By Geoff Griggs, Beer writer for a number of newspapers across New Zealand.
Given the number of sample bottles of beer that arrive at my door each year, I’ve often thought it would be a good idea to share them with local brewers and other industry people.
I was therefore delighted when, a few months ago, Blenheim brewer Jason Bathgate took the bull by the horns and organised an informal beer tasting evening.
Since then, every few weeks, a small and varied group of us have gathered at someone’s house to spend an evening sampling whatever new, interesting and unusual beers have come our way. Over the months we’ve had some delightful experiences and a few rather less impressive ones.
Two of the best performers from our most recent tastings are recently released recreations of much-loved brews from New Zealand’s short craft beer history.
The two beers in question, Hopsmacker and Czechmate, can trace their lineage back to 1999, when Kiwi brewer Chris O’Leary launched Hawke’s Bay’s Limburg Brewing Company.
Having previously brewed for four years at Roosters Brewhouse in Hastings, Chris named his brewery Limburg after the Dutch province that is the home of his wife’s family. The name was also significant because the province borders both Belgium and Germany, whose beer styles were Chris’ major brewing influences. His first three beers were Belgian and German-style wheat beers.
At the time the on-premise liquor trade in Hawke’s Bay was controlled by New Zealand’s two big brewers and Chris soon realised it was nigh-on impossible to get taps anywhere in the province.
As a one-man business he quickly found he couldn’t compete with the discounts offered by the large breweries; worse still, most local outlets were tied to the big brewers and were unable to stock Limburg beers even if they wanted to.
And in a region where cheap, mainstream products had dominated the market for generations, drinkers needed considerable persuasion to buy Chris’ more expensive, more flavoursome beers.
So Chris turned his attention elsewhere. He sold his beers at fairs and took them to wineries, restaurants and cafes where he held impromptu tastings with managers and staff.
At places like Vidal, Sacred Hill and Te Awa Farm he gave winemakers and winery employees a personal introduction to the Limburg beers. Having had the different styles and flavours explained to them the staff soon began to appreciate their quality, and often adopted the beers as their own.
As Limburg beers started winning national awards they gradually found their way on to more beer lists at small bars, cafes and restaurants around the region and further afield. In four years Limburg won 22 medals including a dozen best-in-class awards and in 2003 was the most highly awarded brewer at the New Zealand Beer Awards, the country’s largest brewing competition.
Earlier the same year Chris received perhaps his ultimate accolade when the late English “beer hunter”, Michael Jackson, selected Limburg Witbier for distribution to members of his exclusive US-based mail order beer club. Chris was understandably rapt.
But with plans to relocate the brewery into larger premises to step up production, Chris found it increasingly difficult to brew the beers as well as service his customers. The solution came when he formed a business partnership with Craig Cooper, a sales and marketing specialist with considerable liquor industry experience.
A fan of the Limburg beers, Craig had returned from overseas and was keen to become involved. This left Chris free to manage the brewery and develop new products.
Having made his reputation as a wheat beer specialist Chris turned his attention to other, more modern, beer styles. His next release was Limburg Hopsmacker, a Kiwi interpretation of the modern American pale ale style.
With craft and imported beers the only growing segment of the Kiwi beer market, Craig recognised a trend. “People want to enjoy European beers like the ones they enjoyed while on holiday or OE. They come home with invigorated taste experiences and crave aromas and flavours which are absent in many of New Zealand’s bland mainstream beers,” he says.
The next addition to the Limburg range was the Pilsner-style lager Czechmate. Brewed with imported Moravian malt and Bohemian Saaz hops and allowed an extended maturation period, it was an entirely faithful recreation of the original Czech style.
Chris described it as “a classic, dry, crisp Pilsner with a big focus on drinkability for a broader appeal. This is a beer we are really proud of.”
With demand increasing, predominantly from the big cities, production was gradually switched to Steam Brewing Company, a large contract brewer in Auckland.
Sadly Limburg ran into financial difficulties and the Hawke’s Bay brewery was sold, the last bottles disappearing from the shelves in late 2008. Chris relocated to Dunedin where he took on the role of senior production brewer at Emerson’s and Craig left New Zealand for a job overseas.
But having retained the Limburg brands and a dream to bring them back to life, Craig returned to New Zealand in June this year. He has revived Hopsmacker and Czechmate under the Bach Brewing brand.
The two beers are once again being contract-brewed at Steam Brewing in Auckland, available in tall 500ml bottles.
Alongside images of a Kiwi summer at the beach, the company’s new website (bachbrewing.co.nz) proclaims the heart of Bach Brewing “is our passion for craft beer and our love for the Kiwi bach . . . escape, freedom, simplicity and time together with family and friends”.
So how do the new beers stack up?
The recipe for Czechmate (5 per cent) is entirely unaltered, the Pilsner retaining its classy European accent, with an attractive aromatic honeyed maltiness and firm, dry palate giving way to a spicy, lingering bitterness. It’s a delightful beer and much as I remember it.
Hopsmacker, on the other hand, returns to the market as an altogether bigger beer, its recipe ramped-up to reflect the current taste for robust, hop-driven pale ales. Generous additions of New Zealand Riwaka and American Cascade hops reward this pale amber beer with zingy citrus and tropical fruit notes. Alcohol rises from 5 per cent to 5.8 per cent to balance the increased hopping and the palate has a delightful creamy texture and elegant drying finish.
It’s great to see Hopsmacker and Czechmate returning to the vibrant Kiwi craft beerscape and I’d recommend them as well worthy of your investigation this summer.