Beer Travel: NZ Tiki Tour I Coromandel

July 5, 2016, by Nick Oscilowski
Beer Travel: NZ Tiki Tour I Coromandel

Māori call the island Te-Ika-a-Māui: "the Fish of Māui". 

Māui was a a mythological figure who, among many incredible feats, hauled this piece of land up from the ocean. When you look at a map of New Zealand it does have the rough outline of a stingray caught in an evasive turn, so perhaps there’s something to it. Either way, the local legend offers a much more compelling narrative to anything you could conceive for what the Europeans eventually came up with: North Island. 

Whatever its name, most New Zealanders call it home. It has most of the major populous urban areas, although in a country whose total population barely surpasses that of Sydney, this is a relative term. Nevertheless, it is the busier of the country’s two main islands. In comparison, the larger but quieter South is more like the world’s best backyard, abundant with hops, vineyards and with such dramatic landscapes some claim that to see it is to view the world in HD. 

New Zealand’s reputation for craft beer is becoming formidable internationally and the number of breweries opening is, as in so many countries, astonishing. Without an infinitely flexible itinerary, it is nigh on impossible to call in at all of them; on many occasions you will not learn of a new brewery until you are there on the ground talking to locals. But that is just one part of the pleasure of travelling in pursuit of beer. 

In New Zealand, it is called a Tiki Tour: to travel by way of the scenic route and the regions in the North Island between Auckland and Wellington are good places to do it. The area spans the widest part of the country and takes in mountains and beaches, small towns and larger cities, sprawling industry and splendid nature. And there is a lot of breweries, many operating outside main centres or below the buzz of social media. 

The Coromandel Peninsula is as good a place to start any Tiki Tour. Jutting out on its own from the northern edge of the North Island, this is what the Māui myth refers to as Te-Tara-o-te-whai, "the barb of the stingray". It is not far from Auckland, the nation’s biggest city, and a trip from there to its closest point is an easy 115 km drive. All going well, you’ll be there in a little over an hour and a quarter. But such is the winding terrain on the peninsula proper, the next 60 kilometres will take you at least the same amount of time again. It has the effect of keeping the region close to civilisation but always slightly apart from it. 

As with so much of this country, James Cook was the first European to chance upon it, in 1769 when the Endeavour sought respite and resupply after making a quick exit westward from Poverty Bay, so named for the crew having left with nothing in their hands except the blood of local Māori. The incident was, apparently, an unfortunate misunderstanding and fairly atypical of Cook’s journey around New Zealand, which was foremost one of scientific discovery (although claiming of some land was also dutifully ticked off the to-do list). It was here where Cook found sanctuary to observe the transit of Mercury, thus helping determine the distance of the earth from the sun and setting the proportions for model solar systems everywhere. True to form and a familiar lack of imagination, the beach where he observed the transit is called Cook’s Beach, in Mercury Bay. 

Cook, incidentally, is credited with being the first person to brew beer in New Zealand. They were attempted antidotes to scurvy, made with native ingredients like rimu and manuka bark. With reasonable ease you can find two excellent and unique homages to these original brews in the form of the Mussel Inn’s Captain Cooker and Wigram Brewing’s Spruce Beer – both South Island breweries. 

More foreigners inevitably followed, drawn by the kauri, the gum, then the gold. The former is an unreasonably large species of native tree which, when left to its own devices, comfortably grows to widths of more than ten metres and can live for more than 1000 years. Unfortunately for them, their timber proved excellent for shipbuilding and construction so the ancient forests were dispatched with classic colonial verve. Today, less than five percent of the original forests remain, which seems doubly a shame as they’re acknowledged as one of the world’s best form of long-term carbon sink. 

However, enough vestiges of kauri remain to be of interest to visitors. Indeed, it’s nature that is the reason people come to the Coromandel these days, whether to observe, be immersed in or attempt to capture it. A mountain range runs along the spine of the peninsula and it is covered in lush and rugged forests. Between calm harbours and some of New Zealand’s most exquisite beaches, the Coromandel offers access to all the spoils of the sea with the added bonus of delivering them mostly in splendid isolation. 

Much of the time it seems this place exists within different shades of only two colours: green and blue. It is a place of forests, beaches and boats. A place to be outdoors. Which goes some way to explaining why canned beer works so well here. 

Hot Water Brewing
New Zealand can pioneers Hot Water Brewing serve up a full glass of irony.

Hot Water Brewing is in the town of Whenuakite and it was the first brewery in New Zealand to can its beer. No, that is a twofold lie. Whenuakite would not be considered a town. It has only a school, a camp ground and the brewery, which is in the camp ground. And it was not the first to can its beer. That honour goes, as do a great many things in New Zealand beer, to Garage Project. But Hot Water was a very close second and it was the first to can its beers exclusively. 

“The first brew was in October 2013 and the cans were there from the start,” says Dave Kurth who, from its establishment until very recently, was the brewer, driving force and chief proponent of canning his craft. 

“I can argue both sides why cans are bad or good, but my main thing is taking them places. The quality is good, but I just like to carry them like that.”

He had arrived on the peninsula possessing a fine brewing CV that included stints at Sharp’s Brewery in England, the Maui Brewing Company in Hawaii, Burleigh Brewing in Queensland and New Zealand’s West Coast Brewery. His experience at West Coast provided something of a template for Hot Water, with both being small breweries in sparsely populated regions but having high numbers of tourists. During Dave’s tenure the beer at West Coast improved and the range expanded, as did recognition amongst beer aficionados across the country. He brought all of this to the blank canvas that was Hot Water Brewing and launched four core beers, all tightly made.

The Golden Steamer is something of hybrid between golden and steam ale styles, Kauri Falls is a New Zealand pale ale with all the lush trappings, About Time is a fruity American IPA and Walker’s Porter is an extremely satisfying chocolate-laden porter. There have been some other beers – collaborations, fresh hop and a barley wine – but not many. There are severe limitations to what this brewery is capable of putting out on top of its regular production, a sole fermenter being one of them. 

“In summer everything is sold on the peninsula,” says Dave, “and in winter, when the peninsula just dies, to places like Wellington and Auckland. It actually works quite well as no one in the bigger cities sees the beer for six months so there ends up being a bit of interest.”

Hot Water Brewing Company, located in a Coromandel camping ground.

Anything to draw extra attention to what is happening out here has immense value, which is partly why the brewery’s holiday park home has played host to the Rising Can Festival, an annual event that is a celebration of the best things about beer, without beer as the focus. With Dave as instigator, all beer was served in cans with no preaching. There were no information sessions about how cans might be better than bottles, no masterclasses about light strike or oxidation. 

“I wanted my perfect festival,” says Dave. “Good beer, family friendly, good music and just a fun time. We didn’t have fancy glasses, but you got a can koozie when you walked in the gate."

This year’s edition featured 38 different New Zealand canned beers, plus one cider. That was double the number available the previous year and there have been more brewers to can their beer since. Canned beer is gaining popularity everywhere, but it seems especially important here. 

“It’s hard to survive just being on the peninsula,” says Dave. “It’s small, isolated and transport is so expensive, but that’s what you’ve got to deal with. You still need to grow.”

If Hot Water Brewing is to continue doing so, it will be without Dave at the helm. He left the brewery, and brewing entirely, in May to turn his full attention towards Serial Griller, the fledgling food truck started by he and his wife Keren. They now make their living travelling the winding roads of the peninsula slinging almost impossibly delicious burgers. 

But even in premature retirement there came formal acknowledgement of Dave’s prowess when, a few weeks after leaving, three of his beers collected medals at the 2016 Australian International Beer Awards: Gold for the Kauri Falls, silvers for the 2014 Barleywine and Walker’s Porter. There will be plenty of drinkers hoping these accolades do not represent the end of his brewing legacy and that he will, perhaps, pick up a mash paddle again.

“One day,” he says. “I fucking love it. I’m not a hardcore beer nerd, but I love good beer and I love making beer. I really do enjoy it and there are a lot of brewing jobs around, but we like living here.”

Such is the price of living in paradise. 

Hot Water Brewing takes its name from its location, near the turnoff to Hot Water Beach (pictured at top). This small piece of coastline is the keeper of a natural phenomenon revealed only at low tide when you dig into the sand to be met not with the cool of the ocean but searing hot water rising from beneath. Still no one is entirely sure where the hot water comes from, but come it does. And so do the tourists. 

In combination, the natural attractions and the tourists they bring are the lifeblood of this region and its breweries. Take, for example, the tiny town of Hahei where the winter population is a close knit 300 people. In summer, that number rises with the warm weather until it is swarming with more than 7,000 souls who, not without some irony, are escaping the crowded cities for their summer holidays. That works out just nicely for British expats Neil and Karen Vowles, the husband and wife who run the Coromandel Brewing Company and The Pour House restaurant and bar in which the brewery resides. 

“A lot of the people that come here aren’t craft beer buffs,” says Neil. “They come to Hahei and the only pub in town just happens to be a brewery as well.” 

Thus, like the vending machine in an airport lounge, The Pour House is positioned to profit from a captive audience. The difference is you actually want to come here and aren’t in a hurry to move on to anywhere else. It’s quiet and pretty and it has good beer. 

All brewed on site by Neil, the core range is mostly a friendly one for that non-craft beer crowd. Dizzy Blonde and Good As Gold – a Belgian blonde ale and pilsner-cum-golden ale respectively – are eminently quaffable while the Easy Rider pale ale bridges the gap up to the more heavily hopped Hahei Doctor APA. Lined up beside one another they are visually homogenous, but all golden and alluring. Breadth is added to the range by way of irregular releases, like that of a chocolate and vanilla porter or the Duvel-inspired, colloquially named Munted Monk. Like Hot Water Brewing in nearby Whenuakite, Hahei seems at first an odd place to find a brewpub. So why and how did the Coromandel Brewing Company come to be here? 

“We got started around 2009,” says Neil. “Craft beer was happening down in Wellington and in the South Island but really that was it. Auckland was pretty sparse and there was nothing in the Coromandel so it was really a case of, 'Well, we’ve moved over here [from the UK] and there’s everything except local beer.' 

"The mainstream brands, they’re just not my thing. They just don’t have the character I’m after. So we spent what I suppose would be boat money or savings and built a garage with a mini-brewery. The idea was just to do enough to keep ticking along until the children grew up. 

“We had five years brewing out of the garage where all I could do was one brew a week. We sold all that in the Coromandel and Karen would do the deliveries and say, 'I met these people and these people…', and I’d say, 'Well, we can’t make any more beer!'” 

Coromandel Brewing Company
The Pour House and Coromandel Brewing Company in Hahei, with brewer Neil Vowles (bottom right)

The solution ended up rising from the ashes around two years ago. A property near the main street burnt down, presenting an opportunity to take over a piece of bare land in a good location and establish something from the ground up. Thus The Pour House has been built more or less according to Neil and Karen’s plans, including a slightly bigger brewery, a restaurant and a large garden. Their work seems to have struck the right chord. 

“We’re already at the same sort of point as before where we’re just trying to keep up,” says Neil. 

“We now sell well over half our beer over the bar. The smaller half goes within the Coromandel; a few restaurants, cafes, bottle shops, two supermarkets and that’s it. It’s really just me here brewing, so it's a seven day a week thing most of the year. We get a bit of a break in winter when the population goes from big to nothing, but we still get visitors and every year it’s growing.

“We’re very much an international tourist destination so when people come here we just want them to be drinking Kiwi craft beer.” 

And it seems drinkers truly do want the most local option. Neil hinted that at times when he gets caught short in supply and has to put a guest beer on to fill the vacant tap space, people still tend towards the other beers brewed on site – even if the guest is one he might personally prefer over his own. 

While a huge positive for the breweries themselves and the associated trade – The Pour House serves up to 500 meals a day in peak times – it’s slightly sad that international visitors are so restricted in where they can find a broader range of New Zealand beer in such a quintessentially New Zealand destination. The multinational brewing companies still have complete dominion over all the taps in this part of the world; at the time of writing, the peninsula’s two major craft breweries hold a total of one tap point in their region. 

There is an argument put forward that, when a small brewery is purchased by a larger one, the result is a net positive for drinkers as the increased distribution of the parent company allows the smaller brand to reach more people. Perhaps, one day, that will include the people of the Coromandel Peninsula. Until then, those residents ought not be bothered too much. With everything good they already have, it’s not worth worrying about what they don’t. 

Two more to try in the Coromandel...

Mussel Kitchen – Just south of the township of Coromandel you'll find the freshest of fresh mussels and a handful of beers brewed on site.

Blue Fridge Brewery – The smallest of the small, this nanobrewery's beers are only available at the legendary Luke's Kitchen in Kuaotunu.

About the author: Nick Oscilowski lives on the South Coast of New South Wales and writes about beer. He has nothing to complain about.

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