I went up to The Hunter Lounge on Victoria University’s Kelburn campus on Saturday, for the 2014 edition of SOBA’s Winter Ale Festival. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a disaster. A neglectful oversight threw a pall over the afternoon.
I left my programme with all my notes on the table we’d been drinking at! And, by the time I’d realised my mistake and rushed back to collect it, the table had been cleaned and cleared.
And, that’s about the only bad thing I have to say about this particular beer festival!
Fortunately, I’d checked in about 2/3 of the beers I tasted on Untappd, so I do have some idea about what I enjoyed (and didn’t) amongst a plethora of excellent and interesting ales. And I do mean ‘ales’, if my memory serves me correctly there was only one lager being poured that afternoon.
This was the first year I’d attended what had formerly been known as the ‘Matariki Beer Festival’, the winter beer fest put on for a number of years by the Society of Beer Advocates. But I’d heard many of my beery friends rave about it, about how well it was organised, how the focus was really on the beer first and foremost, and how brewers and drinkers alike mingled together in beery friendless.
It was all that, and more. Friendly, happy crowd, with each trip circling from our table to one or other of the taps being punctuated by running into brewers and drinkers worth having chats with.
Andrew Childs of Behemoth Brewing was there, looming large as only he can do, providing fun tales of his recent move into brewing and selling his beer full time. The fun and intensity he also puts into his full-flavoured beers – with their names straight from the inside of a fourteen year old boy’s locker – was also ably demonstrated, with Behemoth’s ‘Nut Milk’ hazelnut stout packed full of sweet hazelnut flavour. The play between the lactose smoothness and the woody bitter nuttiness was very more-ish; it’s the sort of beer that would be fun to have in a float with some vanilla ice-cream. Delicious, really, and I’m not just saying that because the brewer gave me a free t-shirt.
Stu McKinley of Yeastie Boys was also in attendance, mingling and joking and living up to his “one of the loveliest of New Zealand’s many lovely brewers” title which I just made up here and now (perhaps I should commission a trophy). Like Andrew, Stu’s also recently given up his day job, indicating that maybe there is a future in this good beer lark.
But putting it all on the line has not bought about a lurch into sensible conservatism for the Yeasties, because their three beers on at the Winter Ale Festival were all fascinating experiments, brewed with candi-sugar made from botrytised viognier wine.
The three ales are part of the Yeastie Boys Spoonbender series, the name coming from their idiosyncratic habit of describing collaborative brewing as “spooning.” This time, they were playing the big spoon to Australian winemakers Some Young Punks, who provided the sweet and tangy desert wine that was reduced down with added sugar to create the big crystalline slabs of candi-sugar.
Candi-sugar is often used in the brewing of Belgian beers, where it can boost the alcohol content without thickening up the body of the beer. And, with the sugar made from a fungus-infected sweet wine, all sorts of interesting flavours came kicking along with the alcohol as well.
‘The Sly Persuader’ lived up to its name, coming through at first as a very “business as usual” Belgian-style pale ale until, sneaking along at the end came a huge wine flavour, very dry and lingering, very much like the viognier itself.
The presence of the candi-sugar showed with a huge alcohol flavour in the notably boozy (10% abv)‘The Last Dictator’, an imperial porter. There was a nice complex richness here, but alcohol was the predominant note – I reckon this one could do with a bit of aging in the bottle to really come into its best.
The third Yeastie Boys Spoonbender, ‘The Sun Before Darkness’, was an odd beast indeed; certainly the most unique beer I tasted at the festival. The aroma was incredibly sweet; like sticking your nose into candyfloss. But in the mouth it was very tropical, full of sweet fruit flavours, and an intoxicating spice and saltiness. There were hints of rose petal and lime, and flavours I ended up as describing as tasting like chunks of mango stir-fried with a bit of fish sauce. I’m sure I’m not doing it justice, and I can’t wait to try it again to see if I can pin down further what on earth is going on here. Fascinating stuff – and quite drinkable!
And so many other excellent beers were tried, too. A pinot-barrel aged version of Parrotdog’s lovely Otis turned that milk stout into a beer that tasted of a robust and tannic pinot noir, if lighter and smoother.
North End once again hit their mark in creating another delicious take on an English style; with their ‘Southerly Front’ full of distinctly lemony hop flavours. Brewed to be faithful to a 1930’s style Burton Ale, North End brewer and local beer identity Kieran Haslett-Moore turned up dressed to the era, with tie and shirt under a cardie, a Homburg perched on his head.
Baylands’ ‘Black is Black’ was chock full of Black Doris plums. I found it a bit dry and pummelling, but showing that it’s all subjective Black is Black managed to be voted the favourite beer by the punters in attendance – well done, Baylands!
And, despite its name, 8 Wired’s ‘Flat White’ coffee milk stout contained the richest coffee aroma I’ve yet encountered in a coffee flavoured beer. This was perfectly balanced with the smooth sweetness from the lactose, resulting in a beer with the aroma and flavour of an superbly made sweetened long black.
All these, and more, in a venue perfectly set out for a medium-sized beer festival.
I was particularly impressed by the way water was handled – if you wanted a clean glass (and, if you cared about the beer you’re drinking, you would) then you’d pop over to a counter where you’d exchange it for one containing water. An excellent way to encourage moderation and hydration from the festival goers, and to ensure that each beer had the best chance to show its wares when poured into a fresh glass.
A lovely beer festival. Would festival again!