The ‘dark side’ of New Zealand

You may remember my dear friend Ken Hilton. He’s the best homebrewer I know, and he’s posted here several times. This time, Ken’s cycled his way across New Zealand, and graciously agreed to give us the beer-scoop. Enjoy!

Black Beer, Sand, and the “All Blacks”

You may remember a blog several years ago about cycling around Belgium drinking all sorts of beer with a friend. Well, we decided to go to New Zealand to do the same, although the main focus was cycling and the spectacular scenery. The beer was the reward at days end for having climbed mountains almost daily for the 2940 km adventure.

Intrigued by the title?

The “dark side” is a reference to our very favorite beer in New Zealand…black beer and the black sand beaches on the Tasman Sea…nourished by volcanos, and the “All Blacks”…New Zealand’s national rugby team who wear all black uniforms, are comprised of a substantial percentage of Maori, and come on the playing field doing the Maori war challenge dance to intimidate their opponents.

New Zealand is known for its wine…not for its beer. The majority of New Zealand’s beer culture comes from its English heritage and from the lager revolution. Beer prices killed our budgets…a pint of beer on tap costs $6-$9 for a four percent beer (NZ dollars). A 6-pack of the same costs $12.99-$17.99. A higher gravity beer runs $22-24. Ouch…we explored the sale racks diligently. Now this may have cut us out of some of the outstanding microbrewery offerings using all of the new New Zealand hop varieties like Pacific Gem and Motueka, but it allowed us to explore the subtle nuances of “ordinary beer.” Were we ever surprised!

We toured several breweries…West Coast Brewing in Westport, Monteith’s in Greymouth, and Speights in Dunedin. The Speights tour was absolutely the best brewery tour I have ever been on. And, free taps for 30 minutes at the end. Whoa! Most of these breweries offer milds, pale ales, “original” (older styles of English ales), wheat beers, and, our favorite…Black Beers. Normally a lager, but not always. Not a porter, not a stout, not even a Schwartzbier…somewhere heartier than a Schwartz but not quite a porter. They were yummy…coffee, roast, chocolate…all sorts of subtle nuances. Our favorite of the substantial numbers we tried was from Mac’s Brewery in Nelson…called Black Mac. Not only was this beer our favorite, but it also was bottled in ridged cider bottles with a peel-off cap….the cap had a pop-top ring attached to the side. Really neat and innovative.

Green Man Organic Brewery in Dunedin took the prize for the largest pint of beer…almost a pint and a half on each pour…and 100 percent organic. The most unique brews were a local Belgian-style blonde ale and a golden ale from a micro-brewery in Rotorua. New Zealand was third in line in the gold rush era…first was California, next was Australia, and shortly after…New Zealand. Many of the smaller towns were gold rush towns, and the architecture closely resembles California Gold Rush and the wildwest architecture. The centerpiece of many of these towns is the old hotel. We found a list of the Top 10 best taverns in New Zealand…almost all old hotel taverns…and we quaffed a few in three of the 10: the Wairau Tavern, the Old Victoria Arms Hotel in Cromwell, and our favorite, the Historic Empire Hotel in Ross. This place had a full-mirrored bar with single piece Kauri wood bar 35’ long and 6’ wide, a fireplace with hunting horns and black powder bags, wild boar and deer heads, an old player piano and all sorts of gold-mining memorabilia. It still hung with the old timey tradition of serving beer only in the tavern and food in a separate section. You could take your beer to the food, but you could not take the food to the beer.

In addition to being quite charming, it was also quite “local.” A big bloke corrected me for ordering a Speight’s Original… “You just call it Speight’s…nothing else! You’re probably an American that drinks that horse piss called Budweiser, aren’t you?” Well…the challenge was on. I told him politely that I don’t drink Budweiser…only good beer. The insults, in fun only, flew back and forth. This bloke was 6’4” and probably 350 lbs. Me, at 5’5” and 170 lbs…No worries, Mate! The verbage resulted in an arm wrestling challenge, with beer as the prize. As I suspected that he might just win, I asked him if it was all right to have the event photographed…for my chiropractor. He started laughing…and I seized the moment and took him down!

Would I go back to New Zealand for a beer tour only? Probably not. But I would go back for the drop-dead spectacular scenery, the challenging cycling, the marvelous tramping (hiking) trails, and most of all…for the great Kiwi hospitality.

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