A huge feed of local bacon, eggs from the chickens outside, black pudding and sausages under our belts (thanks, Mum and Dad!), we were on the road again. We headed north of New Plymouth until we saw the tell-tale sign… “Brewery, 200 litres ahead”. We arrived at the picturesque grounds of Mike’s Organic Brewery (on the White Cliffs Estate) and were met by Ron Trigg, brimming with enthusiasm and energy as he began talking us through the brewery and beers.
Ron and his parents (including father , Mike… aptly named) took over the brewery almost four years ago. The family is originally from Zimbabwe and moved to New Zealand for a better life for themselves. They chose Taranaki as their new home and went about setting up an organic farm close to the brewery. When it came up for sale, they jumped at the chance of taking on the now 21 year old business, taking the organic philosophy to another level and broadening the range of beers. With a beautifully refurbished ex-school hall as their new brewery shop, an avocado orchard framing the site and extensions to the brewery itself, including more vessels and equipment, Mike’s has seen a big increase in sales due to the hard work the family have put in.
We head to the shop to taste a few of the beers and notice the great 10 litre keg dispense units that are lined up on the bar. Sourced from Germany, these really look great, kind of espresso machine-like in appearance, with the Mike’s fantastic new branding in a light-up display on the front, these wouldn’t look out of place in any nice bar or restaurant. The great thing about the units is their ease of use. You get the keg, you put it into the machine and the unit controls temperature. You don’t even need to clean any beer lines, as they all come with a one-use disposable dispense system that is replaced every time a new keg is put on. This means you have a closed system that keeps the beer in perfect condition (the gas unit doesn’t even put any extra head-space pressure in the beer in the keg, hence carbonation is accurately controlled).
As if to prove the machines are worth their weight in gold, we go through the line-up, beginning with the impressive Strawberry Blonde. Made with fresh organic strawberries, this is unlike some of the sweet fruit beers you often find. It pours pale, with the faintest hint of pink, an almost Rosé wine strawberry note on the nose. Expecting sweetness, this spritzy beer is the opposite in the mouth. Delicate, refreshing and palate-cleansing, it has the berry perfume without the sweetness, finishing dry and remarkably crisp. This is a real gateway beer. White and Rosé wine lovers and mainstream lager drinkers and those that don’t appreciate the subtle nuances that a delicate craft beer can have should try this, it’s great.
We then tried the Organic Lager. This is another gateway beer, appealing to those stoke on the bland stuff for most of their lives, but lifting it up a notch. It’s well executed with juicy malt characters and the faintest touch of light citrus and fresh-cut grass from the hops. It finishes smooth and goes down too easily. Another great beer served at the perfect temperature and carbonation and as fresh as can be. The Organic Pilsener is up next. The aroma blows us away, big aromatic hops, wonderful body and a persistent mouth-filling bitterness put this Pilsener up there with some of the best we have tried on the trip. The past four years have seen these guys working hard and this beer sums that up. Ron looks on like the proud father he deserves to be. A lovely drop.
We try the brewery’s most famous drop next. Mike’s Organic Ale is a bit of an institution and even appeared in Michael Jackson’s (the Beer Hunter, not the pop star) book as a rare example of an antipodean mild. It has a nice maltiness on the nose, is smooth and flavourful with undertones of rich toffee and roasted malt in the mouth and finishes slightly nutty and dry. It’s how I like a brown beer to taste. It’s how a brown beer should taste. And the best thing is… it has hops. They dance around the nostrils as you sniff the glass and follow through with the faintest hint of berry and citrus in the mouth. This is a great beer and is as good, if not better as I remember it tasting many moons ago.
As we entered the building, we couldn’t help but spot the myriad of ex-whisky barrels lined up on the porch, filled with porter and slowly ageing away. Mike’s Whisky Porter deserves the People’s Choice award it got at last year’s BrewNZ competition. It is rich and chocolaty, with lovely wisps of whisky and oak. It drinks like a rich, decadent, fruity port with an underlying Sherry character, heading towards Amontillado. It is a beer to drink when it’s cool and you want something hearty, but equally when it’s hot as hell and you have chilled it down in an ice bucket. We also try the big, hoppy, rich India Pale Ale. The big bottle looks the part. These are both beers to be savoured and talked about. The hops in the IPA leap from the glass, their American citrus and pine and fruit influence flooding the senses.
Mike’s have done good!
We reluctantly leave, knowing we could stand around and chat beer and brewing and flavours with Ron until the wee hours. Hamilton beckons and we head northwards towards Shunters Yard Brewery on the outskirts of the ‘Tron. Set up by avid homebrewers, Peter Mckenzie and his mate, Dave, this brewery smacks of the type of thing that we love to see. Peter is a mechanical engineer and Dave has spent the majority of his life working in the food/dairy industry so these two are a match made in heaven when it comes to the brewery and the processes. From air conditioning units modified and fitted to heat exchangers to act as cold liquor cooling, through to stainless steel ion exchange chambers modified and used as brewing vessels, they have managed to make an extremely efficient, energy conscious brewery at a minimal cost. They have a couple of old railway carriages outside on a pair of tracks and the quirky bar has a great old-world feel. It’s a great mix of country and industrial excellence. Pete and Dave chat away like excited schoolkids. It’s so obvious that they love their weekend hobby and the fact that they both hold full-time jobs and are able to produce 600 odd litres of beer a week make it all the more impressive.
We head outside into a stinking hot Waikato day and stand around perhaps the only wedge-wire table I know of. The guys give us a glass of their Number 7 Pilsener. Naturally carbonated, this is the closest to a European style Pilsner we have tried on the trip. The hop is more grassy and tends toward noble character than the NZ Pilsner style brews we have tried. The malt is dominant in the mouth with a hint of breadiness and a big, bold Czech-style bitterness that coats the mouth and brings instant refreshment. The light carbonation helps a lot. This is drinkable and delicious. It quenches perfectly.
Their dark beer, Midnight Special is up next. It has the same drinkability with dusty, roasted malt characters and a nice dry finish. The mouthfeel maintains smoothness and it’s impressive to see these two doing such good things with their beers. We really hope to see more from these two innovative, enthusiastic brewers!
Our last stop of the trip is to the impressive House on Hood in Hamilton. A large house, it’s grey visage dominates the street, but is open and inviting at the same time, with people sitting outside enjoying the craft beers on offer on the large tabled balcony. We catch up with Greig Mcgill from SOBA (The Society of Beer Advocates) and discuss what they are about over a delicious glass of Invercargill Brewery’s Pitch Black. SOBA is all about “Beer for the right reasons”. They are advocates for the promotion of the flavour and diversity that beer offers and are big at promoting all that beer offers while protecting the rights of the consumer. They are also available as an educative tool and a beer resource, helping out wherever they can with beer tastings, beer events. food and beer menus and sourcing beers for pubs and bars that are interested.
Greig loves beer. It’s so obvious when he talks and tells us of his story and journey from mainstream beers to the appreciation he now has. It began with homebrewing and a solid friendship with James Kemp, ex NZ Homebrew Champ/Thornbridge Brewer/All Round Beer Ninja and ex-workmate of yours truly. From small seeds and all that, but Greig is now up there as one of the authorities on New Zealand beer and is a huge supporter of the burgeoning craft beer scene that Hamilton has. Good on ya, Greig!
Our last meeting of the day is with brewing consultant and stalwart of the New Zealand craft brewing scene, Graeme Mahy. Graeme has been involved in craft brewing for years and given a truckload of his spare time to helping out breweries and guiding them with the knowledge he has acquired from his time brewing in prestigious breweries throughout NZ and Australia. Another guy whose love of beer is evident, he tells us excitedly about potential future plans for a brewery in the area. We know of his love of big, Belgian style beers, so can’t wait to see what magic he manages from the mash tun.
With both the film crew and ourselves waning after an epic 2000km in five days, we decide to forgo a night in Hamilton for a sleep in our own beds up in Auckland. We hit the road, put the last one hundred or so kilometres behind us and head home. It’s been a trip and we still have the Auckland and Northland breweries to come!