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.

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