Wizard at talking the craft

23:51, Nov 15 2012
Paul Gilding
MAT ELMHIRST: Big is bad for beer.

With some brewer interviews we have done, we pretty much knew what we would get before we started. With Mat Elmhirst of Monkey Wizard Brewery in Riwaka, we knew better than to predict.

By the end of our interview with this colourful character, we couldn't agree more with his final statement: "We're not called Monkey Wizard because we are beige."

Our interview had been somewhat delayed because the brewer-dentist was attending to emergency surgery. But once we started, the conversation catapulted immediately into heated analysis of what the Lion purchase of Emerson's Brewery might mean for the future of New Zealand beer.

Our suggestion that Richard Emerson promised the beer wouldn't change met the quick retort, "Wouldn't you think the McCashins [Macs] would have thought the same thing?"

From there, the discussion pitched and rocked through an impassioned series of history lessons, political soapboxes and in-depth technical lectures broadly connected to the subject of beer.

We'd be lying to say we had anything to do with directing it. But, if you love Monkey Wizard, it's because you want to be surprised and educated. Who else will let us learn what beer with perfume ingredient, ambergris, might taste like?


If Mat had been selling tickets, he might have titled the session "Big angry business doesn't like anything but monoculture".

Triggered by the Emerson's event, no doubt, but also drawing from a cornerstone of his beer and medical philosophy, Mat was intent on proving the sterilising effect of monopoly and big business.

Along the way, he explained how unfiltered beer and organic cider are like wholegrain bread or unpasteurised cheese - healthier, more flavourful, more diverse, and not easily reproduced in large factories.

Brews with wild yeast cultures like traditional cider, elderflower beer or sour beer are each unique and interesting, but very difficult to make consistently. "I'm probably the most inconsistent brewer in New Zealand," he proudly claims.

This strayed off into the possibility of New Zealand following the United States into a big trend for sour beers. But he wasn't sure about the Kiwi appetite for sour tastes.

That led to pondering whether there is a Kiwi psyche creating a unique New Zealand taste in beer. After deciding New Zealand is neither "two-dimensional and boring" like his native England, nor "all guns blazing" like the US, Mat chose to applaud the Kiwi hops industry for "producing some of the most desirable hops in the world.

"While US brewers are going crazy for Nelson sauvin, I think we haven't scratched the surface of new flavour possibilities. Wai iti and the rest are painting a new picture."

And then suddenly we were talking about cider again. This time in the context of sustainability and how the recent commercial cider boom is partly driven by costs, but how that reflects the lower carbon footprint of the cider-making process compared with beer. Mat asserted that he wasn't likely to stop making beer, but that cider just makes more sense for the planet.

With time running out, we asked him to describe his ideal world. He said it would have to be a mix of the best laws and drinking cultures from around the world, with support for heritage such as Belgium and France; mixed with British permissiveness taxing small producers less. Throw in American willingness to experiment and test the limits; abolish the insanity of RTDs (mixing caffeine, sugar and whey alcohol for young drinkers), and we'd be on the right path.