I've written about the great New Zealand beerfest, Beervana, a few times over the years. Last year I interviewed the globetrotting beer collaborator Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head, while DB "controversially" took out the top prize at the Brewers Guild Awards (the quote marks are because the win was legit, it was just not popular). In 2009 I tried to drink every trophy winner in the competition, and was dismayed at the lack of Tui, bro. And in 2008 I got drunk.
This year is different. This year I have a beer entered for judging.
The wonderful people from Beervana (now run by David Cryer of Cryer Malt) paired up media folk from around the country with breweries and these pairs made beers that are going to be entered in a special Media Brew competition. I'm going to be there repping Public Address and Fishhead with a nice hoppy stout that I made with Paul Croucher of Croucher Brewing in Rotorua.
I'm originally from Tauranga so I had these grand ideas about a making a Bay of Plenty homage. But in reality time was against us. Exchanging texts about beer and travel plans with Paul we both quickly realised there would be no real collaboration brew happening. In spirit, yes; but not in reality.
I landed in Rotorua and little shaken; I'm not a great flyer. My phone buzzed. Paul wanted to know when I got in so he could pick me up. This is not a rarity amongst New Zealand's craft brewers; they are generally a wonderful, friendly and generous group. But the fact that Paul also offered a spare room in his house was over and above.
I jump in the car and we haven't moved more than a few metres before he Paul asks: "Do you want to see The Distraction?" We begin talking stouts, so I assume the Distraction is a new beer. I'm wrong. We arrive at Croucher's new bar, Brew, and there it is: a coffee roaster.
Paul shares another trait with other craft brewers, a frantic energy that seems to push through each task while he has an eye on the next target. The Distraction is clearly Paul's new toy and he wants desperately to make me a coffee. So before we drink beer, we have a brief cupping session.
The bar is Croucher Brewing's new project (the roaster is part of the plan). Paul, and his business partner Nigel, weren't sure if Rotorua was a craft beer kind of town. No other bars are really serving craft beer in Rotorua except for the places that had Croucher on tap. And even then the main sellers are still the big brewery staples, like Monteiths and Macs.
The guys were so worried about this, that when they opened Brew, they put one keg of Steinlager on tap, just in case. It's still there.
"We got booed for doing it. It was great!" beams Paul. "We thought that people would want a 'safe' beer on tap they could try, but if they come to a craft beer bar people want to try something different. Rotorua is an adventurous town; it's just the hospo community that isn't".
Later that night as I'm having a few drinks at the bar this theory is borne out. While most people there are interested in what's on tap and if there's anything "interesting" in the fridge, a group of suited men and women come in and despite tasting everything on tap finally go for white wine and Heineken.
People like what they like, most people in a craft beer bar like craft beer. I suppose it's the same to assume of any type of bar, you don't go to a cocktail bar for beer, you don't go to a strip club to look at clothed people.
Paul and I finish our coffee and head to the brewery; a five minute drive from Rotorua town centre and in and old sausage factory. If you've never been to a brewery they are a wonderful mix of senses. After we emptied a tank of pale ale, Paul told me to stick my head in have a sniff (though not hard enough to knock myself out with CO2. It was an amazing fizzy experience with fruit and hops and sweetness. Minutes later my nose still felt like I had snorted sherbet.
I helped as much as I could around the brewery, but Paul had most things down like clockwork. And when Nigel showed up to help there was almost nothing to do. I learned how to roll kegs (slowly) and came with some large bruises to show I had actually done some work.
And the whole while we chatted and worked we kept trying a new hoppy stout. Croucher had a lot of success with their Patriot Black Ale but Paul has really wanted to try making a good hoppy stout. He seemed pleased with it, and I liked it. It's not a thick stout like a Renaissance Craftsman, this was more like a dark rich ale (which I suppose is pretty close to a stout). Very easy to drink and with nice chocolate and coffee notes under a hoppy bite. It was described to me later as smooth like a milk stout.
It was a good beer. And one we decided would be perfect entered into the Media Brew. What we didn’t expect was that other media brews would be more… experimental.
The winner was made by Epic Brewing and Dish magazine and featured fig syrup and Ethiopian coffee beans. It was like thick soy sauce and smelled, to me, quite nutty. The Yeastie Boys and This Way Up collaborated on the second place getter which was served with Moet floating on top. In this competition our beer was doomed.
However, there is a ray of light. Croucher's Mother’s Milk Stout will be on tap at the Malthouse and Hashigozake in Wellington and probably at many other craft beer establishments around the country (although I don’t believe it is an actual Milk Stout).
Also rather happily Croucher's Patriot won Silver, and the Pale Ale and Pilsner both won Bronze at the BrewNZ awards held just before Beervana. A good result for the brewery, but Paul is always striving for perfection so he’ll be honing those recipes even further.
And that’s why fans of Croucher love the beers. The new pub already has regulars, and going by the deliveries we made, even on the two days I was there, a lot of places around Rotorua have his beer on tap. Even the local golf course has local Croucher beer sitting on tap beside the big breweries of Lion and DB.
Locals like local beer, to make it sound like the Wicker Man.
During the day there were a few visitors to the brewery. Delivery men (Paul was hoping each one was carrying beans he could try in his roaster); friends; and other folk you expect at a small but busy business.
At one point three gentlemen came to the door of the brewery, Paul saw them and walked out greeting each happily and joking about the tank cleaning we were doing. They laughed and chatted and then Paul said, “Oh by the way, I’m Paul Croucher the brewer”. He then invited them in to see the brewery, introduced me and then poured them a beer. Two were tourists over from Australia sampling the local beers and the third was a relative who was a fan. Actual beer fans on a self-made brewery tour.
They tried a couple of the beers Paul had available, including the new stout and chatted for a long time. Then thanked Paul again for his time and the beer and carried on their excursion. After they left Paul said how he loved it when avid fans came for a visit and that it happened a lot. Sometimes it was good, people (guys and girls) would show up and be really enthusiastic and even pitch in with the brewing, others just wanted to pick his brains. Some would come to criticise.
Some even came bearing gifts. Paul and Nigel told me about a couple of Canadian women who had showed up with a selection of rare Canadian beers that they happily shared, though Paul admitted this meant he had to be driven home later.
But this is what the New Zealand craft beer scene is. It’s dedicated, enthusiastic and energetic brewers like Paul from Croucher's and Luke from Epic and Richard from Emersons and Søren from 8-Wired and Andy from Renaissance and Stu from Yeastie Boys (and many others) that are changing the way we think about beer and changing what we think of beer drinkers.