Pink Elephant PBA was the beer that convinced me that it was possible to find good beer in New Zealand. I remember the occasion well. It was late October 1990 and it was during the last few days of my first visit to Godzone.
I was travelling with my family and, having flown from England, we had allowed ourselves a month in Australia followed by a fortnight in New Zealand. We must have been crazy; it was nowhere near enough time do justice to either country. Having arrived in Auckland and decided first to head north, after 10 days we had made it only as far down the country as Hastings and it was obvious we had no time to explore the South Island. However, I was determined to at least get to the capital city and, thanks to a daily train service called the Bay Express, I managed to make it down to Wellington.
It was there, after a visit to specialist beer retailer Regional Wines & Spirits, that I had my New Zealand beer epiphany. Having already sampled my fair share of thin, bland mainstream Kiwi "draughts" and "lagers", and been underwhelmed by their lack of flavour and character, I was unprepared for the taste explosion that came when I flipped the cap off my first bottle of Pink Elephant PBA.
Full bodied, with lashings of sweet caramelised malt, berry-like fruity yeast notes and pungent, resiny New Zealand hops, the drying hoppy finish seemed to linger forever. I was amazed that so much flavour and character could be packed into an unassuming 4.8 per cent Kiwi brew. The beer's wacky pink label revealed it was brewed in Brightwater, Nelson, which was on the other side of Cook Strait. I was in a quandary; I had to find the brewery, but I had no time.
A year later I returned to New Zealand and, after crossing the strait on the interisland ferry, I hired a car and made a beeline for Brightwater and the Pink Elephant brewery. Having found the address, (and ignored multiple signs informing visitors that the brewery was not open to the public) I found brewer Roger Pink working in a rustic looking brewhouse in a shed attached to his house.
It was then that I discovered my favourite Kiwi beer was being produced in what author Richard Brimer later described as "probably New Zealand's smallest and most specialised brewery". (The Microbreweries of New Zealand, Random House, 1995).
Chatting with Roger I discovered he had opened the brewery in 1990, a decade after migrating from England. Looking for an unusual but memorable brand name, he had combined his surname with the trademark elephant of the once-famous Fremlins brewery in his home town of Maidstone, Kent, and Pink Elephant was born.
From day one Roger was determined to brew traditional English-style ales - a remarkably brave move in a country whose beer scene was, and to a large extent still is, dominated by heavily chilled, sweet, fizzy lagers. When I first met Roger the Pink Elephant range included PBA, the pale ale; PDA, a dark ale; Mammoth (7 per cent), a chestnut coloured strong ale, and Pachyderm, an intensely roasty dry stout. All were made with New Zealand hops, British and Australian malts and fermented with a selection of traditional ale yeasts.
Sadly, such robust brews were never going to be an instant hit with the average Kiwi beer drinker and demand remained limited. However, looking for a more discerning and open-minded clientele, Roger eyed the development of Marlborough with its wine-savvy tourists and in 1996 he shifted the brewery to Rapaura Rd, in the heart of the Wairau Valley wine trail, where he opened a beer-tasting facility and cafe.
Having won a raft of brewing awards and attracted favourable reviews from the revered English beer writer Michael Jackson who had visited the brewery, Roger was tempted to produce stronger and ever more exotic styles. The pale ale PBA was renamed Golden Tusk and then became Golden Tusk Special after the strength went to 7 per cent.
But brewing up to 10 different beers while also welcoming visitors, proved too much for a one-man operation; the Rapaura Rd site was sold and the brewery relocated and closed to the public. In order to maintain product quality and consistency of supply Roger also took the decision to scale back the beer range.
He has since moved into Blenheim and decommissioned his brewery, but has continued to brew the Pink Elephant beers on a contract basis at a series of South Island breweries. In recent times both Mammoth and Golden Tusk Special have been brewed at Renaissance (Blenheim), Invercargill and most recently Harrington's of Christchurch. The latter arrangement ended abruptly in December 2011 when Harrington's Ferrymead brewery was closed after sustaining earthquake damage.
Happily Roger has just brewed a new batch of Pink Elephant Golden Tusk Special at Christchurch's Four Avenues Brewery. The latest batch should be in stores soon and will be easily identifiable as it will be packaged in 500ml bottles, a first for Pink Elephant.
A recent addition to the Christchurch brewing scene, Four Avenues is a new brewery that has been installed at the rear of Pomeroy's Old Brewery Inn on Kilmore St.
Having survived the earthquakes, Pomeroy's Inn is all that remains of a cluster of buildings that once housed the old Ward's brewery. It strikes me as ironic that, having now been produced at seven different locations across the South Island, this latest incarnation of Pink Elephant's classic pale ale is now being brewed just a few metres from the birthplace of Ward's Beer, the predecessor of Canterbury Draught!
How times and fortunes have changed.
- The Mirror