Tag Archives: New Zealand

Nelson – small town big beer city

Nelson contradiction

I love the city of Nelson, in Tasman Bay at the top of NZ’s South Island. It has a cathedral and a royal edict, so it can call itself a city, but really it’s just a quiet small town.

When I lived in NZ in my mid-twenties, it was where I came for a break from the intensity of the sandfly infested, bush-clad hills and cliffs of the Buller Gorge, with its reliable rains and very short window of sunlight opportunity in the winter. The sun always seemed to shine in Nelson. And indeed, when we drove up on Sunday night, after two days of torrential downpours on the West Coast and in the Buller, the clouds parted.

We’d had a lovely, though brief visit to the farm and old friends I used to live with, and we even managed an Italian-ish lunch, with pizza, caponata (south Italian artichoke stew) and carciofi alla romana (Roman-style artichokes; though without the Romanesco artichokes, it was a little challenging) but as we don’t have that much time on this trip, we wanted to move on: to Nelson, with its claim of being the Craft Brewing Capital of NZ, and its dozen or so breweries. And population of not much more than 50,000; my home town has 35,000 people and a big fat zero breweries.

Pizza at OMM

Clear skies, empty stomach, free house
The clearing skies of Nelson were a welcome sight though. I dreamed of dry shoes and, enthused, we rushed out and started drinking beer. I thought the lunch would see us through, but my stomach was actually rather empty and the beer caught up with me. Oops.

Still, the venue was fantastic. The Free House is an ex-church on Collingwood Street in Nelson. Enter via a gate, past a large yurt (for events), and there’s the little chapel, with rendered walls and corrie iron roof.

It was a quiet Sunday evening, and the place reminded us a little of the village halls of our generation’s coming-of-age discos. Except for the giant cockroach sculptures on the wall. And the beer: 10 keg taps, three handpumps.

Stephen, the guy serving, said they’d been going since 2009 – so a few years after our last visit. The handpumps – which, he says are getting “more and more, more and more” attention from drinkers more used to the bubbles of kegs – were at this time all dedicated to Townsends, a independent local brewery, founded in 2005 and using Nelson hops and 25,000 year old water, “drawn up from over half a kilometre under the Moutere Valley Clay.”

We tried their JC IPA, which had nice resin, citrus, pine smells but a fairly mellow, malty taste. Nice medium body, but pretty minimal bitter crispness – a bit too mild for my idea of an IPA.  Also Sutton Hoo, an “American amber ale” which was very rich and smooth.

When I asked Stephen for the most assertive beer they had on, he gave me a Volcano Red from Mata Brewery on the North Island. Fran also tried Mata’s Black Brew Stout. Both were great, but the former was 7% and really got me on the aforementioned empty stomach.

Brewing founders
The next day, my beer cravings had abated somewhat. So we first focussed on food, and culture. We visited a great Nelson bakery, the Swedish Bakery at 54 Bridge Street, and had some quality pastries for breakfast.

After some museum action, we headed out to Founders Heritage Park, a kind of Truman Show set with old NZ buildings, few hundred metres of train line, a recreation of a windmill, and a brewery, also called Founders.

It’s a brewery that’s been relaunched this year with some great artwork, but the standard of the branding made me a bit suspicious, as did the blurb’s insistence on saying things like “Spanning over 6 generations and almost twice as many brewers, Founders has been brewing beer in Nelson for almost 160 years”.

Founders taster

Indeed, dig a little deeper and it becomes clear there hasn’t exactly been 160 years of continuous, independent brewing. Indeed, from 1969 to 1999, they were owned by DB (one of the two big NZ brands). Between 1999 and 2012 they did seem to be an indie, at Founders Park and the “First fully certified organic brewery in the Southern Hemisphere and only one of six in the world.” In 2012, however, they sold to Boundary Road Brewery, which is itself part of the so-called Independent Liquor Group, which is part of Japanese drinks giant Asahi.

We did a taster of their six current brews and while they were all nice enough (albeit on tap and served too cold), some bordered on bland and the 2009 IPA was again a case of not enough hop bitterness.

Later on, we went to the State Cinema (where I’ve been seeing films since 1994), which has a pizzeria, Stefano’s, where the pizzaiolo is dubbed “The King of Pizza”. Maybe him and Rome’s Gabriele Bonci need a pizza-off. Stefano’s looked pretty awesome, though we’d just eaten elsewhere so didn’t sample.

After a film, we did managed one more beer (a half each) from one of the ever-increasing number of Sprig & Fern outlets. This is another Nelson small brewery brand, that is slowly but surely expanding, to Wellington, to Auckland. I tried their IPA, which was pleasant enough, but lacking in the hoppy bitterness. Again.

Return of the Mc
As I’ve said several times recently on this blog, between the ages of about 18 and 24, I didn’t drink, put off booze by bad 1980s corporate lager, which dominated the pubs of my teenage years. It was NZ’s Black Mac, a kind of schwarzbier (black lager), that subsequently got me interested in beer. So I felt I had to go to the new McCashin family brewery.

Rochdale ext

Terry McCashin, who first started brewing Mac’s beers in 1981 had sold his brewery – which really kicked off NZ craft beer – to Lion Nathan in 1999, killing its craft credentials. In 2009, though, his son, Dean, moved back into their original premises, the 1950s Rochdale Cider factory in Stoke, just outside Nelson, and started brewing again, as a fully NZ-owned operation.

Bravo. Kinda convoluted. But bravo.

The brewery has a great café and woman at the bar who greeted us was charming. The guy who guided us and five others was sweet too, though he didn’t introduce himself and seemed to struggle when questions took things off-script. He did have an interesting take on how to define “craft beer” though – “a craft will adhere to the materials – water, yeast, hops and malt”. So while industrial brewers can and do add sugars, craft brewers rely on the complex sugars from the malts.

Malts at McCashin's

He talked about how the brewery is producing beer (under the ‘Stoke’ brand), ciders, wine and is even embarking on vodka and whisky distilling. They also contract brew: we watched Moa bottles coming off the bottling and pasteurising line.

Yes, they filter and pasteurise. They also add CO2. The guide said the gas was to please the Kiwi taste for fizzier beer, but this seems to contradict what Stephen of the Free House was saying about their hand pumps. Plus, the guide also said that without pasteurisation beer wouldn’t have the longevity (“Lucky to get two weeks”), but this is contradicted by hundreds of traditional and craft brewers the world over who are bottle conditioning with live yeasts.

After a wander round the brewery, we tasted about a dozen Stoke beers. Now clearly these guys know their beer and know the beer business, but several of them seem fairly similar – mellow, malty, bubbly, not much in the way of bitterness or strong hoppiness.

Their most popular and garlanded beer, the Stoke Amber, is a really pleasant summer beer, but doesn’t have much character beyond a nice colour and a slightly strawberry smell. Their Lager, Pilsner and Gold are all fairly similar, and their Stoke IPA isn’t far off – it’s too mild to really stand out as an IPA. (Again.)

They do have more interesting beers, like the Cirrus Wheat, with its big banana smell and taste, and Smokey Ale, with its overtones of bacon-flavoured crisps or even kippers, and their Double Pale Ale finally has a bit of bitterness (it’s dry-hopped), but all in all, I found their wares a little underwhelming.

McCash still life

But then maybe nothing they could do would hold up against my memories of my 24-year-old self’s first revelatory experience of a rigger of Black Mac, filled up in a rough Murchison pub and drunk on the veranda of my friends’ place in the Buller.

So we drove on, leaving the other Stoke breweries – Lighthouse, Bays – for another day. Thankfully, on our way around Tasman Bay we went to another brewery, which really restored our faith in the NZ beer scene. But this post is getting far too long, and the view outside is far too splendid to ignore, so I’ll save that for another day.

Right, I’m off to see some glowworms.

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Filed under New Zealand beer, Travelling

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.]


Filed under Bakeries, Breweries, New Zealand beer, Other food, Restaurants etc, Travelling

Back on the Mainland

Woodfired oven, Marlborough Sounds

Historically, the South Island of New Zealand has been called the Middle Island (when the southerly Stewart Island was factored in), or more commonly the Mainland (when Christchurch was the country’s main city). I like the latter nomenclature, as the South Island’s always been my main New Zealand destination, my on-and-off home.

It’s also proving to be a place with less-than-modern notions of internet access though. We’ve been down here a while now, and only now am I getting a chance to sit down with some semi-functional WiFi.

When we came over from Wellington a week or so ago, we immediately caught another boat and went deep into the Marlborough Sounds to catch up with my old friend Nadia. She’s living on the side of Mount Stokes, with a woodfired oven and a mighty fine view.

Pizza in oven

She’d made dough, and when we reached her place we had a good session sliding pizza into the oven and chowing down on the results mere minutes later. Gotta love 400-ish-C of woodfired oven.

Nadia cutting pizza

Much of our visit involved working on her precariously tiered hillside garden, and chasing away a weka (a tenacious flightless NZ bird that is the bane of many people who try to have a veg garden in areas with nearby bush), but we did find time to ardently discuss Italian food, cook up some carciofi alla romana (Roman style artichokes), and even attempt a kind of ciabatta. For this, I used the remains of Nadia’s pizza dough as a kind of biga.

Folding dough for ciabatta

I mixed up a new dough, left it to ferment for a day, then stretched it and slid it into the oven. I hadn’t got the oven quite hot enough (hey, it’s my first time), so the spring wasn’t good, but it was still a pleasing exercise.

Taking out ciabatta

… Other than when I tried to make another variant, it got stuck on the peel, and I ended up losing the loaf to the embers. Hi ho. Live and learn.


Now we’re heading further south on the Mainland, after visiting another old friend, Susie, in the Buller Gorge, catching up with loads of other young old friends (some of whom I’ve know since their infancy – it’s disconcerting to go away for 10 years and come back and find all these adults).

We even managed to fit in a fairly intense tramp/hike/mountaineering scramble in the mountains of Nelson Lakes National Park. It was a route I’d wanted to do for years, but after weeks of summer, the weather turned back into winter and we found ourselves on a very exposed ridge, all rocks and scree, in thick cloud, horizontal rain and cold winds. Fran, who has a kind of mountain-ridges-vertigo, looked like she was about to file for divorce there and then.

We’re still married though, thankfully, and even survived a seven hour jaunt by car today, the start of a Mainland road trip. Which has even involved some slightly frustrating (I’m always designated driver as Fran doesn’t have a license) visits to several breweries, which I’ll write up at some stage.


Filed under Breads, Pizza

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.


Filed under Ale, beer, Bars, pubs etc, New Zealand beer, Restaurants etc, Travelling

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.


Filed under Ale, beer, New Zealand beer, Travelling

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.


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.


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


Filed under Ale, beer, New Zealand beer, Travelling

Toccalmatto’s Oceania hoppy Saison

Toccalmatto Oceania hoppy saison

Another Toccalmatto with another crazy bit of label design, like Zona Cesarini but more especially B Space Invader. This time, the label seems to portray a strange fantasy Polynesian coconut-tiki-demon seizing a double-jointed (or even bone-less) hula dancer, like some King Kong riff.

Oceania isn’t actually on Toccalmatto’s site (here. Beware! Airbrushed goth babe), or in the Guida alle birre d’Italia 2013, but apparently it was created in 2011 as a one-shot but added to the range on the strength of a good response from punters.

The label calls it a “New World Hoppy Saison” in nice helpful English then expands: Birra doppia malta chiara, secca e beverina / Unisce speziatura classica delle Saison agli aromi dei luppoli Neozelandesi e Australiani / Birra di Alta Fermentazione – Rifermentata in Bottiglia. That is, “A double-malted clear beer, dry and drinkable / Uniting classic saison spiciness with the aroma of New Zealand and Australian hops / Top fermented – Bottle conditioned.”

Toccalmatto Oceania back label

The ingredients are water, malted barley, malted wheat, hops, sucrose, yeast. The sucrose is perhaps unexpected – you’d think with not one but two malts there would be enough sugars for the yeast, but adding more is presumably a factor in its fortification. Yep, it’s another strong beer: 7% ABV.

Some comments online also suggest adding sucrose to your brew can make it taste “cidery”, but others strongly refute this as a misconception that arose from poorly balance homebrew kit beers. This well-informed forum contributor, PseudoChef (a biochemist from Chicago), says: “Adding sugar to your recipe can be advantageous in that it helps ‘dry’ out the beer and thus reducing cloying body sweetness in some styles and accentuating hop bitterness in others.”

Certainly the Oceania is in no way cidery, and is indeed dry not sweet. Overall it’s another great beer from Toccalmatto.

Toccalmatto Oceania

It pours with a decent head. It has an odour of citrus (orange, grapefruit), fresh cut grass, fresh herbs growing in the sun (rather than, say, cut dried herbs or hay. Or is that getting a bit specific?). The body is medium-light, and colour is orangey-yellow and slightly cloudy. It’s well-carbonated, and has a tart, fruity flavour with touches of resin. Presumably from the hops, which in this case are New Zealand (Motueka, Pacific Jade) and Australian (Galaxy, Rakauand).

Finally, it has a fresh, crisp mouthfeel. Indeed, despite having something of that sweet-sour-spicy-fruity complexity you get with a good saison, it’s another lovely refreshing summer beer, and again one that’s so beverina (drinkable) it belies its strength.


Filed under Ale, beer