How Mike's beer started as a university experiment
It's not often a series of calamitous mistakes turns out for the best, but it's likely that one of the finest beers in New Zealand wouldn't exist otherwise.
Mike's Whisky Porter, a seasonal 10.5 per cent barrel-aged creation from Taranaki institution Mike's Organic Brewery, is one of the most sought-after drops in the New Zealand beer market.
Aged in whisky barrels, the beer has become arguably the brewery's most famous beer but it's one that owner Ron Trigg stumbled upon by chance.
Soon after buying Mike's in 2007, Trigg wanted to introduce a bigger beer to complement the 4 per cent mild ale that existed at the time.
Contacting Massey University, he decided to sponsor a food technology student to experiment and design a beer that would be aged in barrels.
After receiving the beer from the student, who went on to work in the Speight's brewery in Dunedin, Trigg, who admits he knew nothing about barrel ageing at the time, decided to try the beer after six and then 12 weeks.
"I'm not sure why, I just plucked a number out of the sky."
When six weeks passed, the barrel was dutifully tapped but the results were far from what was hoped for.
"It was bloody terrible at six weeks, it was just like you were doing a whisky depth-charge, it was really awful."
Disappointed at the outcome, Trigg angrily threw the barrels behind a shed and forgot about them.
About four months later he stumbled upon them again and with an afternoon to spare, decided to rig up a "rangi" pulley system to tap the pressurised barrels.
Unfortunately, the first one exploded.
"It sprayed all over me, but I started licking my arms and thought holy crap, this has seriously changed."
Intrigued, Trigg decided to buy elaborate 750ml bottles from Belgium and had new labels designed.
But he ran out of money to get the die cut, so the bottles sat filled but label-less in a shed.
This problem also proved fortuitous, as the warm temperature added another character to the beer and is now part of the ageing process each year.
After finally getting the bottles out for sale, he realised there was nothing like it on the market and retailers were reluctant to commit.
"Regional [Wine & Spirits] in Wellington only bought 12 and weren't sure they would sell.
"The next thing I knew, they were on the phone asking for more, they had sold out in 15 minutes."
Since then Whisky Porter has been an annual release, except for last year when no barrels could be sourced.
This year, the beer has made a triumphant return, however, with half the batch aged in pinot noir barrels and half in whisky barrels then blended together.
Trigg has grand plans to move the brewery to cater for the booming business, which has had to double its floor space three times since he took over in 2007.
Unfortunately, the sale of the business's current site recently fell over, setting plans back.
In the interim, Trigg has built another shed to try to keep up with the public's swelling appetite for good beer.
And as for that original batch of whisky porter? Trigg has only one bottle left to his name after losing a second to his brother in a bet.
- Shane Cowlishaw is the co-writer of the Fairfax blog The Beerhive. You can follow him at facebook.com/ beerhiveblog or @BeerhiveBlog.
- Dominion Post