rsz_beer_stein_detals_007The annual Beervana event in Wellington celebrates the rise and rise of artisan brews – and one of the most exciting things about them is how well they go with food. 

[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in abridged form in Dish magazine.]

BY JOHN CORBETT. All around me people were swirling glasses, sniffing, tasting and comparing notes. There were over two dozen exhibitors’ stands as well as others selling barista coffee, thin-crust pizzas, platters of artisan cheese and gourmet meat pies. In one corner a band played laid-back blues.

The crowd was 95 per cent male, very well behaved and no-one was visibly affected by alcohol. The ambience, in fact, was like a typical wine-tasting event – except we weren’t tasting wine. It was Beervana, a two-day public celebration of craft (artisan) beer-making that is part of the annual BrewNZ convention and awards in Wellington. It was a revelation.

As I moved around the stands, the servers scrupulously rinsed my glass after each sampling so I could properly taste the next beer. And what beers! There was a dizzying variety: Pilseners, lagers, bitters, wheat beers, white beers, beers infused with manuka honey and horopito and chilli, porters, stouts, scrumpies and ciders, as well as some beers I’d never heard of such as dunkelweiss, heffe, kriek and gueuze. Almost without exception, the beers had the attributes – aroma, flavour and complexity on the palate – that you associate with wine.

One exhibitor frankly likened its American Pale Ale to Sauvignon Blanc: “It’s packed with racy, up-front fruit flavours and a bracing punch of acidity,” the brochure said, “…a perfect match with spicy Thai or Mexican cuisine.”

The wine analogies continued: a couple of times I overheard the term terroir used in relation to hops. (Hops and yeasts are engrossing topics for craft brewers: some flavour hops from New Zealand; others won’t touch any that aren’t from England, America or Europe). It became abundantly clear that craft beer types have very good taste buds – and that I would never look at beer in quite the same way again.

The rapid growth of craft beer-making in New Zealand over the last decade is recognised as one of the most significant developments the local brewing industry has seen. The term “craft”, as in handcrafted, comes from the USA and refers to beers that are brewed using traditional methods, with fewer ingredients than are found in many mass-produced beers and with a focus on distinctive flavours and tastes.

Craft beer enterprises are typically small – they’re often made in appropriately-named microbreweries, often by one or two individuals with a passionate commitment to good beer. At Beervana, that passion is always in evidence in brands with whimsical names (Doctor’s Orders, Rocky Knob, Parrotdog) and a few that border on the risqué. But everybody is serious and knowledgeable – and that’s just the public.

Although craft beers still make up only two per cent of the New Zealand beer market, their growing popularity is reflected in steadily increasing demand, burgeoning entries in the BrewNZ Awards and perennially healthy attendance figures for Beervana, which has now become an event of national interest. Export prospects also beckon, although industry leaders say that brewing and hop production will need to expand significantly to take advantage of the opportunity.

The rise and rise of craft beers has of course not gone unnoticed by the large mainstream beer companies, both of whom have offered craft brands for more than a decade. Lion Nathan and Dominion Breweries have also had a longtime presence at Beervana with their Mac’s and Monteith’s brands, and they and a number of other exhibitors also use the event to promote agency lines from Europe and elsewhere.

“Craft beer makers mean no disrespect to either the big beer makers or the big international beer brands,” a Beervana exhibitor told me. “But to stick to drinking them only would be like only drinking Chardonnay or Shiraz if you drank wine – there’s so much else! Beer is the same. Craft brewers are driven by flavour and taste and they start where mainstream beers leave off. They add huge variety and diversity to beer drinking.”

A natural consequence of treating beer like wine is to explore how it matches with food. To their considerable credit, both Lion Nathan and Dominion Breweries have taken a leading role in promoting this concept. In Lion Nathan’s Mac’s Brewbars throughout the country, beers are thoughtfully matched to the menus and the venues also offer seasonal and limited release beers. Dominion Breweries’ Monteith’s craft beer brand is a notable sponsor of food events, notably the Monteith’s Wild Food Challenge, which has inspired restaurants nationwide to create superb beer and food matches for the last 17 years.

Food has always been a significant presence at Beervana, and for this year’s event on 23-24 August Beervana Culinary Director, Martin Bosley, rounded up some of Wellington’s top eateries including Boulcott Street Bistro, Epicure, Grill Meats Beer and The Goose Shack to offer a variety of on-site offerings that complemented and contrasted with the 250-plus craft beers available.

The format of the food participation varies creatively from year to year; at a matching class a few years ago Bosley whipped up, in a brisk thirty minutes, sautéed Whangamata scallops in anchovy butter with duck fat-roasted potatoes and green beans, followed by two dessert and cheese dishes. The scallops were matched with Mac’s Great White.

“Wheat beers are good with shellfish,” Bosley said. “Their smoothness and softness accents the sweetness of the scallops and contrasts with both the anchovy butter and the crunchy green beans.”

Next, a classic north of England offering of light fruit cake and a slice of vintage Cheshire cheese was paired with Tuatara Brewery’s award-winning Ardennes Belgian-style ale.

A final combination of a dense chocolate cake with Valrhona chocolate ganache, raspberry and coconut and a slice of Roquefort cheese was perhaps the most interesting of all. Martin Bosley’s beer choice was a dark, rich Dux Sou’wester stout whose astringency mellowed the taste of the cake and rounded out the robust character of the Roquefort.

“The first thing to remember about matching beer with food.” Bosley said, “is that beer clears and resets your palate and then lets you pick up other flavour combinations. That’s one of the reasons why beer works so well with savoury dishes. That said, the broad guidelines for matching beer with food are the same as for wine.

“For fish and seafood, choose a lager or a lighter ale. Caramel malt beers complement roast meats. Chocolate cries out for a dark beer and beers with a good, hoppy kick help reduce the heat of spicy foods. It’s an adventure, so explore.”

The message is slowly getting out to hospitality professionals across the country. A few years back a Beervana exhibitor told me that he dreaded getting the fish eye from the sommelier when he went to a fine restaurant and asked for a good beer to accompany his meal. These days, as more and more restaurants offer beer as well as wine matches, it happens less and less.

One sommelier you will never get that from is Michael Dearth of The Grove. The owner of one of Auckland’s leading restaurants, he is an enthusiastic advocate of beer and food matching.

“Beer has a lineage that is at least as old as that of wine,” he says,” and I firmly believe that enjoying a good quality beer with a meal can be just as satisfying an experience as a good wine. I try to get people to open their minds to that idea.”

Photo: wikimedia commons

John Corbett flew to Wellington with Air New Zealand and recommends Koru Club as the best way to spend time in major NZ airports.