Herne Brewing Company – Tāne

Herne Brewing Company 'Tane'.  In the 2014 Beervana glass, which has become a ready favourite for its shape and robustness.

Herne Brewing Company ‘Tane’. In the 2014 Beervana glass, which has become a ready favourite for its shape and robustness.

While out at Kereru Brewing in Upper Hutt, I didn’t only come across what some wags have since called “glutengate” – but, getting that story out, including into mainstream media, seems to have provoked MPI into action. At least, they’ve communicated to Chris at Kereru and to SOBA that they intend to “find a solution” to the “gluten-free beer problem”. Shouldn’t be too hard to find a solution, I’d think – re-write the guideline to remove the specific instruction that “gluten-free” is a statement of nutritional value. But, I digress.

While there, Chris also introduced me to my first encounter with Herne Brewing Company, a little outfit based out of the picturesque West Otago town of Tapanui, who contract brew at both Kereru and at Wanaka Beerworks. Herne’s the latest brewing endeavour of Tom Jones, or “Tom the Pom” as he’s sometimes known, who has been around the local brewing scene for many years, including a stint at Emerson’s and founding Dunedin’s Green Man Brewery.

On Kereru’s big shiny new kit, Herne are brewing ‘Tāne’, a “Manuka Smoked IPA.” I do love smoked beers; the flavour of smoked or peated malt can add a delicious sophisticated warmth to beers both light and dark. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a smoked IPA, and as I took the bottle home with me from Upper Hutt I was wondering how the sweetness and hoppiness of that popular style would sit well with a malt smoked over manuka chips.

Happily, I can report that the smoke and hops play really nice together in this interesting and very drinkable brew.

Tāne pours with a delicious rich brown colour, and off the top lifts an aroma of smoke and honey, the manuka adding a tint of tang with hints of grapefruit-like hops around the edges.

In the mouth this ale is crisp and tart, the sharp manuka flavour quite apparent. It’s very rich, a solid base seemingly more in the style of English than American IPAs, and a sweet sultry smokiness comes through round and full as you swallow.

The aftertaste is long and lingering, warming with its bitterness coming through very nicely. The smoke, hops and sweetness all balance nicely, no one element overpowering the other. And, with a moderate 5.9% abv, Tāne hangs together as a satisfyingly drinkable and interesting India Pale Ale variation.

And the interplay between the name of the beer and the name of the brewery also pleases me – Tāne, the god of birds and the forest in Maori mythology sitting along Herne the Hunter of Tom’s English background. The combination continues onto the bottle’s green label art, with the brewery’s stag’s head symbol sitting in white above a verdant green koru pattern; the stag amongst the ferns.

A very nice beer; would certainly buy it again if it crossed my path. I hope to see both more of the Tāne, and more from Herne Brewing Company in the near future. Tāne has now been officially launched by Herne, so hopefully this tasty beer will be appear up here in Wellington in the very near future.

Beervana ‘14

A cluster of North End’s rare and delicious Blanc De Houblon, in Beervana 2014 glassware, with tasting notes and other beer-geek sundries.

The last week and a half has featured a lot of life lived, including some great new music and good beer drunk at the source at breweries in both the North and South Islands. But those things were all just the entrée to the main event: the 2014 edition of Beervana, New Zealand’s biggest beer festival.

And, lo, it was good. Very good. The best Beervana I’ve been to yet.

This year the festival had expanded to take up almost all of Wellington’s Westpac Stadium’s concourse, and the resulting spreading-out of the crowds and bars was noticeable and delightful. I encountered almost no bottlenecks, the crowds far less jostling than in recent years, and lots of seating and spaces to sit down, enjoy the beer, chat with friends, and take some notes.

I guess a complaint could be made that it was now too big. I simply didn’t make it down to the Portland Bar before session’s end. But that was my fault, for deciding to spend over half of my session seated with friends near the Beervana, Festive Brew and Media Brew bars, sampling the beers based over on the newly expanded “Harbour Side” of the Festival. And I did get to try the Portland Beers later, when I worked that bar for the fourth and final session, so it wasn’t as though I missed out entirely.

It goes almost without saying that there was some truly excellent and / or interesting beer available too – but this is a beer blog, so I’ll list some of those that stood out for me.

This year’s Festive Brew was themed to commemorate 100 years since the outset of the First World Way by means of requiring the brewers to use two ingredients integral with ANZAC biscuits: rolled oats and golden syrup, and with encouragement to use additional ingredients such as flour, coconut and butter or more.

It was a challenging brief, and ended up with most of the beers I tried tasting much the same, but it was apparent why Behemoth took home the trophy for their ‘Brave Bikkie Brown Ale’. This 6% abv brown ale nailed the brief completely; with a rich aroma of biscuit baked with coconut and golden syrup, and a rich, sweet and chewy mouthful carrying a dark roasted oats and coconut flavour. A beer that not just tasted like an ANZAC biscuit, but was deliciously drinkable too.

Over at the Media Brew bar the brewers and their collaborators brewed to the theme of “Spring”, with the requirement to include at least one “intrinsically or native New Zealand ingredient”. This led to many interesting and, sometimes, delicious flavour combinations – but truth is I’m not really that keen on beers that taste like cold roast lamb gravy.

Imperial AT-AT PilsnerBut other variations existed – Beer & Brewer Magazine’s Neil Miller and Kereru Brewing made a huge 11% abv pilsner that somehow managed to deliciously combine the aroma of malty Weet-Bix with the flavour of a full, sweet, citrusy Belgian Ale – all under the suitably geeky name of ‘Imperial At-At Pilsner’. Meanwhile, the fellows from the Beerhive Blog worked with Monteiths to create a ‘Raspberry Lamington Wheat Beer’. And it was; sticky, sweet and full of coconut. Though, personally, I tasted more Fluffy Duck than a red coconut sponge cake. But, perhaps that is the “Food of the Unicorns“?

But moving away from the themed one-off beers is where I really began to find my festival favourites. Ever-favourites North End Brewing really impressed with their complex yet refreshing ‘Blanc De Houblon’. This Belgian-style ale had a fascinating contrast between an aroma of lemongrass, bergamot and clove above a flavour of grapefruit and liquorice. Bitter and tangy, lingering long, the complexity playing through the mouth long after you’d swallowed. I’d love to see more of this ale available, but it’s expensive to brew and the yield is small. But, oh, delicious.

I’d never heard of Napier’s Zeelandt Brewery before Beervana, but their Dunkelweizen was my surprise of the day. This dark Bavarian wheat beer wafted an incredibly intense banana and clove aroma, but delivered a soft, effervescent soufflé of chocolate and caramel on the palate. I’ll look for this one again.

And then there was the ‘Rewired Unchained’ from 8 Wired. I adore Søren Eriksen’s Rewired Brown Ale, and this barrel-aged version, loaded with funky Brettanomyces, was just delicious. The tartness of the infection somehow turned the robust brown ale into something full of caramel, while pushing the hoppy aroma of cut grass and summer fruits even more forcefully above the beer. And it was a pleasure to congratulate Søren personally, as he stood behind the bar pouring his beer.

But if I was to be forced to commit to a favourite beer of the festival, it’d have to be a beer I didn’t get to try more than a few mouthfuls of. As I wrote above, I didn’t manage to make the Portland Bar at the other end of the concourse during the one session I attended as a drinker; but before the doors opened for the session I was behind that bar I was able to try what was on offer. And one, the ‘Volta Saison’ from Gigantic Brewing Company just blew me away. Fruity, spicy, and vibrant. Fresh, with an aroma of lip-smacking sour fruits, and a taste of spiced fruit punch and lingering tartness.

It caught my attention immediately, but for me the true reflection on its character came as I served it during the hours that followed. If ever I was given the opportunity to suggest or recommend one of the Portland-sourced beers to a punter, I’d recommend the Volta.

Some people were eager, some wary, some had never heard of the style or tried a Saison before. But each time I encouraged someone to take a punt on the Volta, they’d sniff, then taste and a huge grin would cross their features. Some even returned to thank me for the recommendation, or for a second serving. And that made me happy – if more people expand their horizons and get to taste a good saison (which can be difficult to find in New Zealand, unfortunately), then I’d consider that a success.

Moving away from the beer, there was so much else about Beervana 2014 that I loved. The festival’s always provided great food, but this year was better than ever. The Fire Truck impressed with a fragrant pulled-goat curry served inside a soft warm sourdough bread roll, and while I again lamented the lack of a good range of fresh green options, the smoked chicken Caesar salad from Boulcott St Bistro was superb.

But then there was the Portobello mushroom ‘Double Down’ from Grill Meats Beer; two big grilled flat mushrooms sandwiching a filling of Halloumi, beetroot relish and a crispy fried onion fritter. Amazing; and a great way of providing a vegetarian option that met the popular demand for salty and fatty ‘beer festival food’.

Even the festival glassware for 2014 was a step above – a robust and pretty plastic tasting glass was provided, ensuring punters would be able to take them home without breakage. Tulip-shaped, and slightly bigger than the maximum 250ml serving, it allowed aromas and flavours to develop fully.

And I haven’t even mentioned the plentiful supply of water, and the big, well-stocked merchandise stand at the middle of the concourse’s arc. Or the four new beer / brewery t-shirts I now own…

It was a great weekend, and I enjoyed my time on both sides of the bar. Would Beervana again!

First beer of the day - the Behemoth 'Brave Bikkie Brown Ale', with the author wearing a suitable t-shirt.

First beer of the day – the Behemoth ‘Brave Bikkie Brown Ale’, with the author wearing a suitable t-shirt.

Kereru Brewing – Auro

AuroI was out north of Wellington yesterday, visiting Upper Hutt. I can’t visit my suburban satellite-city childhood home without visiting at least one of the two interesting new breweries that have set up there in the last few years, and yesterday I chose to visit Kereru Brewing in Maidstone Terrace, to chat with head pigeon Chris Mills and see what interesting and brewery-fresh beer was on the taps (because sometimes fresh is best, Stu McKinley).

While there, my friend spotted the bottles of the ‘Auro’ gluten-free ale in the fridge, and made an excited exclamation. My friend is gluten-intolerant, and the discomfort the gluten in wheat and barley bring is one of the reasons beer doesn’t feature in her preferred drinks. But she’d heard of the Auro. “I’ve heard it’s the best gluten-free beer around!” she said.

“That’s great to hear,” replied Chris, “you should get some while you can. Because this batch will be the last. Won’t be allowed to sell it soon. Or at least call it ‘gluten-free’.”

Chris explained that the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) has recently released new guidance for what can and can’t be used to promote or label beverages containing more 1.15% alcohol by volume, and “gluten-free” is now prohibited.

Later, I checked out MPI’s Guidance for Alcoholic Beverage Claims and Statements, published 6 May 2014, and confirmed that from 18 January 2016:

“…nutrition content claims or health claims must not be made for food containing more than 1.15% Alcohol By Volume (ABV). The exception to this is a nutrition content claim about energy content or carbohydrate content.”

Meaning, from that date, no product labelled or described by the retailer / brewer with such claims can be sold in New Zealand.

A “nutrition content claim” is defined by MPI as:

“…a claim that is made about the presence or absence of a biologically active substance, dietary fibre, energy, minerals, potassium, protein, carbohydrate, fat, salt, sodium or vitamins; glycaemic index or glycaemic load that does not refer to the presence of alcohol and is not a health claim. “Gluten free” is captured under the definition of nutrition content claim.”

It’s interesting to see “gluten free” pulled out for emphasis there by MPI there and in other passages of the Guidance; clearly this has been published to directly inform brewers that they can’t put such a statement on their beers. Because if you’re going to be really pedantic about the above statement, perhaps mentioning a particular strain of yeast might be mentioning the presence of a “biologically active substance”.

But, this is all about the “gluten free” statement. Which really raises the question: why?

To answer this, I believe it’s necessary to take into account the other prohibited claim in the Guidance: “health claims”, which is “a claim which states, suggests or implies that a food or a property of food has, or may have, a health effect”.

What I believe we’re seeing here, and this is just my mostly unfounded musing, is another effect of how being gluten-free has come to be used by some producers and seen by some consumers as a generally “health-positive” message, rather than a vital health-warning message for those whose wellbeing can be significantly affected by the ingestion of gluten.

MPI and other government agencies tend to see alcohol as a negative on both society and health. It seems that gluten-free being seen by some to mean “good for you” has come head-to-head with the government’s desire that we think of booze as bad for us.

And, so, a beer that is produced without any gluten can no longer be called gluten-free.

Which is bizarre. Because gluten-free shouldn’t be seen as a claim of the healthiness and positive-ness of a product,  because it is a statement of fact. That this thing contains no gluten.

Gluten-free is not a trivial matter. At the very least, being aware of the presence of gluten in a beer can be the difference between having a nice drink and discomfort and embarrassment for someone who is gluten-intolerant. But for someone with coeliac disease, or who may have someone in coeliac disease in their household or life, the presence or absence of gluten can be a matter of life or death at its extremes.

New Zealand brewers could carry on brewing gluten-free beer; but without being able to call it such why would they? Because without being able to clearly state the fact, the brewer is relying on their customers to know enough about the beer to know it’s brewed with the likes of sorghum and rice instead of wheat and barley, and to know the significance of that ingredient change.

The brewer then has to bet that customer-awareness against the time and money cost of having to do a full refurbishing clean of their brewing kit before brewing the gluten-free beer, to ensure its utterly without trace of the protein.

While maybe the brewer can put enough words on the label of a bottle of their beer to coherently tell the consumer that it doesn’t contain gluten without stating that fact obviously, how do they do that when your beer is being sold from the tap in a pub, where all the punter has to go off are the beer and brewer’s name?

Because selling a gluten-free beer without being able to tell your customers that it is such has another cost to a brewer, a reputational cost. Because the truth is that gluten-free beers are difficult to make, and generally don’t come out as well as beers of a similar style brewed with more traditional, gluten-bearing ingredients.

To be honest, gluten-free beers don’t have a great reputation, and in my experience that would be because they often are lacking in carbonation, tend towards a sour flavour, and sometimes carry a scent of something that might blow in off a marshland.

So, a consumer who drinks a gluten-free pale ale without knowing it is so will likely compare it very unfavourably to another pale ale, and will view the brewer that produced it negatively as a result. And, if a brewer can’t tell the drinker why this beer is different, why would any brewer trying to make a living brew a gluten-free beer again in this country, knowing that it would likely hurt the value of their brand as a result?

But back to the Auro, I can happily report that I agree entirely with what my friend had heard – it is the best gluten-free beer I’ve ever had.

It’s sitting nicely within the delicious golden ale style, the malt base is rich and sweet, there’s a nicely citrus waft of hops coming off the top, and it lingers nicely on the tongue. It’s soft and round, and very easily drinkable; and I can see myself happily drinking it on a summer’s afternoon alongside any other light-and-golden mainstream beer. Clean and refreshing, if not overly bright and chirpy.

But, at the same time, I don’t think it is as good as many other golden ales. The ingredients lend themselves to a flat, non-carbonated quality, and there’s a residual sourness sitting at the back of the palate that I wouldn’t expect to find in the style. But I don’t need to compare it with other golden ales – though it is better than some I’ve had – I just need to compare it to other gluten-free beers.

And it is absolutely the best I’ve had that is gluten-free. Hands down.

But, soon, the ability to know if any given beer contains gluten or is gluten-free is being taken from us, due to an alcohol-opposed government policy and the way that some consumers and producers have moved gluten-free from being a statement of fact to a descriptor of some purported health benefit.

And that’s a hell of a shame.

If you’re interested in getting hold of some of the remaining bottles and kegs of Auro, what may be the last best beer brewed in New Zealand that can be legally described as “gluten-free” you should contact the lovely people at Kereru. They’ll be happy to help, I’m sure!

13-AURO-330

Yeastie Boys ‘Punkadiddle’

IMAG2065I do enjoy drinking beer outside.

Maybe it’s because I’m not too much of a fan of a bar that’s very crowded and noisy inside – years of playing in or watching live bands in small rooms has damaged my hearing a bit, and when there’s a lot of hubbub, babble and music in a crowded bar, I often can’t make out a word that is said to me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve a few friends who are smokers, and so sharing a beer with them almost inevitably means drinking out in the (not-so) clear air.

But, mostly, it’s just I like the feeling of being in the fresh air, being able to see the sky while I sup a nice drink and chat with friends.

Being a hardened Wellingtonian, provided there’s some cover and a bit of hopeful shelter from the wind I’m happy to be in the outside area of a bar in all seasons. Sure, I’d prefer warm summer or dry autumn, but chilly winter and damp spring are fine, too.

But it does help if the bar does have some heating to take the chill off the August night air.

I’m a particular fan of those fire table thingys. You know, the tall ones with a gas flame in a central well, that you can stand around (or sit on a high chair at), with your beer in front of you and the warmth from the flame gently warming both you and the beer against the chill winter air. (Googles – ah, they’re called “fire pit tables”! See, you learn something every day!)

My beloved Bin 44 used to have one of those tall gas fire pit tables, but it stopped working a while back. But this week, when I arrived for a quick after-work beer before heading into town, I was delighted to see a shiny new table had arrived, with a happy orange flame dancing from the well.

To celebrate, my friend and I ordered two pints of Yeastie Boy’s ‘Punkadiddle’. It’s a lovely wee drop, and one that at 3.7% won’t throw your evening into a spin if you have a few. It’s described as an “English Red Ale”, and while it is certainly red in colour I get more of a sense of it being a well made, sessionable English bitter. It’s got a lot of sweet and fruity hops coming off the top of a well rounded, almost nutty malty base, a combination of flavours I tend to associate with a traditional bitter.

But, the malt’s doing something a little bit else, which I guess is the Red Ale element; there’s an almost-sourness. Not unpleasant by any means, but a play between the hops and the reddish malt turns out a flavour that reminds me of a slightly old walnut; where the oils have gone slightly rancid, but not so much that they ruin the delicious nuttiness flavour.

As the glass warmed though, warmed by the dancing flame, this nice little beer just got more charming, the flavours melding smoothly into something almost like a light and fluffy pecan pie; but less sweet. I love a beer with a good taste of nuttiness, and the easy drinking Punkadiddle certainly gave me that flavour.

A great beer to drink while chatting with a friend beside an open flame, fending off the cold of a Wellington winter’s night, watching the run pour down onto the Queens Wharf plaza.


P.S. And, on the subject of Bin 44, congratulations to their Duty Manager Kieran O’Malley and his partner Abigail on the birth of their daughter Eden. Cheers, Kieran, Abigail and little Eden!