It’s not all that long ago – less than a decade, even – that Wellington, New Zealand’s Craft Beer Capital, boasted very few specialist beer bars and breweries.
Despite having just a handful of good beer outlets though, the windy city was still crammed full of beer enthusiasts eager for an interesting brew and with a thirst for knowledge. And it was on a regular basis that those Wellingtonians would descend on Regional Wines and Spirits on a Thursday or Friday night for a guided tasting of some of the best, most interesting or weirdest beers you could find in the country.
Those monthly beer tastings were hosted by the company’s then-beer specialist, Kieran Haslett-Moore (pictured), and one of the country’s most recognised beer writers and judges, Geoff Griggs. The pair, sometimes joined by a brewer, would guide the 30 attendees through each of the beers – generally themed along style or brewery or country of origin – while sharing history, tasting notes, anecdotes and also the latest beer gossip.
It has been many years since Regional hosted such an event, but this year Wellington beer tasting and tour company, Craft Beer College, decided that enough was enough; the city’s beer lovers deserved a night of geekery once in a regular while.
In mid-October (after a Covid-19 Alert Level 2 postponement), Craft Beer College kicked off what is hoped will become a monthly tasting, by getting the old gang of Haslett-Moore and Griggs back together. The pair, alongside CBC’s Steph Coutts, hosted the Brett and Barrels Beer Tasting for about 35 people – with North End the event headliner because, fittingly, Haslett-Moore is the head brewer at the Waikanae-based brewery.
The night began with a glass of North End’s not-Belgian nor-bretted Science Session Pilsner and round of “beer news”. The pilsner – one of the brewery’s newest offerings – was reminiscent of the classic Emerson’s Pilsner, and the perfect starter beer as Griggs filled us in on the latest Blenheim-based venture of long-time Moa head brewer Dave Nicholls, who’s bought the brew kit from the now defunct Tinker Tailor.
We then fell quickly into some of the bretted, wild and sour beers that North End is well-known for, sipping on a Brett Grisette and Saison de Terrior as Haslett-Moore shared what he loves about the Belgian farmhouse styles and answering some tough questions from the tables of drinkers.
Right in the middle of the seven-beer tasting we were served my favourite beer of the night – Wild Luna. Haslett-Moore took his ever-popular Petit Luna 2.5% lime and hibiscus sour and re-fermented it in wine barrels. It was so delightful I didn’t even take any tasting notes, simply scoring it an almost-perfect 9/10 as I remarked with my tablemates how genius it was to pop such a complex, yet easy-drinking beer, right in the middle of the impressive line-up.
As the evening wore on, we moved on to the barrel-heavy end of the North End spectrum. Baby Grand Flanders Red – a firm favourite of mine – was followed by their Oude Draak, a 6.2% barrel-aged Oud Bruin. The discussion turned to why North End had named its oud bruin Oude Draak (with an e) when both words meant “old”. Haslett-Moore revealed he had a Flemish source that he runs any Belgian beer names by first to ensure they don’t say anything he doesn’t intend them to. A subsequent google search suggests if “oud” is used as an adjective before a noun, it gets an e. So ‘Old Dragon’ gets an e, while ‘old brown’ is simply a noun in its entirety.
The final beer of the tasting was possibly one of North End’s most impressive efforts yet – Wild Moon. The 10.5% old ale was brewed with Stu McKinlay of Yeastie Boys, back when he could actually travel to New Zealand without having to undertake a two-week stint in isolation. The beer was brewed over many, many, many hours, and involved an overnight boil, turning the pale malt base a dark ruby-brown. It was aged in oak barrels for six months with a wild yeast strain cultured from a 1977 bottle of the English Bass Jubilee Ale, resulting in a beer that tastes like someone has driven a diesel tractor off the farm and into an ancient library filled with old, leather-bound books. A perfect end.
And with that, the traditional beer geekery of Wellington returned to the city for the first time in years albeit with a few differences. This Craft Beer College version included a range of snacks throughout the tasting, more staff to help pour and serve the beers, a larger venue, and the quality of the beer was second-to-none – making the ticket price of $60 great value for money.
With November’s tasting featuring Brew Jesus himself, Kelly Ryan of Fork & Brewer, it looks like Craft Beer College plans to use these events to showcase some of the best beers, and brewing talent, Aotearoa has to offer.
For more information check out the Craft Beer College website.