweries all across the country, from Brooklyn, to Weston, Missouri, to Estes Park in the Rockies, to SF. I knew brewing was a thriving scene in places like SF, but this ubiquity and massive market penetration, this embrace of an artisan foodstuff in the country that sold the world the model of the worst industrialised pseudo-food (in the form of junk food chains, massive supermarkets etc) is enormously gratifyingly. And it puts the UK to shame.

Considering Britain is one of the spiritual homes of brewing we’re seriously lagging behind. The past 10 years have seen a massive resurgence in non-corporate, non-industrial brewing in the UK, with the number of breweries in London alone rising from a shocking two in 2006 to around 50 now, but the situation is still comparably dire. Even the classiest UK cinemas with bars could maybe only muster a few real beers, while our corner shops and general stores rarely have much beyond cans of Fosters and Stella. Or at least they do in the images that keep flashing through my mind’s eye from my memories of living in Blighty until we moved to Rome a few years ago. It might be marginally better now; I’ll find out when we settle back in home around Christmastime.

Board at the Magnolia, Haight

Fridge vs cellar
Having said all that, there’s one thing that the US seems to largely get wrong when it comes to real beer: the serving temperatures. The old joke goes that Brits like flat warm beer, but traditionally it’s not warm: it’s just not refrigerated. The proper temperature for a real beer is cellar temperature: not fridge temperature.

British brewers talk about this, Italian craft brewers talk about this; and in Italy, the craft beer (itself very inspired by US craft beer) in bottles almost always comes with temperature info on the label: it should be drunk at 8-14C (46-57F), depending on type. Cellar temperature. (Room temperature, meanwhile, may be around 20C (68C); that’d be a warm beer.)

Why you may ask? Well, it’s not just about tradition and ye olde temperature of ye olde cellars in ye olde British pubs. It’s about taste. When a beer, or a wine, is the wrong temperature, you don’t experience the taste to the full. When a beer is too cold, its scents will be quashed, so you want get the full preliminary smell, and your tongue’s receptors won’t be fully activated, so you won’t get the full taste experience.

Beers at Magnolia: Proving Ground IPA and Sara's Ruby Mild (right)

Yet all across the US I’ve been served really well made craft beers straight from the fridge, quashing their qualities. The whole “enjoy an ice cold beer” thing the big industrial brewers have promoted for their crappy lagers has taken over the entire spectrum of beer-drinking, it would seem, undermining the qualities of so many brews.

Of course, this is a generalisation. Different types of beers can be served at different temperatures. This piece (from California) on Ratebeer talks about how, generally, lighter beers can and should be served colder, and darker ales (eg Imperial stout) warmer (that is 14-16C, or 57-61F).

If you’re a fan of industrial lagers, meanwhile, knock yourself out with drinking them “ice cold” – it’ll suppress any flavour. In that respect, drinking ice cold lager is more like drinking bland soda pop: it’s refreshing because it’s cold (and I understand this appeal if it’s a really hot day), but it won’t provide any sort of interesting taste experience, it won’t provide a full organoleptic experience, if you want the fancy term.

This issue is one of the reasons I regret not having got onto a brewery tour during this journey across the US (they were booked up months ahead; we arrived at the wrong time; we just weren’t organised enough, etc). I really wanted to discuss it with some brewers. I suspect a lot of them would agree with me, but they can’t control how people store their products, and it’s hard to counter decades of “ice cold” marketing.

Fish and chips and ale at the Magnolia

Our last night, last night
Still, last night, our final night in the US, I at least had a nice chat with a guy in Magnolia on Haight. He was your standard craft beer hipster with a big beard and tattoos, but was informative and told us about how this brewgastropub uses “high end ingredients” (the menu talks about their enthusiasm for English bitter styles and Marris Otter malts) and how they’re “one of the few places that do” have a cellar, for storing their casks at the appropriate temperatures.

None of us knew what “aphotic” meant though, when Fran had an Aphotic Baltic Porter. Reading now, it’s the portion of a lake or ocean without sunlight, which is a great name for this inky black, blackcurranty beer.

We also drank two of Magnolia’s three own brews: Sara’s Ruby Mild, a 3.9% ale in a low carbonation English bitter style, deep red in colour, with a smell “like Bolognaise sauce” (Fran) and a maltiness that was more milky (like Ovaltine) than caramelly; and Proving Ground IPA, a fairly strong (7%), fairly acridly bitter, slightly salty hopped ale.

Like the Spotted Pig, where we went in the West Village in New York, Magnolia is one of those places that does the pub + food combo so much better than many gastropubs I’ve been too in the UK. They even did some great fish and chips. And did beer themed desserts.

Beer-themed desserts at the Magnolia

It was a great end to my beer odyssey across the States. I’m trying not to have any booze at lunchtime, as tonight we’re getting on a 13 hour/two day (date line, innit) flight and want to be feeling as fresh as possible before this dehydrating, discomforting, dehumanising aero-schlep.

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Seafood guilt

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A lot of things make me feel guilty about my personal contribution to the end of the world (by which I mean the end of human civilisation in its current form, not the literal destruction of the planet).

Flying, using a car, badly insulated houses with the heating on, having pets, not eating everything on my plate, using single-use food packaging, engaging with the industrial food chain, throwing away plastic, leaving lights on, my own methane etc etc etc (or ecc, ecc ecc in Italian), but my desire to eat seafood is right up there.

I could (and can) live without the meat of mammal and fowl, but do so crave cephalopod, crustacean and piscine flesh. Having gone without across the entire width of the USA – that is, about 3000 miles – I was keen to find some in SF. Luckily, one of Cameron’s friends was Sean, who not only introduced me to several good beers, but he also works at the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, which runs the Seafood Watch programme, to encourage sustainable seafood production and consumption.

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One of the places in SF that carries their badge is Hog Island Oyster Co in the Ferry Building. Yesterday, while on a mission to replicate a photo of Fran’s mum in SF in 1971, we stopped in to eat. Not that either of us actively likes oysters but hey, when in Rome. I had a very tasty stew – well, more of a creamy soup with five oysters in it. It was good and helped me overcome my mundane issues about this particular mollusc (raw oysters = marine mucous). I also had a
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Go west, middle-aged man!

Done so much, seen so much, eaten so much, drunk so much since last post, hard to know where to start.

How about some of the amazing wildlife we’ve seen?

So, in vaguely chronological order: mule deer and a bald eagle, from the window of the California Zephyr, the train that took us on an amazing 25 hour journey from Denver, through the snowy Rockies and mud deserts of Utah, to Truckee; en route I enjoyed Pale Ale from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, the Californian operation that’s one of the US’s biggest craft brewers.

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A red-tailed hawk skimming low over our heads in a frosty meadow in south Tahoe; we saw bear prints in the woods nearby, before arriving back at our friend Cameron’s street to see a black bear and her cub just over the street. In Tahoe, I drank Moose Drool from Montana.
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Then Great Basin’s Icky IPA, named after Nevada’s official state fossil the ichthyosaur (delicious, but served too cold as usual, so I had to warm it in the sun); “Distinct not extinct”.
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We also visited The Brewery at Lake Tahoe brewpub and sampling all nine of their delicious wares.
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I also ate a serious cinnamon bun from Sugar Pine Bakery to give me a sugary-carb hit before we went and lost money on the blackjack (aka 21) tables in a casino over the Nevada state line and got our money’s worth from a House of the Dead III machine.

Lake to sea
After a few fabulous days in Tahoe, we continued our westward journey, towards the California coast. As Cameron drove us towards her hometown of Carmel, we saw our first coyotes. I know these are pretty common in the western US, and considered a nuisance by many, but Brits like me get excited about such large fauna as we killed off such impressive animals as bears, wolves and lynx centuries ago. Plus, well, I love foxes, and coyotes are their big canine cousins: real survivors.

In Carmel we saw hundreds of cormorants and pelicans (again, common there but pretty exotic for us), as well as my first ever (sea) otters, all during a walk on the glorious Point Lobos. The latter were especially engaging – six or so, all snoozing in the kelp beds, floating on their backs and holding hands.

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In Carmel, I drank sundry beers, including Laguinitas Little Sumpin’ Wild Ale, which was strong (8.8%) and pleasingly, crisply bitter; Brother Thelonius from North Coast Brewing, a strong (9.4%) dark ale, reminiscent of slightly charred toffee apples; and Devotion Ale from The Lost Abbey, a sweet blonde; amongst others.
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We also tried to visit Post No Bills in Sand City, but were too early. Phooey, thwarted!

Big Surring
Somewhere we did visit, however, was Big Sur. This is a really special area that reminded me a bit of one of my fave places: the north of New Zealand’s South Island. Both have a rugged beauty, partially shaped by humanity but mostly defined by ocean and forest. On a hike in Andrew Molera State Park we saw more red-tailed hawks as well as another iconic American raptor, the turkey vulture.

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Beforehand, I’d fuelled up with the biggest, most amorphous almond croissant ever, from Big Sur Bakery. It was mighty good with a filling that was more crunchy than the usual almond paste.

Afterwards we had lunch at Nepenthe, a restaurant in a location once fleetingly owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth that has incredible views but food that needs a bit of an injection of energy.

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They had some great beers though, including the wonderfully named Eye of the Hawk from Mendocino brewing, another strong (8%) ale, this time coppery and warmly malty.

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Later on, we even fitted in a quick visit to Big Sur Taphouse, in the same stretch as the bakery.
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Pictures on the walls and a flag were Italian, but we drank local beers before buying some bottles from the amazing selection in the general store next door. Jeez, I wish British corner shops had such enthusiasm with their beer stock.

Oh, and I know I’m straying even further from my remit, but an honorable mention to Lula’s Chocolates for their Dark California Toffee: toffee, coated in dark choc, sprinkled with almonds. Best chocolate we had, and we we’ve been sampling a lot.

A bigger city
We’re now back in the big city, San Francisco, having said goodbye to Cameron, our ever-generous California host, on Wednesday night. We drove up via Santa Cruz, having a quick stop at the likeable Companion Bakeshop (handsome piles of breads, cookie far too earnest and 1980s-Cranks, tomato and onion tartlet underseasoned and soggy bottomed).

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As Cameron and I met at the kitchens of the American Academy in Rome, it was fitting that our final dinner together was at Chez Panisse, the restaurant founded by Alice Waters, who also set up the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the Academy.

I must admit the food couldn’t quite live up to the hype (things rarely do), but I did have an excellent beer as an aperitivo: Proportional Response from The Rare Barrel. This brewery – also in Berkeley, like the restaurant – specialises in oak-aged sour beers. I usually loathe oakiness in wine, but this stuff was great – smoothly sharp, acidly mellow.

Having seen a few photos recently in which my 40-something-not-getting-enough-exercise-belly is coming along nicely (tall skinny man with a beergut – never a good look), I managed to go a day with our bread, cakes or ale yesterday (almost – had a cookie), but we did have a great walk around the city.

I’m loving California, but I do struggle with a car-oriented lifestyle; I just love to walk around and SF is a perfect place to do that. Cameron’s mum had kindly given us tickets for the de Young Museum’s David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition. The show was largely about Hockney returning to his native Yorkshire after 25 years living in California and as such provided a perfect connection between dear, soggy, verdant old England and this magnificent state.

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We’ve got a few more days in SF now, before heading to NZ. I meant to get up early this morning and go to the much-praised Tartine, but I suspect we’re too late now as I’ve been doing this blog, having the usual fight juggling three devices and trying to sort all the pics and links.

We’ll see what the next few days hold. Sadly, I was way too late to get on a tour at Anchor Steam Brewery (thwarted again). Shame really, as I’m really keen to ask a US craft brewer about the whole issue of serving their brews at fridge temperature (4C, or 39F) compared to “cellar temperature” (8-10C, 46-50F).

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Down from the mountain

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We left Estes Park, and the elk, busy rutting by the road and slightly nonplussed when we slowed the enormous Dodge beside them to take photos, yesterday morning. The sun faded away behind a wall of cloud and drizzle as we got back to Boulder – itself still a mile (1600m) above sea level. It was flippin’ cold. Seriously, after two years in Rome we’re totally de-acclimatised to anything even vaguely near freezing.

Another immediately bizzarro comparison with Rome arose when we entered a café – and found everyone sitting in silence, on laptops. In Rome, people, you know, talk to each other in cafés. Still, the beer bars are decidedly more sociable – indeed, we’ve just been to Falling Rock Tap House in Denver and a note on the back of the menus scolds people for being on their phones.

Yesterday’s lunch was sociable too – we were still with Fran’s bro and family, though the Mountain Sun (1535 Pearl Street) was very welcoming to us all, including slumbering Angry Girl (19 months, in giant buggy) and hungry Brisket Boy (aka British Captain America, aged five). It was a really great spot, where the waiters were enamored of Brisket Boy’s accent and eager to please the slightly older beer drinkers among us by providing a superb selection of samples before we chose our pints.

These beer bars all have a serious emphasis on fried food though so we really enjoyed finding Bones in Denver today. This isn’t just an excellent fusionish noodle bar, with some splendid suckling pig steamed buns.

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They even had a few craft beers. Served far too cold (a bit of an issue here in the US methinks), but we still enjoyed our dark ales – especially my Ellie’s Brown Ale. It not only tasted good but it was named after a chocolate Labrador, reminiscent of the in-laws’ dog, Baxter, who we said goodbye to last week.

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After a bit of cultcha at the Denver Art Museum (Impressionism, US landscape art, the generation and consolidation of the myths of the American West, a giant dustpan and brush; not as cool as the giant blue bear though), we went to the Falling Rock. Where the serve beer at the right temperature, have an impressive selection, but slightly undermine the whole “no-phones-they-distract-from-the-beer”- ethos with bloody great screens. Still, at least it was basketball (Miami Heat beating Chicago Bulls), the most fluid, dynamic and engaging of the US’s three major sport obsessions.

Tomorrow may well be a craft beer-free day as we’re re-ascending the Rockies, this time by train, overnighting on the Amtrak California Zephyr before meeting our chum Cameron at Lake Tahoe.

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Thin air, good beer

And a little sunburn.

Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado

We’re currently in Estes Park, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, an area just recovering from terrible floods in September. Today we’ve had an icy walk around a lake at 2888m (9475ft), played some crazy golf and stocked up on beer from Estes Park Brewery, which is at an altitude of 2292m (7522ft). This tickled me as Dartmoor Brewery claims to be “England’s highest brewery” – at 1465ft, that is 447 in sensible, modern metre measures.

Baby Bugler 2 pint bottles of Estes Park Porter (left) and Redrum Ale (right), with Rockies sunset

The air is thin for us lowlanders, but the beer is good, especially when drunk on the veranda of our cabin with the sun setting and coyotes howling. (It’s also the elk rut and we’ve had a lot of their eerie bugling. I even cooked dinner on our first night here with these massive deer grazing just outside the window.)

The Shining Ale, Estes Park brewery

Really enjoying the brewery’s amber ale, named Redrum ale. Yep, we’re in The Shining territory. Stephen King was inspired to write his classic story while staying in room 217 at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. The brewery even does a The Shining beer to further milk the connection – especially in this run-up to Halloween, a festival that reaches bonkers proportions in the US, compared to the UK’s more traditional shifting of Samhain/All Souls’ Day/Halloweeny activities to Bonfire Night, 5 November.

Tomorrow we head downhill again, but only to Boulder – a town that’s already a mile high. And has 25 breweries within county limits. I don’t think we’ll be visiting them, as we need more child friendly activities, but maybe I’ll be able to try a few brews in passing.

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