For much of the remainder of this month I'll be traversing the country with Nelson brewer Dale Holland, helping him launch his latest creation.
I'll be reviewing the beer in the next few weeks, by which time, with luck, it'll have found its way on to a shelf or tap somewhere near you, but in the meantime I'll tempt you with a little clue: it's a big-flavoured, warming brew that's ideally suited for leisurely contemplation on a chilly winter's evening. And it's a potent little number.
In some ways it's hypocritical that I'll be gadding about the country promoting Dale's latest brew because in this column I'm going to whinge about the propensity of strong beers coming on to the market.
Looking back the majority of the tasty new brews I've reviewed recently have combined a robust flavour profile with substantial alcoholic strength. Scotch Ales, Barley Wines, IPAs, black IPAs, double IPAs, Imperial this, that and the other and all manner of Belgian-inspired beauties; they're all at the top end of the alcohol spectrum.
While I understand it's a reaction against the tide of bland beers that washed over these shores for too many generations and appreciate our craft brewers' desire to tempt the palates of a new generation of Kiwi craft-beer lovers with new and increasingly flavoursome and challenging beer styles, I wish brewers would also pay attention to the "less alcoholic but still flavoursome" end of the beer spectrum.
I've nothing against strong beers per se, and I'm well aware that alcohol does a great job as a vector for "delivering" flavour but one of the things I admire most about beer is its remarkable diversity of strengths. Don't believe me? Think all beer is pretty much the same? You may be interested to know that while the world's strongest beer weighs in at a mighty 60 per cent, there are also plenty of beers of about 3 per cent alcohol by volume or lower.
While there's no doubt the most flavour-packed beers are all at the higher end of the scale in terms of alcohol content, a beer doesn't have to be strong to be characterful, complex and interesting. Some of the English styles I experienced in my more youthful days fit the bill perfectly.
My friends and I reached the legal drinking age in the early 70s and I can clearly recall some of my first visits to pubs in and around West London. My early memories are of pub goers enjoying draught mild ales, bitters and stouts, or bottled pale and brown ales. With few exceptions those beers had an alcoholic strength of about 4 per cent; the milds and brown ales, even less.
By modern craft-beer standards those styles would hardly be considered challenging, but the best examples were tasty and characterful and, as well as being an excellent social lubricant, immensely sessionable. Even young and inexperienced drinkers like my friends and I could enjoy a few pints over a couple of hours with absolutely no ill-effects. So what's the secret? How does a brewer make a beer that manages to combine plenty of flavour and complexity with a comparatively low alcoholic strength? In the case of those English beer styles the answer is not simply a matter of careful brewing with quality ingredients, it's just as much to do with serving temperature and carbonation. And the latter are closely related.
Firstly let's look at serving temperature. Just as a red wine or single-malt whisky lover would never chill a decent bottle of their preferred tipple prior to serving, so it should be with most lower-strength craft beer styles. The aromas and flavours of the best beers, particularly those whose character is defined by malt complexity, are subdued by heavy chilling. Served too cold a beer's aroma and palate will be muted, often to the point where it can seem unbalanced and lacking flavour.
Then there's the carbonation. At too low a temperature a beer's carbonation, its fizz, will remain dissolved in the beer until it reaches the mouth, where it will be experienced as a sharp prickle on the tongue and in the throat, followed by a bloating gassiness in the stomach. Too much carbonic "bite" will also mask most of the flavours from the malts, hops and fermentation, meaning much of the beer's character and complexity will be lost.
English milds, bitters and other related ale styles best express their full range of aromas and flavours at a cool "cellar" temperature of around 10 degrees Celsius, so such a beer served from a standard beer tap or from a bottle stored in a fridge will benefit enormously from being left to warm for a few minutes before drinking.
New Zealand has some fine examples of flavoursome beers at a modest strength but they can be hard to track down. Worth seeking out are Emerson's Bookbinder (3.7 per cent), Harrington's Pig & Whistle (4 per cent), Townshend Bandsman (3.7 per cent) or Townshend Number 9 Stout (4 per cent). All available in bottle and on tap. Or, if you're visiting Auckland, try Bob Hudson's Bitter (4 per cent) from Galbraith's Alehouse in Mount Eden Rd.
- The Marlborough Express