Apprentice turns master brewer

FRITZ KUCKUCK AND MARIA GRAU
Last updated 15:08 16/05/2014
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YEAST WRANGLER: Jason Bathgate among the beer barrels at 8 Wired Brewing Company in Blenheim.

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For a long time, 8 Wired Brewing and Søren Eriksen were synonymous. Søren was a one-man contract brewer whose day job was brewing for Blenheim's Renaissance Brewery. But with a combination of strategic product development and runaway rampant success, eventually Søren couldn't keep up, even after quitting the day job.

Perhaps if he'd kept to brewing normal beer he'd have managed, but for the past few years Søren has been venturing into the weird and complicated world of barrel-aged sour beers. So, about nine months ago, Søren Eriksen recruited Renaissance assistant brewer Jason Bathgate.

On paper, Jason might not seem the most likely candidate for one of the more sought after assistant brewer jobs in the country. Having trained and worked as a chef, he had only worked for less than two years as an assistant brewer.

Jason would have us believe he was just in the right place at the right time, but during a few hours sampling beers with him, we uncovered quite a different story.

The story really starts with the start of our visit, when Jason launched into a rapid-fire overview of what was in the 200-plus barrels stored in the Riverlands warehouse outside Blenheim.

While he knew that we like Belgian beers and that we have long familiarity with the sour beer movement in the US, we did not expect that within 10 minutes of our arrival he'd be referencing specific strains of brettanomyces yeasts, assuming we knew the difference.

That intensity and that depth of knowledge is the real Jason Bathgate story. He's only been employed by 8 Wired since September, but we suspect that in some areas his knowledge may have outstripped Søren's already. When we asked he evaded with a smile, "Well, Søren is a poker player. You can never really be sure what he knows."

And that leads back to why he really got the job. Having moved to Nelson from Vermont for the lifestyle. Jason worked as a chef and partner Monica Mead wrote about beer and wine for various magazines. Jason started homebrewing for financial reasons, but soon became obsessed with beer. Renaissance Brewery in Blenheim was one of his favourites, so he began voluntarily interning there several days a week. After seven long months driving across the Whangamoas, they took him on as a third assistant brewer.

The job included assisting Søren Eriksen while he brewed his 8 Wired beers. Jason and Søren got along well, and Jason soon turned his general beer obsession to learning about sours and barrel ageing. With his focus and tenacity, persistent questioning and reading, he soon became the obvious "yeast wrangler and barrel shepherd" for the new 8 Wired barrel programme. "The only question is why I wasn't named Brett," joked Jason.

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The timing of all of this was quite fortunate for Søren as well. When he and his family had to move to Auckland soon after, he was left trusting Jason to take over the reins in Blenheim almost completely.

He told us the master plan is to get four sour or barrelled beers into the 8 Wired regular range, but most of the barrels are experiments. He and Søren have introduced different souring techniques, yeasts, beers, bacteria, and barrel sources into the mix in order to better understand the variety of flavours they can produce over time. We tasted barrels with added feijoas and strawberries, stouts, and even a brettanomyces infected bit of Fresh HopWired. "And every barrel is different!" Jason stated emphatically.

Most are young and need to develop full complexity and sourness, although Søren has plans to get the most intense beers maturing in a year or so, rather than the two to three years typically required. One recent release, Chardonnay Barrel Aged Saison, is a lightly funky beer with buttery wine notes, and hints of tropical and stone fruit blended with an earthy Belgian farmhouse character. It's refreshing and has a depth of flavour that will improve with bottle age.

Søren clearly isn't satisfied being parted from his wild projects, as plans are underway to build an 8 Wired brewery in Matakana. Surely he was relieved to hear that Jason and Monica are very keen to relocate when it's ready so that the partnership can continue.

BEER NEWS

The Pink Boots Society, an international organisation of women brewers, on March 8 held the first annual International Women's Collaboration Brew Day, with women around the globe brewing Unite Pale Ale (http://pinkbootssociety.org/iwcbd/).

The NZ version, brewed by the Beer Baroness Ava Wilson, should be at Bel-Aire Tavern now or very soon. $1 from each pint will be donated to Nelson Women's Refuge.

Also in Bel-Aire Tavern news, you can meet Hop Federation brewer Simon Nicholas and taste his beers there on Monday May 26 from 7.30 pm.

Don't hate us if it's already too late, but if you run to the Richmond Fresh Choice Coffee Cart right now, you might be able to get a $25 ticket to hear Jos Ruffell tell us about a handful of his Garage Project beers, while tasting them paired with the fabulous food at Cafe on Oxford. It's from 7pm on Wednesday June 11.

- Nelson

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