Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Nelson, NZ

Nelson, on the northern coast of New Zealand's South Island, is the epicenter of New Zealand brewing and hop growing.  (If you've heard of Nelson Sauvin hops from NZ, well, the town is called Nelson...)

Nelson is a smallish, laid-back seaside town with an amazing coffee and beer culture for its size.  There are chains of pubs that exist mostly in the Nelson region.  There's even a Nelson Craft Beer Trail, though it's perhaps not quite as easy to navigate as the Bend Ale Trail we did last year.  (But then again, what is?)

The Free House

Probably Nelson's premiere craft beer establishment, The Free House is located in an old wooden church set back from the street in a grassy beer garden.

Hallelujah, my craft beer drinking brothers and sisters!

The place was packed with locals on a sunny early evening.  Though we ended up chatting with a couple from Ireland.  A nice neighbourhood vibe.  There isn't a kitchen, but you can bring food in - Indian from across the street seemed popular, and smelled amazing.

Is that a holy halo surrounding my glass of Twisted Hop Hopback IPA?

A great selection of beer from around New Zealand, served through Crayola-coloured tap towers.

After a couple of pints, the upright piano in the corner seemed to be calling my name (and others were playing it from time to time, too), so I managed to bang out a couple of tunes while my coordination was still as good as "mediocre".

If you have trouble finding The Free House, it might be because it's behind a yurt where they often host music shows (cover charge applies).  In sum, when in Nelson, The Free House should be your first (and possibly second) stop.

McCashin's Stoke Brewery

McCashin's has a bit of history.  It originally started as a cidery many decades ago, as this region was (and to a degree still is) a big fruit-growing area.  In 1981, Mac's opened and became the first non-national-brand brewery in New Zealand (there were only two other breweries at that point - Nelson alone now has about eleven breweries).  It did well enough that in 1999 it was purchased by Lion Nathan, one of New Zealand's two national-brand macro brewers that have traditionally dominated the beer scene in NZ.

[Lion Nathan is owned by Kirin of Japan (and consequently, by Mitsubishi).  The other national beer brand is DB, owned by Asia Pacific Breweries (of Tiger Beer fame), which is mostly owned by Heineken.  These (inter)national companies also own many of NZ's liquor retail stores.  I note that DB successfully registered a trademark for the word "Radler" over many protests - which is tragic and nonsensical, given that the "radler" is a well-known German beer-based drink.]

Anyway, the McCashin sale involved a 10 year non-competition clause under which the original owners agreed not to brew any of their own beer.  However, Lion Nathan only bought the brand, not the brewery, and the McCashin owners continued to brew as before but under contract to Lion Nathan.  Lion finally moved production elsewhere, and shortly thereafter the non-competition covenant expired, and McCashin's immediately launched their new "Stoke" brand of beer.

The Stoke brewery has a very cozy cafe attached, which also served great coffee.  For $10 you get a brewery tour, as well as an opportunity to sample Stoke's entire lineup of beer and other beverages in very small taster glasses.  This is fantastic - normally one is relegated to selecting only 3-4 beers to try.  This was everything, including their great ginger beer, lemon-lime and bitters, fruity alco-pops, the works.

The cute little pilot brewery, for developing new beers.  Aww.

Beer is one of the few things where nursery and hazardous chemicals naturally go together.

A continuous flowing water jacket runs down the exterior of the big tanks on the left - these are cider tanks, and that's how they have always kept them cool (through evaporation).

One of the former big concrete cider fermentation "rooms" dating back to the 1930s - which were coated in beeswax to seal them up effectively.  Apparently, decades ago, about double the usual amount of sugar was accidentally added to one of these rooms full of cider.  It couldn't be sold as it would have been a fumy, alcoholic mess.  But the accountants said, heck no you're not throwing out all of this valuable apple juice!  And so that cider has sat, sealed up in its tank - for over 60 years!  McCashin's is going to start pulling a bit out each year and bottling it in limited runs - it has apparently achieved a somewhat brandy-like character.

No, I did not get a taste.  :-(

I'd recommend The Free House and McCashin's if you have limited time in Nelson.  If you can linger, pick up the Nelson Craft Beer Trail map and continue the festivities.

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