Tuatara ‘Tu-Rye-Ay’, Panhead ‘Triple Eye’ and more…

Tu-Rye-Ay

Tuatara’s Tu-Rye-Ay

Life has a way of flying by when you’re a beer and music blogger who is also holding down a full time job, maintaining a relationship and battling though a winter of bad weather and illness. But, Beervana is just around the corner, so it would be remiss of me not to sit down in front of the keyboard to mention a few of the beery highlights that I’ve encountered since I last posted here.

Black IPAs had never featured particularly strongly on my beer radar; both due to their relative scarcity and the unfortunate subjective truth that I usually didn’t like them. But Epic’s latest version of their Apocalypse IPA impressed me mightily, and so too now has Tuatara’s most recent limited release beer, a black IPA going by the name of ‘Tu-Rye-Ay’.

Well, on the label this beer is described as a “Midnight Rye IPA”, but when a beer pours black as my cat’s fur, is light in body and wafts with an aroma of fruity hops then excuse me if I call a black IPA a black IPA.

However, the rye grain used in the malt does bring a spice and touch of sticky caramel to this ale, but it sits subtly behind the big fruity aroma and zingy freshness. Unlike the rasping roughness of some other rye ales, the first taste to the Tu-Rye-Ay in the mouth is of a clean, clear and a little pine-like resin as the hops wash through.

Then follows a big rush of tangy sweetness, with only a little bit of that stickiness I’ve come to expect from rye ales. The body’s light but cushioned, reminiscent of a porter but a lot more gentle – I’d almost call it feathery.

The predominant notes are from the hops, however – citrus and lemon honey sweetness, rolling together deliciously over the rich, warming dark body. And yet, despite clocking in at 7.5%, this beer doesn’t feel boozy warm – it’s light, refreshing, and distinctly easy to drink. It’s quite a delicious beer.

Very delicious, in fact. I might almost say it might now be my favourite hoppy black ale…

And the beer gets extra points for being promoted with this video; featuring the song the beer is named after and a whole bunch of brewers and Wellington bar staff showing that having a sense of rhythm isn’t necessary to brew or serve good beer!

The 8th annual Malthouse West Coast IPA Challenge also took place recently. For this event the Malthouse, that stalwart Wellington craft beer bar, invites brewers to enter their version of (or interpretation of) the style of India Pale Ale that emerged from the West Coast of the United States to take the world by storm. It’s not necessarily an easy to define style beyond “lots o’ hops”.

Typically a West Coast IPA is bracingly bitter and a bit boozier than other IPAs , with the malt being boosted to help the beer remain balanced due to the large amounts of hops involved. But within that purview there’s scope for brewers to experiment, as was demonstrated by the 23 brewers who’d entered this year’s challenge presenting many different variations on the theme.Amongst the golden pale ales there were dark red rye beers, a brown IPA, beers whose hop profiles were resinous and sticky while others were light and fruity.

The event itself is always a fun night at the Malthouse, if you can get in – the doors open at midday, and by four pm or so the bar’s crowded with beer-enthusiasts looking to get a taste of hoppy wonderfulness, as well as many of the brewers themselves. The interest is intense, with the coveted Golden Gumboot at stake for the brewer whose beer most impresses a panel of beer experts.

The most successful beers inevitably go on to be highly sought out when they’re further distributed in bottles and kegs, and often the Challenge presents the punters their first chance at getting a taste of a superb beer that will become part of a brewer’s core range for years to come. It also comes with the chance of tasting a beer that didn’t work out at all, and sometimes that can be fun in its own right.

But that’s the nature of such special events, and you pay you money (for a small glass, if you’re sensible and want to try as many of these boozy drinks as you can) and take your chances!

Panhead's 'Triple Eye'

Panhead’s ‘Triple Eye’

Quite a few of the beers featured on the night of the Challenge have already hit shelves around the country, including Panhead’s ‘Triple Eye’. This beer is monstrous – both in label art and in character. It’s a terrifying 13% abv – a “Triple IPA” indeed!

The hops lead the Triple Eye’s initial assault on your senses, with a big rush of lemony cheesecake sweetness, thick and chewy but with the aroma of fruit filling your nostrils. But then the thick sweet malt kicks in, carrying with it the massive flood of alcohol.

Stronger flavours emerge, at first the taste of sticky cough syrup. But then another flavour emerged, boozy and bittersweet, a flavour I hadn’t tasted for years and, in truth, a flavour I’d never sought out after one particular night where teenage me had drunk a whole litre of this spirit while hanging out on a suburban golf course.

Southern Comfort. I swear Panhead’s Triple Eye tastes like Southern Comfort!

I can’t say I’m really a fan of this beer, but it’s worth seeking out to give it a go (with a friend) if you’re a fan of insanely big IPAs. Not many other beers like it on sale in New Zealand at the moment!

Epic's 'No Agenda'

Epic’s ‘No Agenda’

Another interesting ale from the West Coast IPA Challenge was Epic’s entry for this year, their ‘No Agenda’ American Brown Ale. Though of course, this being from Epic and brewed for the Challenge a better description of this beer may be as a brown IPA.

It certainly is brown, and richly malty, with a lingering liquorice aftertaste. It’s quite well hopped but, speaking again to Luke Nicholas’ continual mastery of hops, the aromatic flavours here are used to boost and add a tang to the malty warmth of what is a solid, reassuring ale. It’s a brown ale, but not your grandpa’s brown ale – and it’s a pretty lovely winter warmer for these dark nights!

However, my two favourite ales of the West Coast IPA Challenge haven’t yet made bottles, and may never do. ‘The Flower Arranger’ by Fork Brewing – the brewing arm of Wellington’s Fork & Brewer gastropub – is light and beautifully golden in the glass, and caresses the air with a delicate, delicious scent of fruit salad.

Aromas of pineapple, grapes, sliced apple and orange draw you in, and then in the mouth that big delicious fruity flavour of passionfruit – that flavour so predominant in New Zealand IPAs – comes on superbly balanced on the lightly sweet base. Quite superb, quite beautiful, and recognised by the judges of the Challenge who awarded it the third place out of the twenty-three entrant.

The eventual winner of the Challenge was the entry from small Wellington brewer ParrotDog, who took out the Golden Gumboot with their ‘HighTime’ IPA – apparently named at the last minute because they’d decided it was “high time” they entered the Challenge.Apparently.

Suffice to say, ParrotDog went a little crazy with the hops for their entry, but what came out the other end was a near-perfect example of a superbly balanced and very drinkable IPA. The floral and fruity hops (yes, passionfruit again!) predominant, soaring over a pared back and vitally robust gentle malt. Despite the full hop flavours the profile sits squarely in the gently fruity part of the palate rather than sticky or harshly bitter.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which of The Flower Arranger or HighTime was my favourite – they both struck me as being near perfect examples of the style and, when sat side by side they also present a beautiful picture of golden beery joy. Gorgeous.

Flower Arranger and HighTime. Or is it HighTime and Flower Arranger?

Flower Arranger and HighTime. Or is it HighTime and Flower Arranger?

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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.

Epic ‘Imp’

Epic Imp

Session beers have certainly become ‘a thing’. Indeed, in the year since professional wrestling connoisseur, incorrigible Tory and future Beer Writer of the Year Neil Miller predicted that “balance and sessionability could well be the new black” the supermarket shelves and craft beer taps of Wellington have seen appearances from an increasing number of sub-5% abv flavoursome beers.

The first push came last summer with a number of hoppy golden ales making their mark, and since then lower-alcohol yet fragrantly hopped session IPAs and pale ales have surged onto the market – often in four or six packs, making them great accompaniments for the upcoming summer of barbecues.

And, into that fray surges Luke Nicholas of Epic Brewing Company. Being the brewer who broke open New Zealand taste buds with his highly-hopped, high-alcohol ‘Armageddon IPA’, ‘Mayhem’, and the infamous ‘Hop Zombie’, one wouldn’t necessarily have expected he’d feel the need to play in the session IPA field that’s been populated by the likes of Liberty’s ‘Oh Brother’ or Panhead’s ‘Quickchange’.

Yet into the field he’s charged, with the ‘Imp’ session IPA. As the tagline on the bottle says, “careful what you wish for”. And, with the Imp, Luke Nicholas has, to use the vernacular, “nailed it.”

The Imp pours a gorgeous burnished bronze colour; clear and sparkling, catching the light adorably. From the top of the glass lifts a invigorating aroma of grapefruit and creamy peach, underlined with a sweet toffee scent.

With the first sip I’m struck by how “soft” it feels; gentle and full, before the carbonation releases wonderfully in the mouth leaving a fizzy, full and creamy sensation.

Imp is a very fruity flavoured beer; the hops playing superbly off the gentle malt to provide a rounded, balanced, sweet and easy-drinking mouthful. Flavours of sweet lemon curd and mature stone fruit predominate at first, but a warm, bitter sensation floods the mouth as I swallow, leaving a lingering, lip-smacking grapefruit flavour.

Very fruity, very tasty.

And all that beautifully balanced fruity sweetness, lingering bitterness and easy-drinking joy comes it at a very sessionable 4.7%! “Small and Mischievous”, as it says on the label, “causing trouble, but in a playful way”. Now, that could be about the beer or about Luke ‘The Beer Imp’ Nicholas himself. But, either way, it’s an apt description. Fun to drink, fun to be around, won’t necessarily get you in trouble. Maybe.

Imp’s not quite a perfect as a session beer, however. While the flavours and sensations of the beer itself are excellent, at the moment I’ve only found this beer (with its eye-catching peacock-blue label) in 500ml bottles, and at a moderately high price point. This is a beer I’d love to see in four- or six-packs of 330ml bottles (like Epic’s Lager or Pale Ale); that’d really put this beer into place as one of my go-to sessionable beers for a summer afternoon.

But, in the meantime, it’s good to see Epic giving the lower alcohol, highly-flavoured IPA a go. Even better to see the end result being so delicious. More, please!

Epic ‘Lager’ and Stone Brewing Co ‘Punishment’

I read an interesting blog post today, “Zen and the Art of Appreciating Simple Beers.” Now, the post goes on a bit about developing one’s palate to a place where you can identify and enjoy (or criticise) even the simplest or subtlest tastes. This is a concept that I appreciate, while having to acknowledge that likely my own taste buds aren’t there yet.

But I do agree with the overall theme – that as you began to dive further and further into good beer one tends to go for the big, complex beers – your Imperial IPAs, your big barely wines, your complex Belgians – and think of them as “best.” While the simpler beers – the lagers, the golden ales, the bitters – get viewed as something not as good.

Which is utter rubbish. But I think every drinker has to find their way back to realising how lovely a more simple beer can be.

The post concludes with this, which I think is fairly spot on:

“Beer appreciation is not linear; it’s circular. First you love beer naively, out of a simple joy. Then your head gets filled with a bunch of crap about what’s “good” and you begin disliking beer out of a blind prejudice. Finally, you come back to appreciating beer for its own nature.”

Epic Lager

Epic sky, Epic Lager

Quite coincidentally, over the weekend I drunk an Epic Lager for the first time in probably four or five years. Back then my beer preferences would have“graduated” to the bigger flavours. And this then led me to say that I thought I’d been ruined for lager forever. Ale for me, I declared, none of this light, watery, flavourless shit. No more beers like Epic Lager

Again; utter rubbish.

I have found my way back to being able to enjoy lagers, thank god. Yet I was still a bit tentative about this lager from Epic, because my memory of my last taste as “not good” had got stuck in my mind.

Of course, my memory was really of it being “not ale.” Because it is good. Sexy pale straw colour, tantalisingly light touches of bitter fruit in the aroma, and big full and sweet in the mouth. There’s a hint of lemon from the hops, while that big malty flavour that always makes me think of Superwine Biscuits sits there deliciously, showing this to be a good lager, and doing lager things well.

As I was enjoying it, however, another set of memories came back, far earlier than my memories of last drinking this beer at music quiz night at the Southern Cross. There was some scent and taste memory from this lager – the bitter fruity lift of the hops, a slight metallic tinge in the aftertaste, and a sneaky sweetness in the mouth and a tang of bitterness.

“Beer” my memory said to me. It reminded me strongly of my first memory of beer. The smell that would arise when my father would crack open a quart of beer, probably a DB Draught. The delightful play of sweetness, bitterness and metal that would come as he let me sneak a sip from his pewter mug when mum was out of the room. The warmness of the alcohol, and the long tasty aftertaste.

I think that speaks volumes for the quality of this lager. Because I’m decades older, with a far more jaded palate, but this lager tasted to me just like the taste explosion that was a grown-up’s beer tasted as a child – a bit metallic, sneakily sweet and lightly bitter. A very beery beer. Epic Lager tasted just like that beer from my memory.

*                     *                     *

Now, after praising a simple beer, I might as well mention the other side of the coin – a big-flavoured beer that I just didn’t like. Really didn’t like.  Read on…

Not long ago was the “City Tap Takeover,” where beers from America’s Stone Brewing Co took over all the taps of two bars in Wellington; the Fork & Brewer and Malthouse. I only made it along to Malthouse for a few hours over the evening (because one has to work to pay for the beer), but it was an incredibly rewarding few hours.

Those Stone Brewing people know how to make a beer. They know how to play with flavours, emphasise different qualities, and an evening spent with an array of palate-expanding beers saw me in foggy-eyed, blessed-taste bud heaven. I didn’t love every beer I tried, but all had quality, all were enjoyed. I wasn’t able to take notes or photos, so I’m just left recommending trying any of Stone’s beers if you get the chance.

All but one. The aptly named ‘Punishment’.

A beer brewed with the hottest chillies they could source.

It was revolting. The only thing I could compare it to was drinking the brine from a jar of jalapeños. And why the hell would you want to drink the brine from a jar of jalapeños?

Well, Stone answer that themselves in this blog – it’s all about “the challenge.” “Are you up for it?” they ask, daring “spice-taunting masochists” to give it a try.

It really is that sort of beer. The sort of beer for boys (and they usually are, – or at least men who act like boys) who want to prove they’ve got the biggest dick by wolfing down the hottest curries, smearing the hottest chilli sauces on their pizza, daring each other to try the most horrifically hot chillies they can find.

Now, I love spicy food. It really is my thing. But I just don’t get that behaviour. And I really don’t like ruining a nice bit of food with taste bud destroying heat.  And if it is too hot for my acclimatised mouth, you can bet it is ridiculously hot.

And that’s what Stone’s Punishment was. A beer brewed for that sort of people to try to out-do each other with, regardless of what it might do to their ability to taste anything else for the rest of the evening. Or the rest of the week.

An unnecessary beer. A disgusting beer. A bad beer if you were looking to do that thing with beer that really is the point of the beer – to drink it and enjoy it!

I just know by describing Punishment like this, however, I’m probably inciting some readers to track it down, asking “how hot can it really be?” Look, I’m trying to warn you – it’s incredibly hot and incredibly un-drinkable. But, go on, knock yourself out – as Stone ask, “are you up for the challenge?”

Me, I’ll be over here enjoying a well-made lager.

Epic Pale Ale

Of course, this is a follow on to my previous post about Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited

Like that album, Epic Pale Ale isn’t a beer I’ve drunken all that much of recently, but it was like coming home to an old friend.  And, like Dylan’s landmark album marked a massive shift from folk to rock as the 60s counter-culture exploded into public consciousness, so too can this hoppy little ale be considered an important marker in the shift attitudes of New Zealand drinkers towards flavoursome beer.

It’s been brewed for eight years now (or more, I’m not sure), marking it as one of the more venerable New Zealand craft beers in this young, burgeoning market.  And its distinctive green-on-white labelled bottles, with its clean sharp lines and bold text can now be found in bars, supermarkets and superettes up and down the country.

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