|The baying masses at the Garage Project bar|
The festival being as big as it is, relies on a whole army of volunteers to pour, advise, empty the slop buckets and carry out the small tasks that help keep things running smoothly. Throw in free entry, free beer and free pie and obviously we were there. With bells on. We both spent the Friday evening session behind the bar; myself on the Wellington bar, C over at the Australian bar. The Wellington bar was staffed mostly by brewers as at one end were the four winners of the recent Wellington in a Pint contest, and at the other were the Yeastie Boys taps, so I was left mostly serving beers from local outfits Funk Estate, Keraru and Black Dog. Our bar supervisor worked at legendary craft beer bar Hashigo Zake, so I was in good (if rather intimidating!) company. We had half an hour before the punters arrived, which gave us an opportunity to sample the beers, and happily amounted to a free run at the taps on your bar. Of course we had to be familiar with what we were serving, it's a hard job but someone's got to do it!
The session kicked off and the thirsty punters flood in. The Wellington bar was one of the more popular regional bars (for obvious reasons). The Funk Estate Black IPA was a tasty drop, hoppy but with some smooth roasty flavours to round it out. It won the 'People's Choice' award the night I was serving, obviously due to my superior pouring abilities! I'm not entirely convinced that this wasn't just about which brewer could organise the most of their mates to text in, but it was a deserving winner nonetheless. Funk Estate are the latest young upstarts on the Wellington scene and we were also pouring their Coconut Rough, a very interesting beer. It was billed as a coconut stout and was very drinkable and well balanced. Not too much like a beery Dark Bounty chocolate bar like similar beers I've tried in the past. Keraru Hop To It was another hoppy pale ale, with some zesty marmalade notes and was probably the most popular beer I was serving.
Of course, people were very keen to try the Wellington in a Pint competition winners. Being alongside them also gave me an opportunity to re-evaluate them. In all honesty I wasn't particularly blown away after attending the launch event at the Fork & Brewer recently, but it just goes to show that you can't always judge a beer on a single pint. Maybe my taste buds were having an off-day? I reckon familiarising yourself with a beer can definitely bring out a higher appreciation, just like any other acquired taste really. The point of the competition was to brew a beer that represented Wellington and was accessible to everyone, so intensely hopped and high alcohol beers were seemingly off the cards. Cooked Straight was a golden ale with a twist; slightly sweet from the added honey and slightly smoky from the smoked seaweed that was added fresh from the Cook Straight. Neither flavour dominated too much which made it a very drinkable beer. I had already decided that it was my favourite on the launch night, and this confirmed it's place. The brewer was very happy to hear that, so happy in fact that he insisted on me having a free pint. Kawakawa Cable Car Classic was an interesting one, from the colour (red) and the taste (tart cherries) I assumed it contained fruit, but the colour came from the type of malt used and the tartness from local Kawakawa tree leaves. This time I really enjoyed it, and it was up there as one of my favourites of the weekend.
The Yeastie Boys were the stars of the show on the Wellington bar, in fact I was surprised that they didn't have their own bar as did many of the other renowned New Zealand breweries. Gunnamata was a highlight of the weekend for us both, an Earl Gray infused IPA which the official tasting notes described as "like tonguing granny". Presumably only if your granny also enjoyed copious amounts of hoppy beer! A very drinkable drop even at 6.5% (and mercifully on the threshold of the beer token price structuring, anything over that was twice the price), the combination of the tea and the hops made it a very dry and refreshing affair, with a intensely bitter after-taste Digital IPA seamlessly melded both new (big hops & malt) and old world (dry, quite bitter) styles. It was bursting with tropical fruit aromas, but with a dry edge that made it very drinkable.
The Australian bar had an even larger range of beers as they also had some bottles, 20 beers in total. It was great to see Western Australian natives Feral Brewery on show, and we greatly enjoyed the Feral Watermelon Warhead (made with Swan Valley watermelons), an amazing low-alcohol sour beer coming in at just 2.9% and drinking more like a dry Cava. There was a panic at the beginning of the shift as the lines had frozen, and as this was one of the most highly-anticipated beers on show there was bit of scramble to get it flowing again. To add to the (well-deserved) hype surrounding it, quantities were limited so it was only available for the first hour or so. Karma Citra, also from Feral, was an old favourite of ours from evenings spent in the Sail & Anchor in Fremantle, a hoppy black IPA with a nice citrus zing. Mountain Goat's Gypsy and the Goat Black Pepperberry IPA (a Mikkeller collaboration) had some interestingly dry berry flavours. Mash Collective Rumweisen was a dark and very rich wheat beer, needless to say C was a bigger fan of this than I (on account her being more fond of both strong beers and wheat beers). She would also like to "big-up" a female owned and run brewery, Two Birds, a "beautifully well-rounded" Sunset Ale she was pouring which made for "a great session beer". All those speech marks make it sound sarcastic, but it is genuine praise I assure you!
One of the best things about working at a beer festival is that everybody is there for a good time. Every last person I served was friendly, and genuinely interested in the beer we were serving. There were occasional people pleading to just be giving something a bit more 'normal' and less hoppy, but there were so many great beers across the spectrum that picking a bad one was hard to do. Certainly if you came knowing nothing about beer beyond the mainstream, 270 choices, at least half of them either super hoppy or experimental, would have blown your mind (and indeed it blew my own!).
So the next day we came back as punters, and got to work sampling the beers we hadn't already been aquainted with the previous evening. I was a like a kid in a candy store, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice on offer! We started at the Emerson's bar, with their award winning Pilsner and Brewer's Reserve. Certainly Emerson's are up there as one of the best breweries in New Zealand, long-standing and reliable, yet still open to experimentation. They brew the kind of beers you'd happily stock in your fridge as staples, but still bring out some great specials.
I won't harp on about every last beer we tried, which between us sharing our samples must have added up to a pretty unseemly number. Notable highlights were some proper cask ale (not something you see often here) from Cassel's and Sons and the 'cask redux' of Garage Project's Trip-Hop. The GP stand must have been the most popular of the night, they seem to have done a great job at creating a buzz around their beer. But that would be worthless if their beer wasn't also great, which it most definitely is. So much so that I will be writing a whole post about them next time. Liberty Brewing's Yakima Monster was another favourite, a hoppy but robust and well-rounded pale ale. Mike's Onemorepaleale got a few laughs (well, mocking laughs from C) for my misreading of the very small writing on the pump-clip as Onomatopoeia. That gives me an idea; maybe I should trademark Onomatopoeiale, and release it as the first beer from my very own Tsschh Glug Glug Brewing Company. Sorry folks, that was my attempt at a joke, won't happen again...
Although the main event was always going to be the beer, the organisers really went to town on placing the food in a starring role too, rather than relegated into the usual role of soaking up alcohol and keeping the punters spending/from passing out. Normally going into a beer festival with an empty stomach would be inadvisable, but I was glad I did. First up, some delicous dumplings from The Dumpling House, one of many excellent Wellington eateries represented at the festival. After that we were straight into the cheese and beer matching seminar, presented by former cheesemonger and current beer specialist at our local bottle shop Regional Wines and Spirits (I just discovered this place; 20 fill-your-own taps, heaven!). Although it was kind of obvious to us that beer and cheese matched, we hadn't ever really tried matching a specific cheese with a specific style of beer. At the beginning of the seminar we collected 5 different cheeses matched with 5 samples of beer. Here are our collected thoughts on the combinations:
Goats Chevre with Tuatara Hefe was by far our favourite. The banana flavours of wheat beer with farmyardy goats cheese doesn't sound like it'd work but it really did. I highly recommend you go out and buy some soft goat's cheese and a bottle of wheat beer, this minute!
Vintage Cheddar with Emersons Regional Best Bitter: Lovely cheese but we thought the strong cheddar overpowered the beer, which was a lovely and malty, easy-going English session ale.
Next up was Brie with Hallertau Saison, both bring to mind the farmyard (in a good way!), and together worked nicely.
There were a couple more combos but the details are hazy. I seem to remember there being a plummy porter that worked well with a blue cheese. In the same way port might. And some funky sour beer with seriously feety rind-washed cheese also worked rather well if you like that sort of thing (C certainly does)!
Other food highlights were the Cornish pasties from our 'local' the Hop Garden, and a delicious steak sandwich with homemade sweet chilli ketchup from upmarket Boulcott Bistro. There was some kind of discount $2 pork sandwich at the end of the night from a kindly vendor, but honestly by this point the details were a blur!
For my last beer of the evening I scrabbled around for some tokens and managed to bag a glass of 8-Wired Super Conductor with seconds to spare, and truly delicious it was. Probably not the best idea to round off an evening of frantic sampling with a 9% strength double IPA, but it was the perfect end. It's not usually a style I'm fond of, I'm only normally a fan of darker beers at this end of the alcoholic spectrum. But there is something wonderfully fresh, zingy yet rounded about this beer. I'd had it before and had it since, and I can safely say it rates as one of my favourite Kiwi beers. Apparently this beer has so many hops in it that it would be actually impossible to brew on a commercial scale due to the ongoing US hop shortage!
Apparently the literally translation of nirvana is 'blown-out', which definitely described the festival for me (although in a different way than Buddha intended!). A blow-out of great beer, food and people. Beervana, it was a pleasure getting to know you and it cemented my feeling that Wellington is one of the greatest beer cities in the world. I'll raise a glass to that!
Apologies for lack of photos - I kicked myself afterwards but obviously we were too busy enjoying ourselves!