So, there I was, in Auckland, on a typically four-seasons-in-one-day Sunday, with no plans for the afternoon. A perfect time, then, to head out west towards Riverhead, to the Hallertau Brewbar and Restaurant.
I’d always been meaning to get out that way every time I’ve been up to Auckland over recent years, but had never quite been able to make the trip. But on this Sunday it was a quick easy drive into the green farmlands starting to flush with spring, to Hallertau’s big shed nestled within an orchard. The complex features a restaurant, bar and the brewery itself, which brews beers not just for Hallertau, but also Liberty as well as a few other contract brews (including, at times, Behemoth), all under the same roof.
The place was bustling, families and small groups all having had the same idea – a bit of a drive with some good food and drink at the other end. But we found a space at the bar, which was an open bench in the centre of the shed. Behind us was an array of busy tables, and before us the shiny stainless steel of the kit of a working brewery. It’s always a delight, being able to sit and drink a beer mere metres from where it had come into existence.
I asked our friendly, knowledgeable bartender for a rundown of the beers, and as soon as he mentioned a sour beer I stopped him in mid-flow and ordered one. I love sour beers, and will try any I come across, always keen to taste what the brewer may’ve done with some tempestuous yeast; with results that can sometimes be wonderful, sometimes not.
The sour beer in question was Hallertau’s ‘New Zealand Wild Ale with Horopito’, the champion Media Brew from this year’s Beervana – a beer that had run out at the festival itself even by the time I got to it about halfway through the Friday session. I was excited to finally give it a try.
It arrived in a small glass (“because the flavour is very strong”, it was explained), and it almost glowed with a pale golden colour, the still beer capturing the wood of the bar and the shining steel of the brewery nicely. The aroma immediately revealed two of the special ingredients and techniques that had gone into making this beer; strong scents of gooseberry and dry, slightly sour white wine displaying the unique wild yeasts used to brew the beer, and the subsequent 18 month aging in Sauvignon Blanc barrels.
No carefully selected and stringently controlled yeasts were used to brew this beer. Instead, after mashing, the tun was left uncovered for a night while fans blew in air from the orchard outside the brewery, allowing the mash to be inoculated with natural yeasts from the local environment. Using wild yeast is always a risk, but happily for Hallertau fermentation brought about a full, natural sour flavour, along with a comforting softness, resulting in a beer that shared more characteristics with a good natural cider than a pale ale.
The white-wine barrel aging further emphasised those dry, crisp, sour flavours and then, prior to kegging, horopito (or “pepperwood”) leaf was added, leaving the final beer with a slight warm peppery-ness at the very edges of the palate.
In some respects this wild ale didn’t taste particularly like a beer; its flavour combinations would probably challenge and disgust many beer fans. But for me, as a drinker who loves to find new flavours that can be created through the chemistry of brewing, it was a joy, each further sip revealing spice, wine and cider flavours that were most unexpected, and very lovely.
And, not just me. The friend who accompanied me on this little trip, who is not a beer fan at all, took one sniff, then one sip, and declared that she’d finally found a beer she loved. This was a declaration so momentous, I immediately surrendered the half-glass that remained, helping myself instead to the Hallertau cider she’d ordered, which was also quite delicious.
But we did leave with a litre of the New Zealand Wild Ale in a rigger, with which I can confirm that the ale goes down a treat with pâté, pesto, cheddar, brie and blue cheese. Wine and cheese? No, beer and cheese – and a dry, sour beer like this is perfect for a cheese board.
Highly recommended, but this ale is rare and only available at the brewery bar out in rural West Auckland. Worth the trip.