Pushing the boundary

Spike's IPA
Spike's IPA

You may have noticed three new beers vying for your hard-earned dollar at the local supermarket or liquor store. Labelled “The Resident”, the three new six-packs depict a man wearing a baseball cap and are identified as Spike's IPA, Spike's Pilsner and Spike's Red Rye Ale.

So who is Spike, and why is his face emblazoned all over the new beers? Well, he is Brian ‘Spike' Buckowski - an accomplished American craft brewer who is the co-founder and brewmaster of the Terrapin Beer Company in Athens, Georgia. Spike was invited to New Zealand in May by Boundary Road Brewery with the aim of creating a new range of craft beers.

The brewing arm of Independent Liquor (which is owned by giant Japanese brewing group Asahi), Boundary Road Brewery is New Zealand's third-largest beer maker. Best known for budget brands like Ranfurly, Haagen and NZ Pure and "brewed under licence" international golden lagers such as Kingfisher, Carlsberg and Tuborg, Boundary Road has been showing a growing determination to break into the lucrative craft sector of the Kiwi beer market.

Competing directly against Lion's Mac's and DB's Monteith's brands, Boundary Road already offers a range of six-pack beers that includes Flying Fortress Pale Ale, Mumbo Jumbo IPA, Chocolate Moose Porter, Grizzly Beer (a ginger beer), Lawn Ranger (a radler) and Bouncing Czech Pilsner - the latter, for my money, by far the pick of the bunch and perhaps the most serious competition for Mac's Hop Rocker in its class.

More recently, Boundary Road Brewery aimed higher into craft beer territory with a trio of new beers under the Brewer's Cut moniker. Sold singly in 500ml bottles, which pitches them directly against many of the heavyweights of New Zealand craft brewing, the new beers - Red Baron (5.6 per cent) amber ale; Ein Stein (5.3 per cent) Munich-style golden lager, and 18th Amendment (6 per cent) American-style pale ale - are all pleasant, but unspectacular. Other than price, I can't see any reason why I'd buy one of them instead of anything from Epic, Emerson's, Three Boys, 8 Wired or Renaissance.

So what's the story with Spike? Why invite an American brewer to create beers for New Zealanders? The short answer is, Boundary Road is looking to gain more "cred" with Kiwi craft beer drinkers. And where better to look for a brewer whose skills are, in the words of their marketing people, "somewhere between genius and godlike", than America, home of the world's most prolific craft brewing movement? (For more information and marketing speak go to theresident.co.nz.)

I caught up with Spike in Blenheim, when he was touring the country with Boundary Road's senior brewer Trevor Rollinson and a photographer from the marketing company.

In a quiet moment away from the group, Spike assured me he'd been given complete freedom to design the beers and explained his choice of styles.

Given his background I could see that a big, American-style IPA was a no-brainer, but why brew a rye beer and a pilsner? Spike explained that he always brews with rye when collaborating with other brewers for the first time and that he was keen to explore the unique characteristics of New Zealand hops in the classic golden lager style. Having brewed trial batches of all three beers on Boundary Road's pilot plant, Spike returned to America before the first batches were released.

So how have the beers turned out? Well, there's no question they're distinctive and characterful. And they definitely show an American craft brewer's love of hops: Spike's Pilsner (5.2 per cent and 45 units of bitterness) and Spike's IPA (6 per cent and a hefty 64 units of bitterness) are almost certainly the most bitter examples of their styles ever to emerge from a large New Zealand brewery.

Normally that alone would be enough to warrant two thumbs up from me, but there's a downside: considering the intensity of the bitterness, the hop aroma of both beers is surprisingly restrained and both seem to lack cushioning sweet malt. As a result, they come across as somewhat raw, austere and unbalanced. The third beer, Spike's Red Rye (6 per cent and 43 units of bitterness), is also generously hopped, but benefits from a slightly richer, creamier mouthfeel and spiciness - presumably from the rye - and some caramelised sweetness from the darker malts. For me, it is more balanced most sessionable of the trio.

Criticisms aside, Spike's beers are undoubtedly characterful, distinctive and stylistically identifiable - which is more than can be said for many so-called craft beers from brewers large and small - and, with a recommended retail price of $16.99 for a six pack, they represent something of a bargain.

I'd therefore encourage you to give all three of Spike's beers a try, with the recommendation you serve them only very lightly chilled and preferably in a decent wine or stemmed beer glass. They may not represent the most cultured and balanced examples of their respective styles, but you'll certainly get the idea.

And good on Boundary Road Brewery for being brave enough to give it a crack.

Cheers Spike!

The Marlborough Express