Brewers ply their craft

Blenheim's award-winning breweries showed their mettle at a duo of beer tastings in Wellington last week. Organised by craft beer specialists Regional Wines & Spirits, these so-called "Marlborough shoot-out" tastings enabled Moa, Renaissance and 8 Wired to showcase their latest creations to the capital's beer-lovers in a friendly, but semi-competitive environment.

Presenting the beers were brewers Andy Deuchars and Matt Dainty from Renaissance and Dave Nicholls from Moa - unfortunately Soren Eriksen from 8 Wired was overseas and therefore unable to attend. The tastings featured three beers from each brewery and my role was to act as an unbiased "referee" if the rivalry got too intense. As it turned out, the banter was entirely good humoured and both evenings were enormous fun.

Renaissance brought along its cocoa nib-infused Craftsman chocolate oatmeal stout and 2011 Tribute barley wine (the latter is ageing beautifully), but the beer most people were eager to sample was its new hoppy dark ale, Black the RIPA, which was launched across the country on Thursday evening.

Black the RIPA (6.1 per cent) is Renaissance's answer to the current trend for black India pale ales (IPAs). Despite the paradoxical name – can you really have a pale ale that's black? - Matt Dainty's brew features an especially complex grist which includes barley malts and three variants of malted rye (cara-rye, chocolate rye and standard rye malt).

The rye accounts for the R in RIPA but also gives the beer a smooth mouth-feel and, according to Matt, a suggestion of mint and spiciness. Working together the darker malts, both rye- and barley-based, also contribute chocolate and bitumen-like notes, but without the intense roastiness associated with dry stouts.

Being an IPA, you'd expect the beer to be aggressive in the hop department, and you'd be right: despite the complexity of the grain bill, the end result weighs firmly in favour of the little green cones. A combination of locally grown Cascade and Nelson sauvin hops provides plenty of zingy citrus and passionfruit in both the aroma and palate, while Pacific Jade – Renaissance's favoured bittering hop – rewards the beer with a soft, smooth but persistent bitterness and lingering dry finish.

Currently available only on tap, Black the RIPA is the first beer in Renaissance's new Enlightenment range and will be sold in a newly shaped 500ml bottle that's intended to stand out alongside the brewery's regular beers. Restricted to seasonal and other occasional limited-run brews, the Enlightenment range will allow Andy and Matt to flex their creative muscles.

Later this month another Wellington craft beer institution, The Malthouse, will host the West Coast Challenge, an annual competition which pits Kiwi craft brewers against each other with emphatically hopped (United States) West Coast-style pale ales brewed specially for the occasion.

Last year's competition was won by Moa Brewing Company with McMoa, a wacky and extremely potent (around 10 per cent) amber brew which has strong caramel malt flavours balanced by spicy (pepper, vanilla and bubble gum) Belgian yeast character and a resiny, bittersweet, combination of stone-fruit and citrus flavours from American and New Zealand hops.

For last week's tastings, Moa's head brewer Dave Nicholls turned up with two recreations of McMoa. Brewed late last year, McMoa Mark 2 has since been ageing in wine barrels, while Mark 3 has only recently emerged from fermentation.

As Dave explained the differences between the batches - since brewing the first McMoa he has developed a passion for American Columbus hops – we sampled the two and found them both in splendid condition, but quite different. Both reeked of hops but the younger beer was bigger and spicier, while the older, barrel-aged, version was more slender in mouth-feel and showed less yeast influence.

The two recent versions of McMoa are now available in keg from Moa, so look out for them at your local specialist craft beer bar.

And if you're wondering about the beer's seemingly inappropriate moniker, let me put your mind at rest: it was named after The Malthouse's general manager - a Scot.


The Marlborough Express