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.

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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.