Monday, 4 March 2013

The Pathway to Hoppiness

Special guest post from the wifey!

As a birthday my dearest husband paid for me to attend 'Pathway to Hoppiness', a tasting session dedicated to all things hoppy run by local outfit Craft Beer College. I am writing this blog a fair few months later, and got a little merry on the day, so the interpretations of my hand written scrawls may seem a little out there! The session was held at legendary Wellington craft beer purveyors, Hashigo Zake, a Japanese themed 'cult beer bar' in the heart of Wellington selling a range of interesting beers both on tap and in bottles. We sat at shared tables and it seemed that most people were, like me, attending on their own, so we quickly got chatting and exchanging thoughts on the beer. Eight beers down the line (I should add, they were small samples of each of course!) I had befriended someone who had played a dwarf in the second Hobbit film and a fellow female beer devotee. Fun times indeed.

A very quaffable pilsner at 5.5%, with New Zealand Riwaka hops providing grapefruity notes and Motueka hops adding a bit of lemon and lime. Our 'teacher' also detected a diesel aroma from the hops, which proved to be a bit of a theme. She seemed to have diesel on the brain! Although it did seem to have a bit of a mineral edge, and was perhaps more well rounded and less crisp than a typical European Pilsner.

A staple Kiwi session beer, this 3.7% bitter is something that would probably be acceptable to all different kinds of beer drinkers and ages. I can imagine this would be right up my Dad's street; not too strong but still flavoursome, a session ale yet still robust. Again Riwaka hops are used for flavour and aroma, and this time NZ Fuggles (different to UK Fuggles apparently) hops are used to add a bit of bitterness to contrast with the rich maltiness.  The NZ Fuggles hops are being used more often as the UK Fuggles are becoming prone to disease, and therefore harder to get hold of in large quantities. This beer was initially brewed as a 'one-off' for a Victoria festival in 1996, and was so successful it was subsequently entered into the NZ beer awards and received silver from the late, great Michael Jackson. A classic.

An IPA all the way from Suffolk, with a cool medicine style bottle. Brewed with all First Gold hops to provide the flavour, aroma, and bitterness, this had a really sweet, toffeeish nose and yet a real bitterness on the palate.  There was something almost herbal or woody about it, and a definite Turkish Delight edge. The malts provided a rich biscuit flavour and our hosts conceded that some of the fresh hop flavours would have disappeared on the long journey from the UK. At 5.5% it was another drinkable beer (in NZ terms at least - the trend is for stronger beers in smaller measures, a 'pint' being only 440ml) and something I would definitely be keen to drink again back home.

A 7% US IPA with very hoppy aromas, and something quite minerally on the nose. It had a sweet caramel edge to it, but not as malty as the St Peter's. It was heralded as a typical example a US IPA, similar to the UK style, the main difference being it also it hopped to high heaven. As is typical in this kind of beer, Colombus and Centennial hops are used, as well as some Cascade thrown in for good measure. The palette has some noticeable medicinal, resin/piney notes, as well as some floral flavours. It was 75 IBUs (International Bitterness Units) which is pretty darned high, but was served too cold for my liking (said like a true Brit!). I definitely preferred it as it warmed up a little, and some of the malts were able to shine through.

A NZ IPA at 7.3%, sniffing this is like receiving a punch in the face with a fist full of hops. A great example of the typical flavours of NZ hops, the Nelson Sauvin provides some lovely gooseberry characteristics, and the beer had a great grapefruit and passion fruit zing. They also bring a grassy note and (dare I say?) a bit of a sweaty armpit flavour, in a rich, earthy kind of way. We had had this beer before, and we've had it since, and it absolutely rocks my socks every time. Go NZ hops!

Another NZ beer, this time a hoppy, dark, American-style Porter. It is so rich with nutty and coffee notes, as to be almost chewable! Clocking in at 6% with Nelson Sauvin, US Cascade and Slovenian Styrian Goldings hops, when this was first brewed the Yeastie Boys constantly changed the recipe and so it was quite different batch-to-batch. They've now settled on a recipe which results in more of a hoppy porter style than the black IPA it started life as. Unfortunately this beer just didn't stand up to the hops of some of the earlier beers, which was a shame as I have had it before and since, and know it is a really great beer.

We were now into the big boy's territory with this 9.2% Belgian IPA offering from Green Flash. The nose was almost wheat like, provided by the Belgian yeast. It is a hybrid of a Belgian Trippel and an American IPA which results in a sweet, rounded yet hoppy beer. Hops used included Nugget hops for bitterness, Summit hops for aroma, and it's dry hopped with US Amarillo hops to add a bit of stone fruit and citrus notes. The beer apparently has an IBU of 101! It's a pretty powerful and perfumed beer and one to not consume many of, but well worthwhile if you ever get the opportunity!

This Imperial IPA at 9.7% was (sadly at the time, luckily in retrospect) the last beer of the afternoon. After the power of the previous beer there didn't seem to be much to this beer in terms of smell, but the palate was a great balance of hop and malt.  It didn't taste it's strength at the time (although this may have been due to me now being suitably merry).  Again, that grassy, sweaty armpit definitely shone through, with a slightly medicinal aftertaste. The hops used are Simco and Centennial, and it's dry hopped with Cascade and Amarillo (and possibly another... at this point my handwriting is fairly difficult to decipher...!).

And with that, the session was over, and along with my new friends we stumbled to another bar for yet more beer. If I were to rank the beers, my top 3 would be 8 Wired Hopwired, St Peter's IPA, and Green Flash Le Freak.  All quite different from each other but still really great beers in their own right. Despite only living in New Zealand for 5 months at this point, I still had a feeling of pride and loyalty to 8 Wired, they're that good! Hopwired is so fresh, pungent and in your face, I will definitely be making the most of it while we are here!

Sunday, 21 October 2012


The baying masses at the Garage Project bar
Beervana is an event I had been aware of since last year while living in Australia, such is its status. When we decided to come to Wellington to live for a while I was excited to check it out. It's a festival of pretty epic proportions, especially for a small country such as New Zealand. Over 270+ beers, all brewed in New Zealand apart from a handful of Australian imports. Over four sessions it played host to around 8000 people and the festival is becoming a tourist draw in it's own right, both in-country and further afield. It is one of the reasons Wellington is actively promoting itself as a beer tourism destination. Craft Beer Capital is a great website that tells you what's pouring at the some of the city's excellent craft beer bars, a god-send for fussy drinkers such as myself and a convenient way to find out where new brews and old favourites alike have hit the taps.

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!

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Think Globally, Drink Locally

Wellington is a funny place, in world terms it's barely even on the map and many people might assume Auckland was the capital of New Zealand. But it punches above its weight and as well as being the political and business capital, it is also considered the culinary capital. Here are a few of my favourite local liquids, products with their origins a long way from here but which are undoubtedly world-class examples:

Beer from Garage Project & Parrotdog

I really am falling for these two rather excellent local breweries and you can expect that they will get many more mentions in this here blog as the year progresses. They say that beer is best drunk in the shadow of the brewery (technically the two breweries are in my shadow, as I live on the hill and they're in the valley, but I digress), but to say this is the only reason their beer tastes great would be doing them a serious disservice. Garage Project make a diverse range of beers, many with a American-influenced hop slant but what I love about them is that they are far from being a one-trick pony. They have the art of balance in a beer down to a tee, despite usually going for big flavoured beers; tropical fruity hops, cocoa nibs or even spicy chillies. The sheer variety and numerous different beers they have made makes me wonder when they actually get around to doing things like sleeping and eating. Parrotdog make some excellent beer too, Bitter Bitch is rapidly becoming one of my favourite beers. Big grapefruity hops balanced with full-bodied malt, with a very bitter edge makes it a great beer to linger over.

My favourite places to enjoy said beers are in town either in the cool Japanese-style bar Hashigo Zake, or the more homely English pub-style Little Beer Quarter. I also recently discovered that our local bottle shop Regional Wines & Spirits has 20 'Fill Your Own' taps, making drinking local craft beer at home an absolute bargain.

HavanaPeople's Coffee

I can't even begin to describe how good People's Coffee is. One of the things I enjoy most is the smell, which fills the house for a few days after we bring a fresh bag home. We don't have a grinder so we get them to grind the beans for us at the shop, and the aroma coming off them is beyond divine. I walked into the house the other night after C had picked up a fresh bag and it hit me as soon as I walked in the door, and I am currently still recovering from flu so it had it's work cut out. I know coffee aficionados will probably be horrified by this notion as it's probably the smell of some of the coffee's flavours literally disappearing into thin air but hey, it's worth it (and I don't think a coffee grinder is a particularly practical item to lug around when we hit the road again at the end of the year!). From a local point of view these guys are roasting barely a mile or two away, and I like it that they put 'roasted on' date on the bags. I just checked our most recent purchase and it was actually roasted on the day we bought it, it doesn't get any fresher than that!

There are a surprising amount of coffee roasters in Wellington, too many to mention, and the city is synonymous with good coffee. There are myriad places to grab a great cup but far and away our favourite place is Deluxe Cafe, check out this video by The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra filmed there. They serve the perfect long black made with Havana beans and make awesome vegan snacks, we can't get enough of their 'savoury balls' and tempeh wraps.

Wine from Marlborough

I can't write about quality beverages made in New Zealand without mentioning wine. The country is famous for its wines from the Marlborough area, and rightly so. While I'm a beer drinker first and foremost, I love a peppery Pinot Noir or the tropical fruit qualities of a sweet yet dry Sauvignon Blanc. Not quite as local but only a short journey across the Cook Straight, and easily the least food miles of the lot since it is grown and produced on home soil.

I realise that from a pedantic point-of-view coffee and beer aren't technically all that local with ingredients such as malt, hops and coffee beans mostly sourced from abroad (with the exception of New Zealand hops). But at the very least they are taking relatively non-perishable foodstuffs which can be shipped around the world in bulk with ease and mixing them with local ingredients and craftsmanship to make something top-notch. And to anyone who's snob-radar has been activated by this post I say, is it so bad to seek out the best of something you enjoy? I'll take quality over quantity any day.

I know I'm stating the obvious, but I reckon its always worth seeking out local solutions for one's nutritional needs and treats. It's certainly something worth thinking about before reaching for a favourite international brand off the supermarket shelf. You hopefully end up with something fresh and unique, even if it does cost a little more. The environmental impact will likely be less and it's always good to support local businesses, so everybody wins!

The inspiration for the title of this post came from a Gogol Bordello song, but I'm not quite sure they were talking about the same thing...

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Wellington on a Plate

Between Wellington in a Pint, Choice Beer Week, Beervana and Wellington on a Plate; August was an absolute treat and I've lost track of all the awesome meals and beers that have passed my lips. The "Coolest Little Capital" has certainly pulled out all the stops to ensure that winter doesn't drag on - although there's no comparison to a dark and depressing English winter, we're still getting 11 hours of daylight! But without Christmas it could get pretty depressing without a good smattering of excellent indoor festivities. As such there's been no danger of drifting into a winter slump (aside from the 'belly full of good food and beer' kind), so here's my attempt to write-up the best of them.

Wellington on a Plate is basically celebration of good food and the many great places to eat it in this fair city. For a few weeks participating restaurants have a special menu generally including a free glass of wine, to entice customers and get people trying somewhere new. One of the highlights for me has been the burger competition, ranging from the creative ("beef bacon" anyone?) to the weird (anyone for a banana and kaffir lime burger patty?).

We kicked off festivities at our local, The Hop Garden, which as well as being a purveyor of fine food sells lots of delicious local craft beer. Their entry into the burger competition was the 'Casablanca Kid', a Moroccan goat burger. Here's what it says on the tin: "Moroccan-spiced wild Wairarapa goat patty with roasted aubergine, couscous, lettuce, tomato and harissa sauce in a toasted Brezelmania bun, with handcut chips and weissbier aioli". I think the only other time I had goat previously was a month or so back in this very pub, obviously they're big fans of those wise-looking creatures. The patty itself was on the dry side (to be expected as goat is leaner than beef or lamb), but very tasty and spiced up with some Moroccan seasoning.  The aubergine was notable only by it's absence, which is a shame as it would have worked as a great lubricant for the meat. Harissa (a chilli sauce with spices and citrus) might just be my favourite relish ever, and I can't believe I had never thought to put it in a burger before. The bread was fresh and toasted to perfection, but I couldn't really see the benefit of adding cous-cous into the mix. It was in a square almost like a block of tofu, and along with the bun and chips (a combination which honestly I'm not that fond off; call me a wuss but I'd be happier with burger and salad!) made it a seriously heavy meal. To accompany the burger I had a Garage Project Trip Hop, a 'triple hopped' pale ale. This went down a treat, the fruity notes riffing off the fruit and spice dominated flavours of the burger perfectly. Despite some niggles we still very much enjoyed the burger, and duly texted off our 7/10 rating. Still a decent score I reckon, at university this would get you a first-class degree!

After a long, awesome yet tiring Beervana weekend (basically I was either at work or beer-in-hand for three days straight - although the beauty of volunteering at the festival was doing both at the same time!) we decided to check out the Tasting Room on Courtenay Place. Apparently having a Beef Wellington there is listed in the Lonely Planet as a top 10 culinary experiencing in Wellington, so we put our tourists hat on and checked it out. The place is wood panelled to the point of having the air of a Swedish sauna, but more likely they are going for a hunting lodge feel. Dimly lit and cosy, but with a big screen for sport and selling the usual suspects on tap in jug form, it seemed like the perfect place for a proper Kiwi bloke to take the missus of an evening. I spied the beer bottle list and promptly ordered an Invercargill Pitch Black while we waited for a table. I ordered the Beef Wellington (rude not to, and it was part of the WOAP special menu) and Charlotte plumped for the Wagyu beef burger. Mine came with a starter, a fresh and zingy tomato soup. We were Beef Wellington-virgins, and I admit I was pretty excited by the prospect. It came and was really something else, an amazingly indulgent meal. The Kiwis take their pies seriously, and this is basically the world's most decadent pie; a lump of Angus beef fillet wrapped in bacon, topped with duxelles (minced mushrooms, onions and garlic in paste form) and wrapped in delicate puff-pastry. I'm drooling just writing this! The rich, dark beer worked well with the steak, but was dry and cold enough to cut through what is a decadently rich meal.

Charlotte tried the Tasting Room's burger competition entrant, the Wagyu Wonder Burger. I had a taste, although I don't remember an awful lot about it as my tastebuds were overloaded and dancing for joy after the Beef Wellington. Here's what the menu said "100% Wagyu beef patty with aged cheddar, dry-cured bacon, vine tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and Tasting Room chutney". Wagyu is definitely one of my favourite types of beef, and has a fun back-story to boot: The cattle are a Japanese breed but the key is also in the way they are raised; drinking beer or sake and receiving massages. I suppose if you had to be an animal raised for human consumption this would be the way to go! It was a very succulent, no-nonsense burger. In terms of the burger patty itself, I'm a firm believer in simplicity. Fresh mince, hand-formed and seared in a hot pan/griddle, a little seasoning on top (but not mixed in, salt does breaks down the proteins and it results in a much stodgier patty). So from my point of view, this was exactly how a burger should be. The meat being the main event, with the rest complementing it nicely rather than taking over entirely. I'll be so bold as to say this isn't going to win the award, I guess competitions like this are usually more about creativity and a good burger isn't hard to find in Wellington any time of year. We felt it deserved a 8/10 score in the context of this competition, I'd probably give it another half point if that was allowed! Bearing in mind that I'd save a 9 for a creative yet surprisingly awesome burger, and 10 is a score unlikely to ever be achieved, unless I could categorically state that it was the best burger I had ever had eaten and was ever likely to.

The next burger we tried out was at one of our favourite pubs, Little Beer Quarter. This was the first bar we set foot in on arrival in Wellington, and it certainly set the bar high. It has a cosy, pubby atmosphere with an excellent range of beers. Renaissance, Tuatara, Emersons and Moa are always well represented on draught with a good selection of the small craft brewers such as 8 Wired, Yeastie Boys and Garage Project too. It's definitely one of the most pleasant places in Wellington to while away an evening. But on this occasion, here's why were here: "Beer-braised hare and smoky bacon with watercress and a beer and beetroot relish in a Pandoro harvest seed bap". I was a little bit worried as there was a withering hand-written sign on the bar, asking for complaints to be discussed with the staff rather than blogged about. A sentiment I would agree with, I'm of the "if you can't say anything nice, say nothing at all" school of good manners and believe you should always give an establishment a chance to rectify the situation. But I find that kind of thing a bit too high on the passive-aggressive scale for my liking, and more than anything it made me worry that the food might be something to complain about! After supping an always delicious Tuatara Aotearoa Pale Ale, bursting with fresh NZ hops, the burgers arrived and my fears were allayed. A fresh semi-wholemeal seedy bun contained an epic feast: Hare steak, smoky bacon topped with seriously juicy beetroot relish. The meat was in whole form rather than minced into a patty, and was more along the lines of a perfectly done stewing steak; juicy and tender. On top of this you might think that aioli would be overkill, but it really worked and added a creamy dimension to the prevailing richness. This was a seriously indulgent burger, but the peppery watercress and juicy beetroot kept it all in check. This may just be one of the best burgers I have had the pleasure of eating. From a pendantic point of view: was it a burger or a sandwich? But I ignored this petty qualm and duly texted off my 9/10 rating.

The last meal of our burger challenge was at Beach Babylon, by the water on Oriental Parade; one of my favourite parts of the city. We'd been meaning to check the place out for a while, and was glad of an excuse. A rather impressively mistachioed chap welcomed us, and I ordered an Emerson's 1812 to kick things off. This is a very well balanced IPA, malty in the English style but with a burst of New World hops. We first introduced to this great beer by Charlotte's old boss (at the pub in Akaroa where she worked briefly), drank this regularly and introduced us to it. The guy was way past retirement age and the pub was pretty old school, mostly serving interchangeable big brand beer by the jugful. He seemed to keep a collection of local craft beer more for himself than the locals (we also had our first Three Boys Oyster Stout here, what a lovely beer). A great sign that times are changing, slowly but surely, in the New Zealand beer scene. Charlotte had opted for the lunch special, which came with a cheese fondue starter. It was effectively a whole block of cheese melted into a bowl so it was a good one to share! If there are many more indulgent pleasures on this earth than melted cheese then, for the sake of my health, I probably shouldn't know about it. Sour dough bread, dipped into melty Emmental cheese, just picture this and tell me you're not drooling. The strong malt character of the beer chimed with the sweetness of the cheese, but the bitter hops jumped in there to cleanse the palate. For the main course she had the Fritata which she assures me was "beautifully light". The main event for me of course was the burger; "grilled ostrich patty with prosciutto, smoked provolone cheese, mizuna, and spicy cherry relish in a Turkish bap". Another fantastically indulgent concoction; a typically oily Turkish roll got the ball rolling, the cheese was an excellent Italian variety which was like a slightly smoked mature cheddar, and melted perfectly onto the burger. The prosciutto added a funky flavour along with the slightly gamey ostrich patty. To bring it back from the brink was the sweet cherry and red cabbage relish, kind of like sweet sauerkraut. It was a really great burger, but I couldn't help but think it would have been better with beef. There just wasn't an awful lot to say about the Ostrich patty, it was just meaty, and a little on the greasy side (surprising as Ostrich is quite a lean meat). But every other element of the burger was absolutely spot on, and between the smoked cheese and the cured meat it made for interesting eating. I gave it 8/10. Out of all the burgers we ate, this is the one I would love to most replicate at home. I'll let you know if a beef patty works out any better!

After starting to scratch the surface of the many purveyors of great burgers, the competition was over for another year. All of the burgers I tried were very good in their own right, and it's only in the context of a competition that you would start to notice some of the negatives, or think about how it could be better. It's probably not always the best attitude to go into a meal you've paid your hard-earned for, but it's the kind of thing I do every time I eat, even more so if I've cooked it! While usually it's great to just sit back and enjoy a meal regardless, thinking about what you eat and drink is no bad thing. I guess if I didn't think about what I ate or drank, I wouldn't currently be boring you with this very blog! Now wouldn't that be a shame... Surprisingly none of the establishments we visited were short-listed for the final judging, so I look forward to more seriously awesome burgers in the future. Rumour has it that the winner is currently reprising their entry, so I may well have to check that out and report back.

On the final weekend of the festival, we sought out one final treat. After meaning to pay this place a visit ever since the beginning of WOAP, we finally got around to checking out the pop-up Oyster bar on Cuba Street. It was run by seafood specialists Yellow Brick Road (not Martin Bosely's as I originally posted, although he was helping out on the night - hence my confusion!), and has been freshly shucking oysters each evening in a car park up on Cuba St to delighted bivalve lovers. I'm not sure we'd put ourselves in that category, as we had never had an oyster before or are particular fans of raw seafood. When we saw they were doing Tuatara Pilsner battered Oysters, we knew that would be right up our street, and after a bit of a wait due to the sheer popularity of the place we were not disappointed. They were buttery and tender, a little firm but not chewy like mussels. There was a great buzz about the place, and a good mix of seasoned seafood lovers and first-timers like ourselves. We were really loving the oysters and tentatively agreed to pop back the next night and try some raw ones, only to realise that it was their last night. But as an added bonus for their last night, Yeastie Boys brewer Stu McKinlay was pitching in and taking orders, whilst serving up his award-winning Pot Kettle Black porter along with Wellington in a Pint winner Celia-Wade Brown Ale. Delicious! A perfect marriage of high quality local food, matched perfectly with an excellent local beer.

One great thing about Wellington is that you can barely walk into somewhere selling craft beer without bumping into the people who make it, and I am already starting to recognise a few faces about town who are doing great things for beer in New Zealand. I'll be starting to cover the NZ beer scene in more detail from now on and my next post will be about the legendary Beervana festival, stay tuned!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Brasserie Cantillon, Bruxelles

Belgium almost feels like a second home to us; in our minds it is forever the home of beer and punk rock, so it's no wonder we keep finding ourselves in this small and oft-dismissed country. Visits to Belgium bookended the time we spent back on home soil earlier in the year; in February we headed straight for Bruges Beer Festival upon touching down in continental Europe after over a year away. Never mind seeing the family! Although in my defence we met my sister, along with a bunch of other people we had dearly missed. Just to top things off it snowed upon arrival, the perfect antidote to a 40+ Australian summer, turning Bruges into a magical Christmas postcard scene. Pretty much the perfect trip!

This time we were making our regular pilgrimage to Groezrock festival before catching our flight to New Zealand. There's nothing particularly Belgian about the festival (apart from a few mainstream beers) and most of the bands are American. Belgium just happens to be conveniently placed to bring together all the punk rockers from across the continent!

We decided to spend a couple of days either side of the festival taking in the cultural delights Belgium has to offer. I'm not being sarcastic when I say it's up there as one my favourite countries in the world, and what's not to like? Antwerp is a fantastic city, full of history and culture. Ghent and Bruges are a pretty picture, and that's even before you get to the quality of the beer and the twice-fried chips! Sure between these places it's mostly flat and industrial, but nowhere's perfect. We thought we should give Brussels a second chance as we didn't think much of it the first time we visited, it seemed like a pretty grey, work-a-day city. I still can't say it's one of my favourite cities but we did a bit more sight-seeing and there's plenty going on.

The highlight of our sightseeing was a visit to Cantillon, an old family-run brewery dating back to 1900. It's still thriving and remains independent, unusual for a small brewery in Belgium these days. It only brews around 1700 hectolitres a year, which sounds like quite a lot but let's put things into perspective; the Stella Artois beer mega-factory in Leuven produces 8.6m hectolitres each year, over 5000 times more. Production was upped to their highest levels ever, 2500 hectolitres, during the 1958 Brussels World's Fair - we had visited the amazing Atomium earlier in the day, the iconic monument built for the fair is now a Brussels landmark.

After getting a bit lost we eventually found the brewery in a slighty seedy area of the city. It's a very unassuming place hidden away on a normal Brussel's street, (looking at Street View 'Brasserie Cantillon' is daubed on the building in big letters but it was obscured by scaffolding when we visited!). It's the kind of place which is a pilgramage site for beer lovers, and isn't big enough for the tour bus crowds, so as such I imagine it doesn't really need to advertise itself much. We got the attention of a member of staff going about their daily business, and were given a quick introductory speech before being handed a guidebook and being ushered off to explorer the brewery on our own.

Cantillon make lambic beer, brewed by spontaneous fermentation with wild yeasts. Before science came along and figured out how and why fermentation occured so that brewers were able to exert control over the yeast, beer would be left in the open air to pick up wild yeast to feast on the sugary wort, making it alcoholic. Cantillon's beer is made with around three times as many hops compared to other Belgian beers, mainly because it is a natural preservative. Although this doesn't mean the beer is a hophead's dream, aged hops of over three years old are used to impart less bitterness but maximise preservation, very important given that the beer isn't particularly strong (5%) and is typically matured for a few years before drinking.

They only brew for 5 months of the year from late October to early April, so there was very little going on apart from in the bottling area. The reason they only brew in the winter is because the beer is still made in a very traditional way, with very little modern technology. The wort (the boiled ingredients of the beer before it has fermented) needs to be cooled to 18-20 degrees celcius, this happens in a shallow cooling tun in the rafters of the building. Up here there are vents which can be opened to let the cold air in (this can only be done on winter's night), and let the wild yeasts come in on the wind. Legend has it that this is only possible in the Senne River valley area of Brussels - although scientifically this has obviously been disproved, but presumably the specific strains of yeast picked up could be unique to the area. Until 1860 all beer was brewed by spontaneous fermentation, as yeast was an unknown quantity, whereas now it is scientifically cultivated to produce various styles of beer, and only lambic beers are still made by this method.

The beer is matured in old wine barrels, or occasionally cognac casks. For the first few days after being filled the casks cannot be sealed otherwise they risk exploding, so alive is the beer. It is then matured for a number of years. In a 500 litre barrel only about 320 litres ends up being sellable. This is due to wastage during the initial fermentation, reduction in volume while maturing and presumably they can't use dregs in the bottom as it isn't filtered. The main style of beer that Cantillon makes is actually a blend of 1, 2 and 3 year old lambics known as gueuze. Fruit varieties are also made. After the beer has fermented for 2 years cherries, raspberries, grapes or apricots are soaked in the beer. This process takes place in summer, as you can imagine all that sticky-sweet beer-soaked fruit attracts a lot of insects. This represents a problem for an organic brewery using only 19th century technology but, as is so often the case, mother nature has the answer. Natural predators are actively encouraged and as such, spiders are sacred here. Destroying a cobweb or killing a spider here is definitely frowned upon!

Anyway that's enough of a history/science/brewing lesson, not that I pretend to be an expert in any of those fields as I'm sure you can tell if you have read this far! As interesting as the process is, the proof is in the pudding so to speak, and after wandering around the brewery it was time for the best bit; tasting the beer.

The samples we were given were the original Cantillon Gueze, delightfully hazy and with a funky farmyard aroma. It was tart and refreshing, and had more than a hint of dry Somerset cider. We also tried two of the fruit varieties; Kriek (cherry) and Frambois (raspberry). Still tart but with a sweet edge, the raspberry was our favourite. This stuff is the real deal, and beats the more prolific commercially brewed gueuzes (sweetened with syrups and matured for only a few weeks) hands-down. I just wished I'd stashed a few bottles in my bag, but it didn't seem like the most practical beverage to take to a festival!

After a very enjoyable hour or two we made our way out into the pouring rain, to meet our fellow punkers and head to the festival - more can be read about that element of the trip, including our night in Leuven, famous for 'the longest bar in Europe', here!

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Australian Beer Round-Up

Given that we left Australia almost 7 months ago, this write-up is long overdue. But there was a pretty cool beer culture to be found in good ol' WA if you looked for it, and I felt it would be a shame to go undocumented. To be fair we have touched on it more than a few times in our travel blog, but I wanted to condense into one post some of our favourite beers while living in the Golden State.

My original idea for this post was to write it over Christmas, where we would likely be drinking something different each day. I had the witty idea to punningly title it 'Twelve Beers of Christmas'. Getting round to writing this up means I have monumentally missed the boat, to the extent that as I started to write this Christmas four months gone, and now as I actually get round to publishing it, 8 months! I also don't think I did manage a different beer each day, and if I did I can't remember what it was! So I decided instead to write up our favourite beers from our time in Australia, my fading memories aided by the little beer diary that Charlotte bought me for my birthday. This way I won't have to bore you to death with descriptions of twelve beers, you can count yourself lucky to be getting away with a mere seven.

Bootleg Brewery – Grandfather Barley Wine
This beer came in a regal 800ml champagne bottle that demanded to be opened on a special occasion. It was slap bang between Christmas/my birthday and New Year and we were on holiday, so it just about met this criteria. I bought this while the Parkers were visiting us and we had taken a trip to Margaret River. Joe and I had opted to drive and do beach and breweries rather than cheese and wineries with Charlotte, Mike and Kath. I couldn't resist picking up a bottle and the wonder is that it lasted 3 months in the cupboard. It had already been aged a year so it had had sufficient time in the bottle to develop rich and plummy qualities. My notes tell me it tasted of treacle and cola sweets, and it was certainly a lot darker and more fruity than any barley wine I have ever tasted. It managed to balance a brooding richness with sweet effervescent refreshment, making it a perfect celebratory yet warming drink on a winter's evening. We were drinking it in the summer so we enjoyed it late on when the temperature had dropped, but I can imagine this going down well at a festive fireside celebration back home, and despite it's 9% strength it wasn't too heavy at all.

Coopers – Original Pale Ale
This was a staple that we regularly grabbed from the fridge or the esky on a hot day, super crisp and dry in true Australian style. To be fair it is quite a long way from a pale ale but it's very refreshing nonetheless, just what the (Fremantle) doctor ordered down the beach on a sunny day. The only thing I'm not convinced about is whether the yeast floating around in it adds much flavour, I suspect it's a gimmick as I didn't notice the difference when drinking the more finely filtered draft version. It does look fairly unappetising if you bother to pour it in a glass (in fact my notes tell me it looked like "cloudy urine with floaty bits"!). But Australian beer isn't often afforded the luxury of a glass, probably so as not to waste precious time in the journey from fridge to mouth in the stifling heat. As for the sediment, Coopers actively encourage you to shake it up and drink it along with the beer, unlike most English or Belgian ale which would often be advised to store upright for at least a day for it to settle before pouring carefully into a glass. Of course some people choose to pour the yeast in too, to add an extra dimension of flavour (or ruin the beer depending what it is). A quick glance at their website reveals there is a 'ritual' specific to each of their beers (apart from the finely filtered lagers and light beers of course). It is apparently proper to roll, rock, tip, twist or rotate the bottle a specific number of times before opening. Never mind that the act of drinking out of the bottle is going to shake up the sediment anyway. But the marketing worked, and I happily carried out the 'ritual' of rolling my pale ale before twisting off the cap and taking a long gulp; cold, refreshing, dry and crisp - all fairly meaningless descriptors but apt in this moment. It had just enough malt character and bitter hops, along with a good value price-point (beer is expensive in WA!), to keep me coming back for more.

A massive pale ale, packed with juicy hops this is a supremely quaffable beer for hot summer's day. The hops pack a sweet grapefruity punch, before culminating in an aggressively dry finish. Dangerously drinkable, you wouldn't know it was almost 6%! Feral have been making a name for themselves recently, and I've already come across a couple of their beers in New Zealand. I also read this week that one of their brewers is shipping out to England to help Wetherspoons brew a cask Australian IPA for their annual beer festival. Let's hope he can help turn Australian's on to the beauty of cask ale, although maybe to be drunk in winter only!

Gage Roads – Saison 2008
I found this in a booze warehouse (think B&Q but filled with alcohol) down near Albany, but it was actually brewed just down the road from where we lived, in Palmyra. I can't say they usually brew anything particularly inspiring so I was interested to try one of their one-off specials. Saison originates as a French farmyard ale, brewed with wild yeasts. As such this can give it a somewhat barnyard flavour, but in a good way! This was a very classy Saison; ultra-dry and super-fine carbonation gave it a likeness to Champagne. Quite a hoppy affair, giving it a pleasant lemony flavour. A very enjoyable beer, and more than worthy of it's posh bottle.

Little Creatures – Rogers
This is a malty beer in the English style but with a hoppier slant, probably to ensure it stands up to antipodean standards of chilling (ie. to within an inch of the beer's life). Any Australian will tell you this is a typical 'whining Pom' complaint, and to be fair in summer the colder the beer, the better. If it's too cold then you need only wait a few minutes for it to warm up a bit. But what I found annoying was that in winter it was still served outrageously cold, and given that all the bars were designed for summer they generally weren't very warm. So you'd go to the bar and order a nice porter or stout, maybe even an imported European festive special, hoping to feel warm inside with some roasty malty goodness, only for it to served at the kind of temperature that makes your hand stick to the glass. Anyway, rant over, back to the beer. This is lovely malt dominated beer, sweeter and lower alcohol than most Australian brews and perfect for an afternoon barbecue. I reckon it would have tasted pretty good on cask too.

Little Creatures – Pale Ale
This was our go-to beer for the time we spent in Australia, it isn't referred to as the beer that spawned a hundred pale ales for nothing. Delicously malty with a good whack of citric hops, but still in fairly dry, dusty style as favoured down-under. It was excellent to regularly enjoy this at their brewery bar, literally straight from the maturation tanks. Working a stone's throw from this place required epic restraint not to pop in every lunch time! Beer geek side note: I did find that the filtering was hap-hazard at times; sometimes you'd get a wonderfully fruity and hazy beer, and other times it was crisp and clear as a bell, which changed the dynamic of the beer completely. Needless to say I preferred it the less filtered version, but it was always a very enjoyable beer. Just thinking about it makes me feel homesick for Freo!

Mountain Goat - Rare Breed IPA
This is probably one of the best beers I had the pleasure of trying in Australia, big malt backbone with a hoppy bite which we both likened to lemon bon-bons. Sadly I didn't catch on to the 'Goat until towards the end of our time in Australia. I got this bottle from the awesome bottle shop, The Freo Doctor. A great beer, it was indeed just what the doctor ordered!

If you've made it this far down, bravo. This was a bit of trip down memory lane for me; thinking about the various occasions I had the pleasure of supping these tasty drops. At the beach, in the van, on the balcony, in one of our favourite bars (Sail & Anchor, Clancy's Fishpub - miss you!) or plonked on the couch. All happy memories bookended by good beer. Cheers to that!

Cheers To a New Chapter

Hello, and welcome to my new blogging endeavour! As well as the 'day blog', I wanted an outlet to talk/bore at length about that irresistible nectar we call beer. I'm not going to be too strict with it, but beer will undoubtedly be the common theme throughout. I'm aiming to keep things broad, although will mostly be writing from personal experiences. Mainly I'm just going to write things up that have struck me as interesting or got me thinking, mostly for my own benefit but also with the hope that someone, somewhere might find it interesting and/or informative!

My main inspiration for this blog has been the recent Beervana and Wellington on a Plate festivals here in Wellington; the sheer range of quality liquids and foodstuffs that have passed my lips these past few weeks is absurd, although I still feel like I barely scratched the surface of the craft/artisan/whatever-you-want-to-call-it beer and food scene in New Zealand.

Of course it's hardly a revelation that I have really enjoyed what I've been eating and drinking lately, anyone who has spent any time with me will realise that I've always had an appetite for... well just a general appetite! But I've always been keen to try new flavours, and have been known to obsess over searching out perfection in my favourite dishes or beverages. Eating and drinking can certainly can be one of life's supreme pleasures.

I'll start off with a couple of pieces that have spun-off from the travel blog, and are based on experiences from much earlier in the year. Bear with me and I'll get a bit more up to date in the coming weeks - famous last words!