Dave Kurth came out to greet us from West Coast Brewing on a brilliantly sunny Westport day. Whoever said the West Coast was wet and rainy definitely had it wrong! Well, today anyway 🙂
Dave had done his training as a brewer under the legendary Stuart Howe of Sharp’s Brewery in Cornwall, England before heading over to Burleigh Brewing in Australia. I won’t lie and say we didn’t have massive expectations about the brewery considering the styles of beer they had brewed in the past, namely NZ Draught, Lager and Dark styles, but after chatting to the quietly spoken Kurth for a while about his 2500 litre brewery and setup, we began to think a little differently. With less than a year at the brewery, we were curious to see what Dave had done to improve the beers and sat down for a tasting.
We began with the Draught and Lager beers and were instantly impressed with the fantastic cleanness and crisp finish that they both had. They were well-crafted with no faults whatsoever and were definitely eyebrow raisers for Luke and I. Dave then told us about the Dark and that it made up close to half of their production. In fact, the West Coasters were seemingly supporting the brewery really well with loads of them showing up with empty flagons to be filled with their favourite West Coast drop.
If the first two beers had us nodding in agreement, the Dark raised the bar even further. Milk chocolate and berries filled the mouth, the hop perfume sat on the beer and tickled the nose and the finish was dry and superbly drinkable. We were wowed!
West Coast also does an Organic Green Fern Lager which again had us grinning over our tasting glasses. Beautiful floral hop character and a body reminiscent of the finest Czech Pilsner worked wonders, with malt sweetness and the finest hint of alcohol making this lager a beauty. The West Coast Wheat was up next, a fine example of a German style Hefeweisen, with a lovely caramel-banana nose and clean, refreshing finish.
It was the next beer however that completely blew our minds. Dave’s Pale Ale was a hop assault on the nose, a massive nroma and a brilliant combination of New Zealand hops made this beer up there as one of the better hop-lead pale ales in the country. It goes to show how important it is for people to go and visit the breweries of local brewers and get beer fresh from the source. This wasn’t yet available in bottles and testament to how good fresh, local beer can be.
If that wasn’t all, Dave then went into his conditioning room to pull us out a 6.5% Octoberfest style lager that had been brewed last October and was due for release in March. This was proof at what great cold lagering/cellaring can do to a beer. A luxurious, smooth malt character filled the mouth, the integration over the aging period meaning there was little apparent alcohol in a beer of this strength.
If there’s one brewery that I would recommend visiting when you’re in that neck of the woods, it’s West Coast. Dave Kurth is a definite young talent and one brewer to keep an eye on.
From the Coast we headed north, winding our way up parallel to the Tasman Sea and enjoying the vista where the rugged bush-covered mountain ranges met the usually turbulent sea. As people who have travelled this road will know, it’s another remarkable stretch of scenery with every turn yielding something new to look at. We hit Wakefield which is just out of Nelson and this time it was to a hop farm we were heading.
Totara Brewing isn’t just any hop farm however. A group of guys with various backgrounds, most importantly in hop farming got together and decided to go one step further from growing the ridiculously unique, aromatic NZ hop and gave brewing a go. We met Colin Oldham and Peter Lines, two hop growers with a massive interest in brewing and chatted hops for hours, different varieties that they grow, the methods of harvesting, when certain varieties for picked. The passion that these guys had for their jobs was evident. Growing hobs is tough toil for little return. It’s dependent on weather and brewers and exchange rates amongst others.
We spoke about organic hops and their production and it was also interesting to note that the non-organic NZ hops are also fungicide and pesticide free with a lot of techniques such as using sheep to graze and remove excess growth being common practice. It also helps that there is little to no problem with hop diseases that afflict other countries in Europe and the US such as downy and powdery mildew or Verticillium wilt. Hop pests are also seldom a problem, though one mite variety can cause difficulties for the farmers. The great thing with this though is that there is a natural predator that can be released onto the hop bines that destroys this mite. Biological control at work.
After working through the hop fields, it was time to sample a couple of beers and we began with the Drover’s Draught, a great example of the classic NZ Draught style but with the characteristic cleanness and flavour that we were to find in their other beers. The Totara Gold also impressed as a slightly sweeter lager with good body and subtle hop notes. The guys described this is a great gateway beer for the average drinker to get into craft styles and hit the nail on the head. We went on to then try a Dark that they sell at various festivals across the country. Again the cleanness impressed and lovely dark malt and chocolate characters dominated in a nice clean dark lager/Schwarzbier style.
We also talked of their Green-Hop beer, Ninkasi. One of the advantages I guess of having a brewery on a hop farm! Named after the goddess of beer and brewing, this is definitely a beer I’d love to try after hop harvest! We chatted more about hops (why wouldn’t you!) and it was great to know that a bunch of new varieties were on the cards… all trade secrets of course! It is also cool to see a bunch of passionate people keen to make drinkable beer and challenge the mainstream perception that seems to dominate a lot of the country. With their sales on the increase, they’re definitely moving in the right direction!
From Wakefield it was time to hit the Moutere Inn where we were stopping for the night. Publican and shareholder, Dave showed us a brilliant night at New Zealand’s Oldest Pub and it was awesome to meet up with passionate beer writers and enthusiasts Fritz Kuckuck and Maria Grau. Both originally from California, they were meeting up with us to do an interview for the Nelson Mail, so we chatted and drunk great craft beers into the night. It was great to see a country pub really embracing the craft beer culture. With 10 keg beers and 3 handpulled ales as well as a selection of mainstream beers, this is a pub to please everyone. No alienation, just a beer to suit everyone. Great vision for the group that took over the pub and I’d love to say it was a model that began to go countrywide. Could it be said that the Nelson area is challenging Wellington and Christchurch as New Zealand’s beer capital. I’d say without a doubt!