Far too soon, dawn was upon us again and we crawled out of our cramped camper cabin and readied ourselves for the crawl over the Takaka hill back towards Nelson. We were heading towards Golden Bear Brewing in picturesque Mapua, just out of Nelson. This stunning brewpub was set up by Jim and Anne Matranga, originally from California and also offers Mexican food which Jim told us he really missed from his homeland.
Being from California, Jim is a massive fan of big flavoured IPAs and his beers certainly reflect his love of these. His standout brew was Anniversary Ale at 6.26%, a lovely hoppy pale ale, formerly known as Patriot’s Pale. The Graf Vienna was also a great example of this type of lager and Jim’s use of hops was perfectly executed.
Jim’s brewhouse blew our minds! This has to be one of the coolest looking breweries in the country! Engineered by Chris Little, this is stainless steel porn. At 1200 litres, the brewhouse is compact and has great little features such as a window in the mash/lauter tun, an underback and a great rake. Hehe.
Jim is also doing something pretty cool with wort that he brews on his kit. He hot-fills plastic bladders with the wort and boxes them up to be made available to homebrewers. This saves homebrewers from having to boil up extract or do full-grain mashes. All they have to do is add their own strain of yeast, ferment out, condition then keg or bottle. An awesome, innovative idea that will hopefully help with the popularity of homebrew. Even cooler is people can buy these wort kits online through companies like Liberty Brewing.
I was pretty excited about the next brewery we were about to visit. I’d heard a lot about Tracy Banner over the recent years and was lucky enough to have tried some of the Sprig and Fern Brewery range on a previous visit to Nelson. Back then, the beers had really impressed me and with Tracy’s brewing pedigree and the joy she seemingly had when we chatted to her about making beer, it was easy to see why. Originally from Liverpool, Tracy has spent close to three decades brewing beer, so definitely knows her stuff!
The Sprig and Fern range is diverse, running from berry and apple ciders through to porters, IPAs, and ginger lagers. Tracy proudly told us that they have a range of 18 products and have never run out of any. That’s a mean feat for any brewery, especially a craft brewery the size of this. A testament to her brewery management skills.
We were short of time, as we always seem to be on this trip, so quickly went through a couple of her recent award winning brews. Tasman Lager was first up and Luke and I were blown away by this superbly crafted 6.5% lager. Hops dominated the nose, hints of Nelson Sauvin and Riwaka in all of their passionfruity, tropical goodness. The balance in the mouth was exquisite, the hop bitterness and alcohol/malt sweetness accompaniment was definitely one that would help you tap into your inner air guitar. This was beyond drinkable and easily one of the better lagers of the trip.
We went dark and tried the Scotch Ale next. This rich mahogany brew had big caramel characters and a lovely, clean malt sweetness. Again, at 6.5% it was tough to find any big alcohol notes, making this a pleasure to drink and better than any Scotch Ales I have tasted whilst living in the UK. It was the next beer though that I had been dreaming about for almost a year. The Sprig and Fern Doppelbock was one of the standout beers of my trip back to NZ in February 2010 and I was stoked to find out that it wasn’t just a seasonal release, but a regular brew. At 8%, the promise of flavour is instantly apparent. A rich, cereal malty aroma comes from the nose and once the dark liquid hits the tastebuds, the mixture of caramelised malts comes alive with hints of dark fruity malt and alcohol sweetness combining to create a smooth, silky taste sensation. I love this beer. It’s great to see the sparkle of excitement in Tracy’s eyes as I tell her how awesome it is. She’s proud of what her team has achieved and it’s great of her to bring that to our attention. She doesn’t ever talk of her beers, she talks of her team’s beers. I think this is something we forgot about at times when it comes to brewing. It’s not just one person that makes a beer, but a bunch of them. It’s awesome that Tracy reminds us of this.
Dick Tout is a real character. A smile from ear to ear and a big, manly handshake greet us as we arrive at Lighthouse Brewery in Nelson. The first thing Dick asks us is if we want a beer or a hot drink or a refreshment of some kind. There must be something in the water because Dick also has a real gleam in his eyes. His passion is instantly recognisable and straight away it’s apparent how much Dick loves his job. This is one of the smallest commercial breweries in the country and with a brew kit size of only 200 litres, I’d love to know how many times Dick has brewed on it since beginning in 1996.
He chatted away about brewing, his beers, car racing and his classic cars and boats. A former mechanic, Dick was as passionate about cars and his restoration of a couple of old boats as he was about brewing. We tucked in to the first beer, Summer Breeze, a well-hopped NZ style pilsner with a lovely Saaz hop edge and the finest hint of diacetyl. Dick told us of his worry with the diacetyl that his kit seemed to give the beer but Luke and I disagreed. This was just on flavour threshold and actually added something to the beer. I’m really sensitive to diacetyl, so it was interesting that I really liked this beer. Something about the balance of freshness and bitterness and the tiniest hint of toffee/butter added complexity to this great drop.
Dick’s Cheeky Little Lager was up next, a great, easy drinking example of the style and we sipped our way through his 5.5% Victory Ale with its English character prominent and Dick’s Dark, a rich, malty 4.5% beer with hints of chocolate and equal parts of floral hop and slight roastiness. The great thing about Dick is that he also loves cooking. As he described each beer he told us of his experience of drinking it at home with a meal and discovering how well it worked with the food. From salmon steaks, to Nelson Scallops in garlic butter, through to peppered steak and beef mince dishes, Dick was a wealth of knowledge, interspersing his chatter with jokes and cheeky quips.
My favourite beer of Dick’s was the Classic Stout. This 5% rich, dark, creamy stout had lovely hop notes and had massive flavour for a beer of this strength. Wafts of chocolate were abound and it was an amazing beer to finish the tasting on. Reluctantly we left Dick and continued our journey.
We arrived at Bays Brewery and were met by Peter McGrath. Peter was another energetic Nelsonian who told us of the history of the Nelson Bays Brewery and how it began back in 1993 to provide an alternative to the mainstream beers that were available then. Bays has a roaring flagon and rigger trade and the entire time we were there, a constant flow of people arrived to get their Friday and weekend beers. They also produce a range of pre-mix drinks, an alcoholic lemonade and a cider, which are all popular products.
We met up with brewer Jeff, another of the many brewers that had learnt their trade under the original Mac’s Brewery setup and talked through the beers. Their most popular brews were the Bays Gold Lager and Bays Draught Ale and it was also interesting to note that their Bengal Bitter, an IPA, was one of the first new world IPAs to be pushed out into the craft market back when it was released. The also brew the rich, sweet, malty Exclamator Doppelbock which drunk smooth and with little alcohol character coming through.
Jeff talked passionately about the beers and brewing processes and was quick to point out that they are trying to achieve drinkability and balance in their brews. They’re not huge hop bombs or diverse styles, they’re beers to drink.
Time flying by, we parked up the camper at Tahunanui and headed to one of Nelson’s newer craft beer bars, the Freehouse. In a converted church, this is filled with beer lovers young and old. The large grassy yard outside was covered with relaxing, chatting people. Sitting on the grass and at barbecue tables with a myriad of different craft beers, it’s great as a brewer to see people enjoying the beer in such a setting. When we make beer, this is what we imagine.
The range of beers was brilliant and I tried the Dead Good IPA, one of the house beers developed by the Freehouse landlord, Mic Dover, a British ex-pat with a love for great beer. With three handpulled cask ales as well as the great tap range, it’s easy to see why this bar does so well. We caught up with beer writers, beer lovers and New Zealand Hops Chief Executive Doug Donelan, a legend in the industry and a brewer with an impressive pedigree, having headed up Malt Shovel Brewery in Australia for some years. We shared beers and chatted hops and caught up with friends. It was a great finish to the day.