Kereru Brewing Company – Night Spirit

meal post

Fine food and fine beer – the Night Spirit launch at Logan Brown

How do you launch a new beer onto the market? Especially in a market as crowded as Wellington’s beer scene?

Over the years, I’ve seen tap-takeovers, meet-the-brewers, and launch parties at crafty-friendly bars. Brewers will also try to take advantage of the opportunity presented by beer festivals such as Beervana or the Greater Wellington Brew Day to expose a new beer to an enthusiastic and open-minded audience. And, of course, there’s sending out bottles and press-kits out to journalists and writers pre-launch to build a bit of hype through media coverage.

Then there’s the how Upper Hutt’s Kereru Brewing Company decided to launch their newest beer, ‘Night Spirit’ – with a five-course beer-and-food match degustation menu for 60 lucky ticket-holders at Logan Brown, one of Wellington’s finest restaurants.

It was an exceptional, unique and exclusive way to launch a beer; but such a launch suited Night Spirit. Because this New Zealand whiskey barrel-aged Imperial Stout is an exceptional, unique, and in its own way an exclusive ale.

Night Spirit started as Kereru’s rich and velvety ‘Imperial Moonless Stout’ (10.7% abv.), but then was poured into four NZ Whiskey Co. American Oak casks which had previously held production from the 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1992 years. After 10 months of aging, the contents of the four casks were then blended together to create the final ale, before being bottled at a massive 12% abv.

Night spirit bottle post

Night Spirit in the bottle

The resulting Imperial Stout is an exceptional ale. The alcohol lifts woody aromas of oak and cinnamon with the mildest hint of peaty smoke from the glass. In the mouth it’s a heady combination of whisky, liquorice and robust pinot noir. The body is thick, prompting the gentle sipping and savouring such a strong beer requires. And, as it goes down, the play of citrus from the hops fades in over the whiskey sweetness for a spectacular aftertaste.

Night Spirit is also unique – there are very few casks used to age New Zealand whiskey for more than 20 years available for brewers to use. And once the cask has been used the whiskey flavours are gone, infused into the beer, leaving only oaky tones to be drawn from any later use. So, future batches of Night Spirit will be matured in different whiskey casks, which will carry slightly different flavours.

With only around 1,340 bottles of Night Spirit produced (as well as one keg, which will go on tap at Malthouse’s ‘Darkest Days: Stout and Porter Showcase’ on 23rd June), there’s only a limited opportunity to get a bottle or two of this for your enjoyment. And it won’t be cheap – expect bottles of Night Spirit to sell at around the $30 mark for a 500ml bottle. That’s an intimidating price point; but for that you’ll get a bottle of a unique and exceptionally delicious 12% abv. beer. It will likely be good for cellaring up to 5 to 10 years, and it’s worth considering it the same way you would a fine red wine – to be treasured and cherished, to be shared in moderation with friends and food for a fully sensuous experience.

And so it was on May 30th at Logan Brown. A small serving of Night Spirit, alongside a dram of the NZ Whiskey Co. 1992, made a perfect accompaniment to a melt-in-the-mouth beef short rib, braised and served with thick and gently spiced hoisin-sauce reduction. A superb matching to make the centrepiece of an evening of matches with fine locally produced food with fine locally produced beers.

Night Spirit meat

Braised beef short rib, Night Spirit and a 25 year old whiskey

If you do manage to get hold of a bottle of Night Spirit that’s the route I’d recommend taking too. Pair it with rich and dark slowly cooked beef or venison, with a focus on solidity and robustness. Don’t let the meal carry too many strong spice flavours of its own, rather let the natural taste of the meat bounce the spiced, smoky and sweet flavours of the ale around your taste buds.

The Night Spirit launch also served as the formal launch for Kereru’s barrel-aging programme. Chris Mills, head brewer of Kereru explained to me that as the local craft beer market has become more-and-more crowded with hoppy pale ales, he’s wanting to keep offering interesting and different offerings to drinkers who may be looking for something a bit different.

As well as the American oak whiskey barrels, Kereru have acquired a number of wine barrels used to age NZ Whisky Co’s Double Wood which they’ve put into use to age a range of differing styles. There’ll be more aged Imperial Stouts, Mills says, as well as sour red ales, Belgian brown ales, and Scotch ales all waiting to be brewed and aged for release over the years to come.

At the Night Spirit launch we were also offered a tasting of another new Kereru ale when desert was matched with the ‘Sweet Bippy’ Belgian Quadruple. This was a fantastically complex 9.3% abv. Belgian-style ale, loaded with rich and sweet flavours of fig and plum, over a solid base reminiscent of a dark malt biscuit. Hints of caramel crème came through, as the hops and the malt played with the underlying sweet and spicy flavours. Almost a spiced fruit cake of a beer – something warm and rich to snuggle on a cold winter’s evening.

Mills tells me that a portion of the Sweet Bippy has also been laid down to age in Double-Wood French Oak casks from NZ Whiskey Co. I am very much looking forward to see what eventuates.

With Night Spirit, Wee Heavy and Sweet Bippy, the early signs are that Kereru’s risk of investing the money in barrels and time in laying beers down to age is paying off. I look forward to seeing what else this brewery may produce over the years to come.


Wine barrels ageing beer at Kereru’s brewery in Upper Hutt

Scott Anderson attended the Night Spirit Launch and Degustation at Logan Brown at the invitation of Kereru Brewing Company.

Townshend Brewery ‘Old House ESB’

Townshend's Old House ESB at The Third Eye

Townshend’s Old House ESB at The Third Eye

The big news in New Zealand’s good beer circles yesterday was the announcement that Townshend Brewery has signed a deal with Tuatara Brewing. The deal will allow 2014’s New Zealand Champion brewery to tap into Tuatara’s greater distribution network, and while Martin Townshend will still brew smaller batches in his shed down in Upper Moutere, larger batches of Townshend’s most popular beers will be brewed at Tuatara’s large brewery in Paraparaumu.

This is very good news indeed. I’ve been a huge fan of Martin Townshend’s superb beers for years now, admiring both his ability to make perfect examples of traditional styles while also playing confidently with more left-field brews. But I’ve also been in the privileged position of living in Wellington, where most of Townshend’s product is sold and where it’s never far away from the shelves or taps of one of our excellent craft beer stockists or bars.

With this news comes the hope that Townshend’s beers will see greater distribution around New Zealand and, perhaps, overseas. The more people can get a taste of why Martin Townshend is held in such esteem as a brewer, and why his brewery and his beer have won so many awards, the better!

To celebrate this union of two of my favourite breweries, there really was only one thing for it. So I walked into town, towards the south end of the CBD, to Karo Drive[i] where Tuatara have recently opened up ‘The Third Eye’. The Third Eye is an attractive little bar, housed in a historically significant building with the interior dressed with the original gorgeous native wood.

At one end of the high-vaulted rectangular rooms sits a microbrewery where Tuatara and the occasional guest brewer try out experimental brews, at the other is a range of leaners and couches for a small number of customers and a bar equipped with 14 taps. On those taps are poured at least 10 beers from Tuatara, both their popular ales and a few more unusual brews, while the other taps are set aside for a few guest brews and at least one cider.

It’s a good space, with a relaxed friendly feeling and relaxed friendly knowledgeable staff, in a part of Wellington that’s slowly but surely seeing an expansion in good beer and food – Crafters & Co and The Bresolin are quite nearby, and Garage Project’s cellar door and brewery is just a short walk away in Aro Street. And yesterday The Third Eye were pouring a pair of Townshend ales, so it was the perfect place to raise a glass to the news of the Tuatara Brewing and Townshend Brewery deal.

On tap was Townshend’s ‘Sutton Hoo’, an American amber ale. The Sutton Hoo is a superb example of the style with the hops and red malt well balanced – some brewers over-hop their American ambers and, to attempt balance then punch up the malt to the point where what emerges really is more of an American pale ale. But the Sutton Hoo is lighter, smoother, and with a gently delicious hoppy zing.

But what I was really at The Third Eye for was the ‘Old House ESB’. Extra Special Bitters are one of my favourite styles of beer, with the play between soft sweet malt and a cleansing bitterness always appealing. And of that style, Townshend’s Old House is one of the best I’ve tried.

Sitting in the warm wooded interior of The Third Eye, I smiled at the day’s news as I lifted the glass to my nose and breathed in the wonderful aroma of this ale. There’s hints of slightly acidic, slightly sour almonds and walnut in the scent, with smooth sweet tinges of honey. In the mouth the sweetness initially prevails, smooth creamy clover honey flavours floating amongst the delicious malty mouthfeel.

Then the slight nutty sourness returns in the after-taste, with a lingering sharp sweetness, reminiscent of salted caramel with perhaps just a touch of lemon rind. That play between sweet, sour and bitter is difficult to get right and get delicious, but the Old House does it well.

An ale well worth seeking out. And, with Townshend’s now having access to Tuatara’s distribution network, maybe you’ll see more of this and other beers from Townshend in your neck of the woods soon!

[i] Karo Drive, the newish inner-city route of State Highway 1, was apparently named by local school children as a contraction of “Kids of Aro”. However, one meaning of the word in Maori is “to parry, dodge, duck or avoid.” Given that Karo Drive has become infamous for red-light runners and endangered pedestrians, the name seems entirely appropriate!

Tuatara ‘Tu-Rye-Ay’, Panhead ‘Triple Eye’ and more…


Tuatara’s Tu-Rye-Ay

Life has a way of flying by when you’re a beer and music blogger who is also holding down a full time job, maintaining a relationship and battling though a winter of bad weather and illness. But, Beervana is just around the corner, so it would be remiss of me not to sit down in front of the keyboard to mention a few of the beery highlights that I’ve encountered since I last posted here.

Black IPAs had never featured particularly strongly on my beer radar; both due to their relative scarcity and the unfortunate subjective truth that I usually didn’t like them. But Epic’s latest version of their Apocalypse IPA impressed me mightily, and so too now has Tuatara’s most recent limited release beer, a black IPA going by the name of ‘Tu-Rye-Ay’.

Well, on the label this beer is described as a “Midnight Rye IPA”, but when a beer pours black as my cat’s fur, is light in body and wafts with an aroma of fruity hops then excuse me if I call a black IPA a black IPA.

However, the rye grain used in the malt does bring a spice and touch of sticky caramel to this ale, but it sits subtly behind the big fruity aroma and zingy freshness. Unlike the rasping roughness of some other rye ales, the first taste to the Tu-Rye-Ay in the mouth is of a clean, clear and a little pine-like resin as the hops wash through.

Then follows a big rush of tangy sweetness, with only a little bit of that stickiness I’ve come to expect from rye ales. The body’s light but cushioned, reminiscent of a porter but a lot more gentle – I’d almost call it feathery.

The predominant notes are from the hops, however – citrus and lemon honey sweetness, rolling together deliciously over the rich, warming dark body. And yet, despite clocking in at 7.5%, this beer doesn’t feel boozy warm – it’s light, refreshing, and distinctly easy to drink. It’s quite a delicious beer.

Very delicious, in fact. I might almost say it might now be my favourite hoppy black ale…

And the beer gets extra points for being promoted with this video; featuring the song the beer is named after and a whole bunch of brewers and Wellington bar staff showing that having a sense of rhythm isn’t necessary to brew or serve good beer!

The 8th annual Malthouse West Coast IPA Challenge also took place recently. For this event the Malthouse, that stalwart Wellington craft beer bar, invites brewers to enter their version of (or interpretation of) the style of India Pale Ale that emerged from the West Coast of the United States to take the world by storm. It’s not necessarily an easy to define style beyond “lots o’ hops”.

Typically a West Coast IPA is bracingly bitter and a bit boozier than other IPAs , with the malt being boosted to help the beer remain balanced due to the large amounts of hops involved. But within that purview there’s scope for brewers to experiment, as was demonstrated by the 23 brewers who’d entered this year’s challenge presenting many different variations on the theme.Amongst the golden pale ales there were dark red rye beers, a brown IPA, beers whose hop profiles were resinous and sticky while others were light and fruity.

The event itself is always a fun night at the Malthouse, if you can get in – the doors open at midday, and by four pm or so the bar’s crowded with beer-enthusiasts looking to get a taste of hoppy wonderfulness, as well as many of the brewers themselves. The interest is intense, with the coveted Golden Gumboot at stake for the brewer whose beer most impresses a panel of beer experts.

The most successful beers inevitably go on to be highly sought out when they’re further distributed in bottles and kegs, and often the Challenge presents the punters their first chance at getting a taste of a superb beer that will become part of a brewer’s core range for years to come. It also comes with the chance of tasting a beer that didn’t work out at all, and sometimes that can be fun in its own right.

But that’s the nature of such special events, and you pay you money (for a small glass, if you’re sensible and want to try as many of these boozy drinks as you can) and take your chances!

Panhead's 'Triple Eye'

Panhead’s ‘Triple Eye’

Quite a few of the beers featured on the night of the Challenge have already hit shelves around the country, including Panhead’s ‘Triple Eye’. This beer is monstrous – both in label art and in character. It’s a terrifying 13% abv – a “Triple IPA” indeed!

The hops lead the Triple Eye’s initial assault on your senses, with a big rush of lemony cheesecake sweetness, thick and chewy but with the aroma of fruit filling your nostrils. But then the thick sweet malt kicks in, carrying with it the massive flood of alcohol.

Stronger flavours emerge, at first the taste of sticky cough syrup. But then another flavour emerged, boozy and bittersweet, a flavour I hadn’t tasted for years and, in truth, a flavour I’d never sought out after one particular night where teenage me had drunk a whole litre of this spirit while hanging out on a suburban golf course.

Southern Comfort. I swear Panhead’s Triple Eye tastes like Southern Comfort!

I can’t say I’m really a fan of this beer, but it’s worth seeking out to give it a go (with a friend) if you’re a fan of insanely big IPAs. Not many other beers like it on sale in New Zealand at the moment!

Epic's 'No Agenda'

Epic’s ‘No Agenda’

Another interesting ale from the West Coast IPA Challenge was Epic’s entry for this year, their ‘No Agenda’ American Brown Ale. Though of course, this being from Epic and brewed for the Challenge a better description of this beer may be as a brown IPA.

It certainly is brown, and richly malty, with a lingering liquorice aftertaste. It’s quite well hopped but, speaking again to Luke Nicholas’ continual mastery of hops, the aromatic flavours here are used to boost and add a tang to the malty warmth of what is a solid, reassuring ale. It’s a brown ale, but not your grandpa’s brown ale – and it’s a pretty lovely winter warmer for these dark nights!

However, my two favourite ales of the West Coast IPA Challenge haven’t yet made bottles, and may never do. ‘The Flower Arranger’ by Fork Brewing – the brewing arm of Wellington’s Fork & Brewer gastropub – is light and beautifully golden in the glass, and caresses the air with a delicate, delicious scent of fruit salad.

Aromas of pineapple, grapes, sliced apple and orange draw you in, and then in the mouth that big delicious fruity flavour of passionfruit – that flavour so predominant in New Zealand IPAs – comes on superbly balanced on the lightly sweet base. Quite superb, quite beautiful, and recognised by the judges of the Challenge who awarded it the third place out of the twenty-three entrant.

The eventual winner of the Challenge was the entry from small Wellington brewer ParrotDog, who took out the Golden Gumboot with their ‘HighTime’ IPA – apparently named at the last minute because they’d decided it was “high time” they entered the Challenge.Apparently.

Suffice to say, ParrotDog went a little crazy with the hops for their entry, but what came out the other end was a near-perfect example of a superbly balanced and very drinkable IPA. The floral and fruity hops (yes, passionfruit again!) predominant, soaring over a pared back and vitally robust gentle malt. Despite the full hop flavours the profile sits squarely in the gently fruity part of the palate rather than sticky or harshly bitter.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which of The Flower Arranger or HighTime was my favourite – they both struck me as being near perfect examples of the style and, when sat side by side they also present a beautiful picture of golden beery joy. Gorgeous.

Flower Arranger and HighTime. Or is it HighTime and Flower Arranger?

Flower Arranger and HighTime. Or is it HighTime and Flower Arranger?

Panhead Custom Ales – ‘Hardtail Henry’

Dark and dangerous, Hardtail Henry

Dark and dangerous, Hardtail Henry

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you my favourite beer to be released in 2015. It’s dark, solid, and a bit intimidating to look at – and that’s before you’ve even poured it into a glass. It’s a beer not to be messed with, but with soft edges that may surprise you. May I present to you Hardtail Henry, a bearded biker of a beer from Upper Hutt’s brewing bogans, Panhead Custom Ales.

Lie with the devil long enough and his stench rubs off on you. To those who met him Henry carried not just the smell, but the ear and aspect of sin itself. But this was a deception, collateral damage from a communion with dark forces he’d spent his life opposing. All he knew was the dread and the road, that coiling snake whose end is marked only by the final reckoning. Look into the depths of this oaked stout and you can sense the darkness in his soul.

This rich, woody and strong (8% abv) stout is part of Panhead’s “Canhead” range – a range of four beers presented in 500ml cans, each can sporting the unique tale and striking face of a particular character. The cans stand out from the crowd, with Wellington tattoo artist Simon Morse’s excellent black-and-white artwork catching the eye amongst the rainbow of colours more usually seen on the shelves of a good beer fridge.

CanheadsThe other petrolheaded personalities in the Canhead range include Hermann Holeshott (a German hopfenwiesse), Johnny Octane (a red IPA), and a very floral and fragrant rosehip and hibiscus saison by the name of Lola Deville. But it’s the grizzled, bearded Henry Hardtail can that contains the beer that has most impressed me amongst all the fine new ales I’ve tried so far this year.

The aroma of this oak-barrel aged stout is woody and sweet, with hints of coffee and chocolate floating around the edges. In the mouth it’s superbly soft and creamy. Comforting, like a warm blanket, and warming as the strong alcohol makes its way down your throat.

The chocolate and coffee richness comes through even stronger as the black beer sits in your mouth, then as you swallow a delicious soft lemony goodness emerges, speaking of a very clever use of hops to balance the sweetness of the malt.

The woodiness lingers too, the oak tangy and, perhaps, adding a slight tinge of green wood smoke. Then, as the beer warms, it just gets even better. Vanilla emerges, as does a rich toasty goodness, the oak and the alcohol melding perfectly together to create a solid, black richness.

There’s nothing wrong going on here – the hops lend a zing to the upfront aroma and a gentle tingle to the aftertaste, but unlike some other black ales there’s nothing burnt or bitter lurking unpleasantly. Hardtail Henry balances perfectly, easing around any corner it faces, presenting a gorgeously smooth ride from the moment you open the can until the last drop is swallowed.

This might possibly be my favourite stout of all the stouts and porters I’ve drunk. Maybe even my favourite beer, full stop.

I sincerely hope you get to try it, if you haven’t already. Henry may be grizzled and intimidating to look at, but you’ll want to cuddle up with him on these long cold winter nights.

SJD – Saint John Divine (2015)

SJD - Saint John DivineSean “SJD” Donnelly may never have really troubled mainstream New Zealand’s musical consciousness, beyond the quirky tune or two that were sold for use on television commercials. But over the last decade or so each album he’s released has been critically acclaimed, deservedly so. And this run of superb song writing and production continues with the release of Saint John Divine, his seventh album.

SJD’s prior album, 2013’s Elastic Wasteland, won the Taite Music Prize as New Zealand’s most creative of that year for its collection of dark bedroom synth-pop. But where Elastic Wasteland swaddled Donnelly’s masterfully whimsical and moody songs in claustrophobic and bleak synths and drum machines, for his latest album went into Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studio with a full band, including Finn himself.

The album that’s resulted, Saint John Divine, showcases Donnelly’s songs in perhaps the most produced and confident fashion yet, but with all the warm atmosphere and all the rich arrangements squarely presented in service to the songs themselves.

The album’s opener, ‘I Saw The Future’, harks back to the melancholy beauty of Berlin-era Bowie; a sparse, almost shapeless lament; “I saw the future, summed up in a few short lines”, before a staccato riff of strings ties the track before it shifts into the gorgeous bouncy pop of ‘Little Pieces’. But this smart little pop duet with Julia Deans reveals and revels lyrically in a morose subject matter, of things being pretty messed up, of lovers and friends who let you down.

That’s always been SJD’s way, he’s too smart and too thoughtful to let his lyrics slide into the trite or meaningless, he’s a song-writer first and foremost, as well as a masterful producer of pop and electronic music.

And so it goes with Saint John Divine. ‘Jet Planes’ yearns in a very New Zealand manner for travel to foreign places most of us will likely never see. Strings join Donnelly’s plaintive voice, before in the chorus both strings and voice soar in joy, excitement, as the character Donnelly’s singing through expresses excitement about one day riding jet planes and bullet trains to places you’ll never know, and may never go.

The upbeat, almost-garage rock of “I Want To Be Foolish” comes close to a Lou Reed-like snarl in places, this character Donnelly is voicing want to kick out of the softness of middle age by a trip to the pub and a bit of controlled chaos.

‘Helensville’ perhaps forms the centrepiece of the album; moody and gothic, drenched in reverb-laden guitar which conjures a rainy night away out northwest of Auckland, while Donnelly sings of being left behind, abandoned in a small town. There’s a desperation to the sound, even as the intricate and rewarding arrangements propel the listener forward into the next stage of the tale, in ‘Invisible Man’. Donnelly appears to write mostly in the voices of characters who aren’t him, though might almost be. But, with ‘Invisible Man’ he seems particularly personal as he sings about playing bass guitar in sixteen bands but still no one knows his name.

That’s probably true, however. For despite how good Donnelly is as a songwriter, and how superb each of his albums has been, how respected he is by his peers and by his cult audience, he’s probably never going to get the name recognition afforded the likes of Neil Finn or Don McGlashan – despite being a frequent collaborator with both, and both being happy to sing his praises every chance they get.

Donnelly’s body of work deserves that praise, and Saint John Divine might be his best yet – and being able to surpass the superb chamber-pop genius of 2007’s Songs From A Dictaphone is no mean feat. And, happily, the listener is left with a sense that Donnelly’s not done yet, because Saint John Divine ends with ‘Was I Always Here’, one of the most beautiful string-driven songs you’ll ever here; uplifting spirits and ensuring this album will stick in the mind and the heart as an emotional journey and a musical celebration of one of New Zealand’s finest talents.

Beer match: Well made, touching on “commercial”, but made on a smaller scale and, perhaps too smart and just too good to ever be accepted by a mainstream that likes things simpler. An alcoholic equivalent of Saint John Divine might be found in one of the beers put out by North End Brewing, a small brewery nominally based out of Waikanae (but, at the moment, contract brewing at Panhead in Upper Hutt until North End’s kit is installed and ready to go).

North End’s Keiran Haslett-Moore knows his beer, and knows how to make good beer, and appears far more interested in making beer that is reliably good rather than jumping out to grab the latest trend or to make over-the-top beers featuring outrageous ingredients – just as SJD knows how to write a good song to a particular song-style, without needing musical stunts to sway the audience.

Saint John Divine, then, might be accompanied by North End’s Amber. Like the album it’s almost a mainstream commercial product but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – it’s made superbly, with smarts and personality that result in it perhaps being both too good to ever really break out to be a best seller. But, maybe, one day one of North End’s beers; like one of SJD’s songs, will make that breakthrough. They certainly deserve to.

Epic – Apocalypse I.P.A.

Epic ApocalypseAn interplay between light and dark. Robust, roasty, full bodied malt with fruity, hoppy highlights. The best of both the dark and pale ales?

Well, that’s the theory at least. In truth, I often find beers sold as “black IPAs” mixed and muddled, the flavours often not playing nicely with each other. The bitter hops and roasted black malty base often bringing the worst out of each other. The result can sometimes e a flavour that could best be described as “burnt”, or at the other extreme resembling a liquorice all-sort – candy-sweet and artificial.

And, the name. “Black India Pale Ale”. A black pale ale? Hmmm…

However, when this style first began to be brewed on America’s West Coast it was given the name “Cascadian Dark Ale”, after the mountain range so dominant in the Pacific North West and a variety of hops that bears the same name. That style name also appears at the top of another striking, simple label from Epic Brewing Company, the brewery’s name standing out in bold white on a black label on the black bottle of the ‘Apocalypse I.P.A.’. “Black India Ale” appears towards the bottom of the label; Epic hedging their bets here, while acknowledging that putting the word “pale” on a beer that’s black as the night is probably a silly thing to do.

This is now Apocalypse’s third return since it was first brewed in 2009, and its tasting better than ever. Because, as with most other beers he brews, Apocalypse shows that Luke Nicholas really is a master of the art of getting the balance right between hops and malt. Amongst a field of muddy, too-sweet or burnt-tasting black IPAs, Apocalypse stands head and shoulders above, the interplay between the light and dark, between the hops and the malt, being done perfectly.

There’s so much potential for things to go wrong when you’re planning on highly hopping a strong dark malty ale. So, what Epic does with the Apocalypse is a side step – this may be the lightest tasting black ale around! Through some mastery of the dark arts of brewing, Luke’s created an ale that is black as the devil’s soul, but in the mouth reveals itself to be light and bouncy.

At first it’s a bit unexpected to find such a dark ale hitting the tongue with almost the consistency of a creamy golden ale, but it quickly becomes apparent that this lightness is vital for the huge, delicious play of hop flavours that swirl around the palate. Bittersweet orange, Satsuma mandarin, a delicious fruity combination of citrus that fades to a slightly bitter, lingering note of refreshing fruit with just a hint of lightly roasted coffee.

Perhaps most surprising, and most exciting, is how non-sweet this beer is; an absence of thick treacly notes really allows the big bitter fruit and light coffee flavours to really bring out the best in each other.

Many ales that focus on strong aromatic hop flavours throw a lot of thick sweet malt into the brew, bringing a sweet balance to the bitterness, as well as a booziness that helps lift the hop aromas. But with Apocalypse the dark malt is playing a different role, bringing a solidity and roasted-coffee bitterness, and that base gives the hops another platform to demonstrate their wares without a cloying sweetness.

Orange rind mixed with dark chocolate, bittersweet hints of ginger and aniseed, all just lurking around the edges of the predominant bitter, clear, citrus fruit flavours.

This perhaps might be the hoppiest black ale I’ve tried. I’m certain it’s the lightest (tasting) black ale I’ve tried. It’s something quite special; almost a contradiction, but really just a revelation of hop flavours presented in a way that’s refreshingly different and surprising.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress

Asunder, Sweet and Other DistressGodspeed You! Black Emperor (or, often, GSY!BE) are a Canadian post-rock band (or, perhaps, collective). They’re purveyors of a style of post-rock where guitars, bass, drums and (usually) violin are strung together into soaring soundscapes that build to crescendos of noise; full of melody and harmony amongst the walls of sound. They’re not unique in either sound or genre, but since they first appeared in the late 1990s they’ve been considered forerunners of the modern wall-of-guitar post rock.

Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is GSY!BE’s fifth studio album, and the first featuring new material since their return in 2010 from a long hiatus. Their prior album, 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! was put together of music they’d been playing live up to a decade previously, and melded closely to their prior recorded sounds of wall-of-guitar mixed with lengthy found-sound, tape effects and drone segments.

Here, immediately as Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress kicks off with the opener, “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” there’s an audible sense that the band has moved on – perhaps not to a new sound, but to a different way of expressing musically the emotions they’re attempting to capture. Raw, live-sounding drums start the track off, mixed clear and upfront, before in comes three (or more) electric guitars playing a heavy stoner-metal riff. The riffs build and build, loosely played, taut yet not exact, the guitars and bass swarming over the loping guitars before a violin joins in, lifting the timbre and allowing the guitars to spread even further beneath. The melody is gorgeous, uplifting, spine-tingling.

Then, just as the opening track reaches a climax, the sound collapses into the the album’s next two tracks, “Lamb’s Breath” and “Asunder, Sweet”. These two tracks are ominous drones, guitars trembling and looming, washes of feedback sliding in and out. Together, the two tracks are enthralling, seemingly not going anywhere but, each time your attention flicks back to them the sounds have modulated and crept elsewhere. Dark, sometimes even terrifying, with the mid-section of this album GSY!BE are inhabiting a space they’ve hinted at before, but usually with found-sounds. Here its guitars, drones, and violin, feedback and natural sounds from amps, rumbling and rolling over each other, drawing the ear ever closer and closer.

Until the catharsis you know is coming arrives, with the album’s closing track “Piss Clowns Are Trebled”. There’s no gap or break between the tracks on the album thus far, but here a single droning guitar comes in, hinting that the previously fifteen minutes of noise is about to evolve. A violin shrieks, and the background wall of sound drifts away leaving a sole, overdriven, bassy guitar sliding between two notes.

A steady, thumping drum beat joins, while another guitar rings out a distorted trebly note above, mirroring the droning riff, as the violin begins to sway with a complex little pattern. With the violin providing the anchor the drums expand, the bass returns, and with a jarring note a lurching guitar riff overpowers the scene. It’s back to a near-stoner rock sound, swaying, rumbling, the focus all on the riff. Power through repetition, the instruments and the ear all finding ways to add or subtract sounds from the riff, as the track stomps on a huge climax of sound, walls of distortion, feedback providing soaring melodies and a release from the dark terror that filled the album’s middle.

Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress’ sound is remarkable – the guitars are front, centre and dirty, the drums present and cavernous, the whole album possessed of a very live sound. But within the grit and intertwined walls of instrumentation is space and clarity. Each instrument can be heard, and heard to be played live and sympathetically with the other instruments. There’s nothing meticulous or clean about the sounds, but it still manages to be intricate and precise.

It’s very much a guitar album, certainly the heaviest entire album this band’s done – they’ve touched on this level of heavy guitar and 70s-influenced stoner rock before, but here it’s the centrepiece of the sound.

Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is, quite simply, superb. By choosing to focus on a live-sounding recording of loud guitar, drums, bass and violin, GSY!BE have managed to create a post-rock sound that could almost be described as timeless. Walls of noisy, stoned guitars are nothing new in rock music, but with this album GSY!BE having managed to combine their ability penchant for epic soundscapes with that style of immediate guitar rock, to create something that almost could sound like almost anything else but, really, could only be produced by this band at this time. There’s a lightness and playfulness amongst the dark heaviness, uplifting, exciting, inspiring.

Absolutely worth checking out.

Beer match: An intense interplay between light and dark? A sound hinted at by others but could really only belong to this band? A uniquely light interpretation of something that, on surface appearances should be dark and heavy? Epic’s Apocalypse IPA tastes like this album sounds. A perfectly matched pair. And I’ll think I’ll have some more to say about that beer in another blog post shortly…

Behemoth Brewing Company – ‘Tasty Beverage’

IMAG3296Summer is winding down. And the summer of 2014-15 for New Zealand craft beer has proven to be, as many predicted, the summer of “sessionable” pale ales.

A number of diverse factors combined to put pale and hoppy beers with a low(ish) alcohol level onto (and flying off of) taps and shelves all over the country. Lower drink-driving limits, socialising in the hot summer weather that pushes drinkers towards refreshing beverages that won’t get you too drunk too quickly, and a maturing market that has seen more drinkers than ever looking for something tasty, something hoppy, but not necessarily too complex or challenging.

The signposts were clear enough that most every brewer saw what the demand coming, and nearly all – established, expanding or just starting to produce for sale – put out a beer that fitted within a general model. Less than 5% abv (often less than 4.5%), pale in colour and with a light malt for ease of drinking, and a good whack of hops bringing forth fruity citrus flavours. A range of styles were printed on the tap badges (“pale ale”, “session ale”, “table ale”, “session IPA” – just to pick a few from the top of my head), but they all were of a similar type.

This caused me a bit of a problem, a problem that contributed to me taking a bit of a hiatus from beer blogging over the summer months. And it’s my problem, one for me to address. Because ever since my fascination with the wide and wonderful world of craft beer arose, I’ve had a habit of always buying beer I haven’t had before when I visit a bar. More than a habit, almost a rule.

But this summer that habit has collided with a seemingly endless stream of lower alcohol pale ales. And the truth is, that’s not a style I’m greatly enamoured of. And, by mid January, I was finding myself beginning to become something I’ve dreaded becoming – jaded. Tired of craft beer, almost. And with that malaise, my joy in finding an interesting new beer became more and more fleeting, and my desire to write about the beer I’d been drinking had faded too.

However, once I realised why I was struggling to feel excited about new beer, I realised that I wasn’t becoming jaded of good beer. I was becoming tired of identikit pale ale after pale ale. Now, there weren’t too many bad ales amongst the summer of pale ale, but very few jumped out at me, excited me. They did what they did adequately enough – refreshing, moderately boozy, fruity hops. But “ok” is just ok, it doesn’t get me raving about it on Twitter, Untappd, or on this blog.

It’s a very personal problem, however. A problem about how I approach beer, and how a particular style that I’m not a huge fan of becoming popular and ever-present has created a problem for me. The market wasn’t going to change back to what it was overnight, so the change was mine to make. And change I did; most obviously in how I pick a beer from a bar’s list. No longer will I compulsively try something new just because it’s new – if I look down the list and see a bunch of new lowish alcohol pale ales I won’t pick one of them, instead I’ll simply order myself something I know I love.

It might seem obvious; after all it’s how most everyone else chooses a beer. But it’s never been my style, with beer or music – I’m someone who loves to seek out the new, the novel, the further horizon. But of late that habit’s drained me of a bit of enjoyment of beer, so that habit has had to be tweaked.

I’m still trying new beers, of course I am. New beers of styles other than the ever-present pale ales – and I will try new pale ales that come highly recommended, or that come from a brewer who I trust to do good work. Which is why my return to blogging after this summer of moderate abv vibrantly hopped pale ales is concluding with a beer that sits squarely within that style – ‘Tasty Beverage’, by Behemoth Brewing Company.

Tasty Beverage, styled as an “extra pale ale” ticks all the summer’s boxes. It’s 4.5%, clear, fizzy and a lovely pale bronze colour. As soon as it pours from the Pulp Fiction themed bottle into the glass there’s a lovely waft of citrus fruit, mandarin tinged with ruby grapefruit hinting at the refreshing deliciousness that lies within.

In the mouth the fruit flavours are superbly balanced by a smooth, easy drinking body, with a nice little bit of chewy maltiness that makes me think that this beer might, in another life or another market, perhaps be labelled as a bitter rather than a pale ale. The delicious creamy lemon aftertaste cements that opinion more firmly in my mind, it’s not the great big rasping bitterness that can be left by an IPA, but a sweet lemon, lime and bitters tinge, lip smacking and more-ish.

It’s the body, though, that really keeps me coming back to this beer. The hops are certainly all present and accounted for, but Behemoth’s Andrew Childs clearly realises that you need a decent base to lay those hops on. Poorly balanced pale ales have been unfortunately common amongst this summer’s crops; leaving beers that end up being astringent rather than refreshing. But Tasty Beverage is wonderfully balanced, the bitter fruit nestled on a sweetly nutty base.

It’s quite delicious, and a fitting bookend to the end of summer on this blog, a summer that really began with a beer of a similar style and quality – Epic’s IMP. I’d take those two beers, the IMP and the Tasty Beverage, as being the best two of the style of the summer. Both were, however, produced in relatively small batches and, as summer ends, will become harder to get hold of. I’d recommend you try, however. And I’d also recommend Epic and Behemoth should brew more!


Epic – ‘Carolina’

IMAG2659_1About the same time that Epic Brewing’s ‘IMP’ with its attractive peacock-blue label appeared on the shelves, so did bottles of another new beer from the company. The ‘Carolina’ amber ale came with a pretty brick red label, and the tag-line “Putting Out The Fire”.

I immediately recognised where those words were from – David Bowie’s ‘Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)’, the title song from Paul Schrader’s 1981 creep-fest staring Nastassja Kinski. While I was far too young at the time to see the film, I was utterly obsessed with the oddly atmospheric-yet-poppy Giorgio Moroder-produced song and the video that accompanied it; it became one of the first singles I owned in my own right.

But what was meant by these words on a beer label? On the side came the clue – the Carolina had originally been brewed as a one-off for a release of the ‘Carolina Reaper’ hot sauce by Auckland-based creator of all things spicy and hot, Culley’s.

A brief search on-line found Luke Nicholas’ blog from the time of the original batch was served to accompany a hot-wing eating competition. But Carolina is not a chilli beer, rather it’s a big bitter and malty amber ale made to compete with big chilli flavours. However, as Luke notes, beer is not always the best drink to have with the hottest of foods or sauces, because rather than fixing and rinsing away the chilli oils (like milk or yoghurt does), beer instead spreads the oils around the mouth, emphasising the burn even more.

Putting out the fire with gasoline, indeed!

While with the IMP Epic has created what may be for me the nicest moderate-alcohol pale ale produced in New Zealand yet, if it was in the running for my favourite beer to be released in 2014 it’s now been pipped by another from the same company, the Carolina. Because this has even more going on, and combines flavours in such a manner that I find utterly delicious.

On the nose there’s a big sticky toffee aroma from the malt, but it carries with it a massive resinous scent indicative of a robust dry-hopping. The initial hit on the tongue is also all about the hops, the Centennial and Chinnook hops swirling around with a sharp grapefruit and pine flavour, but as those hop characters fade this beer’s real charm shines through.

Underneath lies a rich, warm, solid malt; caramel sweetness spreading the warmth of the booze throughout your mouth. Unlike the 4.7% IMP, Carolina clocks in at a far more cautionary 7.2%, but, also unlike the IMP, you’re not going to want to scull this down quickly. The very style and complexity of the ale forces you to slow down.

Because as the first punch of citrus hops fades to allow the warm sweetness of the malt and alcohol, galloping along in the rear arrives a fascinating aftertaste of the hops – sharp, bright, very very full of bitter orange flavours, it brings to mind a desert laced with caramel and a dash of Cointreau. It slowed me down, made me want to savour the beer, savour each sip.

Delicious, from the first waft of aroma through to the last swallow. And, coming with such a robust malt to balance the massive hop flavours, as the Carolina warms it becomes even more fascinating, layers of sweetness and bitterness, dried fruit and almost brandy-like alcohol hints floating in and out.

Another great beer from Epic. Cheers, Luke!

Scott Walker + Sunn O))) – Soused (2014)

SousedWhat might one expect from Soused, a collaboration between Scott Walker and Sunn O)))? That all depends, I guess, on what one knows of either of those artists.

Some, if they know of Scott Walker at all, know of him as the chiselled-cheeked bassist and baritone voiced singer of ‘60s heartthrobs The Walker Brothers, or some of his baroque-pop solo albums. People who only know of Scott Walker’s past musical career probably have never heard of Seattle drone-metal band Sunn 0))).

Others, however, will know that since then Walker’s moved on his own path. Through an idiosyncratic exploration of sonic exploration and avant-garde noise, to return from relative obscurity to being an iconic figure in cult music. If you don’t know of his musical journey, then take some time and watch 30th Century Man on YouTube – it’s fascinating stuff. But, until then, know that Walker’s most recent solo album, Bish Bosch, was critically acclaimed but also at times derided for being a chaotic, shocking soup of noise, psychotic nursery rhymes, found-sound rhythms, and vocals of great pathos and utter ridiculousness.

Sunn O))) are likely to be at least known to, and likely well-enjoyed, by people who also find themselves drawn to Scott Walker’s contemporary musical expressionism. This band, based around the core duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, have pummelled their way with massive walls of sound and droning guitars to be held in the highest esteem amongst those who enjoy droning, ambient, harsh-yet-gorgeous metal.

Together, this means a collaboration between Walker and Sunn O))) is surely going to be something unusual. But how unusual? Will Soused fall towards the baroque, looped-rhythm and sometime pomposity of Walker or towards the wall-of-noise drone and fade of Sunn O)))?

The first clue comes on the album’s cover; and black-and-gray with a splash of expressionist white, with the artists’ names on the upper right corner. It’s not “Sunn O))) with Scott Walker”. It’s “scott walker + sunn O)))”, lower case, striking, but Walker’s name clearly first. Within, that all the tracks are written by Walker further reinforce that this is a Scott Walker album with Sunn O))) along to provide their own musical flavour to his avant-garde epics.

But, turn the CD album (yes, CD, it’s how I still buy a lot of music, on mail order as directly from the artists as I can) and there, under the album’s title and track listing is a small-font but all-caps instruction: “MAXIMUM VOLUME YEILDS MAXIMUM RESULTS”. That’d be the modus operandi of Sunn O))), if ever there would be one.

This credo; mixing the from sublime-to-ridiculous-and-back-again of Walker’s percussive found-sound loops and surreal, disturbing baritone-barked vocals with huge walls of droning guitars from Anderson and O’Malley is clearly communicated within the album’s centrepiece, ‘Bull’. Beginning with an ominous drone, it soon expands with a metallic crashing beat clanging behind roaring, screaming guitars crashing into a low-tone drone, while Walker barks nonsensical words “fire-ant necklace, bump the beaky, bilaut-besotted, bump the beaky, bump the beaky!”

Then, when Walker falls silent, the tracks throbs and moans with Sunn O)))’s guitars droning, looming, menacing beneath, before the metallic backdrop and jerking, ragged guitar returns. It’s intense, somewhat scary and, frankly, a bit silly. But, with the lights low and the stereo loud (or on a good pair of headphones) it’s almost five minutes of the most compelling noise I’ve heard this year that wasn’t on Swans To Be Kind.

But it’s not over, because just over half-way through ‘Bull’s nine-minute length, Walker’s voice disappears and we’re left with a huge, ominous drone of moog and guitar, over which creeps in a robotic, unsettling clanging sound. As subtly the guitar shift and whine around the constantly held moog note, we know we’re in Sunn O))) territory here, little notes of feedback hinting at a crescendo that doesn’t – quite – come.

The listener is almost expecting Walker to return at any moment with his baritone voice yelping some more surreal profundity to bring the track to a close, but with ‘Bull’ he stays clear, allowing the tracks to drone on, enigmatically, threateningly, until eventually it fades. But elsewhere on Soused, Walker’s the driving force, his combination of near-operatic vocals and bizarre repeated phrases the core of his songs, under which Sunn O))) plays a supporting role, providing a bottom end and edge that unsettles as much as it binds together the Walker’s songs.

Comparing Soused with the previous releases of both artists, you can sense that Walker being the songwriter has returned shape to the mostly shapeless noise that Sunn O))) released on Terrestrials (also a collaboration, with Norwegian experimentalists Ulver), while Sunn O))) adds a more constant bottom-end and ominous drone to what Walker did on Bish Bosch, perhaps pulling him back from that albums long-periods of silence punctuated by nearly ludicrous percussive effects.

But it is, without a doubt, a Scott Walker album, and one’s tolerance for Soused will depend not just on one’s tolerance for avant-garde noise but also for Walker’s playfulness and cruelty, his joy of contrasting his pretty voice with ugly, mechanical sounds.

Much as I hate to say it, there’s no denying that Soused is very post-modern, not just post-rock, but post-modern – coming back to noise and avant-garde music with a knowledge and awareness that is both ridiculous yet compelling. And, if you can make it through the album’s drones and yelps, long, looming near-silences and sudden eruptions of cacophony, you’ll finally get to ‘Lullaby’, the last of the album’s five long tracks.

With ‘Lullaby’ Walker is making clear that he’s aware of the knowingness of it all, the deliberate deconstruction of rock music while still trying to create something that will be understandable and sale-able to a public. With a nod to William Byrd, over a soundscape of drones, he declares “the most intimate personal choices and requests, central to your personal dignity will be sung.”

“Why don’t minstrels go from house to house, howling songs the way they used to?” he asks. Providing, of course, his own answer by this album, this collaboration, this noise. Modern music, he seems to be saying, has fragmented. With ‘Lullaby’ he and Sunn O))) send their assistant amongst the crowd, cap in hand, to seek income and approval, in a world where the most intimate and personal music seems to be rejected, while the most impersonal is that which does the most well.

‘Lullaby’ seemingly asks the question, too, of why Walker’s become what he’s become, from heartthrob crooner to enigmatic, nearly-unknown purveyor of noise and discord. It doesn’t propose an answer, beyond its own existence – that when an artist tries to make music for themselves and their muse, sometimes no one wants to hear. “His cap will be empty”, he sings, knowing full well that if his cap is empty, it’s by the musical choices he and Sunn O))) have made and will make to continue producing the music that compels them.

There’s a lot going on here, in Soused. But “easy-listening” it isn’t. Enter with caution, with open ears, and listen.

Beer match: Yeah, you’re not going to want to fuck around with this one. You’re going to want to ponder this album with a dark ale, a complex ale, strong enough to last the entire time so you won’t have to get out of your seat. Something a bit confronting, a beer that many won’t like but those who do, love. So, if you can get it, pour yourself a ‘Red Rocks Reserve’ by Garage Project. This is nominally a strong, dark, hoppy red ale. But it’s flash-boiled over volcanic red rocks, creating a sticky, toffee-like character that you’ll either love or hate. It forces you to slow down and savour, however, which is exactly what you need to do with this album.