Gruit in Nelson?

When we moved to Nelson in late 2006, not a single local brewery was making an IPA. The most exciting, most complex tasting beers around were the strong beers, like the Scotch ale from Tasman and the dopplebock from Bays. Founder’s Fair Maiden (released after we arrived) was a lovely pale ale, and Lighthouse Stout was tasty, but we didn’t find much hops and we didn’t find anything challenging.

We expected to remedy that by brewing our own, and then found that getting basic equipment and ingredients was a much more daunting task than we could have imagined. It took almost a year before we even had the basics to put down our first extract brew.

During that year and the next though, the area really did experience a brewing revival. Renaissance started sending over hoppy beers from Blenheim, and new brewers like Townshend, Golden Bear and Monkey Wizard came onto the scene. Suddenly, every week or two we were tripping over a new challenge.

Then we got the Free House where we were able to start drinking them fresh. And not just them, but similar beers from around the country, with new flavours and styles popping up every week from Emerson’s, Twisted Hop or Invercargill. Soon, we had kegs of Three Boys, Tuatara, Crouchers rolling through.

And the race was on. Yeastie Boys, Golden Ticket, 8 Wired – everyone was able to sell their own new beer, a new style, a new boundary pusher. And some of our original local brewers stepped up to that challenge. Tasman reformed itself into Sprig and Fern, and has reformulated most of it’s lineup. Founder’s has spun it’s seasonals into a whole range of JR Duncan and Sons experiments.

So, our beer world has well and truly changed. We now have McCashins pushing their brewer Sam to come up with a continuing string of unique one-offs, because their punters demand them. Not all of the experiments work, but they aren’t being punished for trying. And by allowing that freedom, they have been able to put a smoked ale and the first commercial Wai-iti hopped beer into the market.

We don’t know how the punters reacted, but Sam put out a gruit last week. It was one of the most drinkable we have encountered – still tasting obviously like a beer, not some bizarre alcoholic tea, or a watered down spirit, and yet it had a very engaging, complex building of clove, smoke, juniper and manuka flavours that just kept changing as we drank. He shyly introduced it as an unhopped beer he’d had sitting for a few months, but must have been proud of this result.

We can only wait to see what else boils off the pages of Randy Mosher’s “Radical Brewing” into the kettles of our Nelson and other New Zealand breweries over the coming months. We might not love all that we try, but we certainly won’t punish the efforts.

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About Fritz and Maria

Fritz and Maria have been living, drinking and brewing together for over 20 years. As beer commentators and educators they strive to create a beerocracy where people exercise their palates by voting for quality in the marketplace. Their interests include the personalities, business, and culture of craft beer worldwide. As distillers for Rough Hands, they loved being at the place where magic meets science. Fritz and Maria can be found speaking at beery events, holding guided tastings, judging competitions.

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