Kelly Ryan from Boneface and Joe Wood from Liberty have a lot to answer for. Strike up a conversation with a few current contributors to the Taranaki beer scene, and the names of those two industry legends inevitably come up as inspiration. From Liberty Citra’s earliest incarnation in Wood’s New Plymouth garage to Brew Mountain’s Pale Pat Supreme, brewed by Kelly Ryan and his brother Shannon in memory of their father, Pat, who represented New Zealand in boxing in the 1972 Munich Olympics, the region’s brewing heritage often shines through.
Consider the 1989 launch of Mike’s Mild by Mike Johnson’s White Cliffs Brewery in coastal Urenui, and that brewery’s evolution into Mike’s Organic Brewery and their Imperial IPA — definitely ahead of its time in 2009 at a stonking 9% — and there’s a strong case to re-evaluate and resurrect the importance of Taranaki in New Zealand’s craft brewing history.
And that history just got richer through recent award performances with Taranaki breweries shining at the Australian International Beer Awards in May. Shining Peak took home four gold medals there, with one each to Forgotten 43 and Three Sisters, while The Theoretical Brewer has just celebrated the success of their Mad Hatter Hazy Pale Ale winning a spot in the New World Beer & Cider Awards Top-30.
My first stop on an around the mountain Taranaki beer journey is at Mike’s Brewery & Bistro in New Plymouth, opened in 2018 after the closure of the original Urenui location 30km north of the city. More than 20 taps showcase a selection of Mike’s beers — now brewed under contract — with the most interesting being Melculambicus, a sour Belgian ale infused with local honey. It’s another 9% beast.
Mike’s Mild, first brewed more than 30 years ago and arguably just as influential as Liberty’s Citra, offers easy drinking balance at 4%. It’s also my first time trying beers from The Theoretical Brewer, and the juicy Nectaron punch of their Mad Hatter hazy is joined on the taps by a pale ale, an XPA and a pilsner.
The following day I stop in at The Theoretical Brewer’s setup north of the city in Bell Block. Co-owner and brewer Douglas Eng’s a busy man, multi-tasking answering questions from a nosy freelance writer while climbing high to add a hoppy hit to another batch of his award-winning Mad Hatter. A taste of a new batch of Quantum Eraser pilsner, straight from the bright tank and still uncarbnonated, reveals grassy Riwaka hops, while his Marin coffee porter, a collab brew with New Plymouth organic roasters IncaFé, is smooth and bang on for cooler nights.
From Bell Block, it’s a 30-minute drive south on SH3 to Stratford, and a catch-up with the four co-owners of Forgotten 43 Brewing. After starting brewing in their garage on a couple of 30-litre Grainfathers, born-and-bred locals Mike Ashby and Caleb Robinson opened their brewery on Stratford’s main drag in 2017. Five years after the launch, wives Anita and Linnea are also involved in the business, and the Broadway location is a popular hub for Stratford locals.
What was once a fish ’n’ chip shop — “I remember coming here as a young fella”, recalls Mike — is now a rustic taproom, simply decorated with reminders of the region’s farming heritage, and pouring the range of Forgotten 43’s brews. Most popular with Stratford locals often raised on Tui are Rotokare lager and Patea Clear pilsner, but Caleb confirms a few have started coming in for Highway Haze IPA and also asking for Lord Nelson, a 7% NZ pale ale made with Nelson Sauvin hops.
Forgotten 43’s recent Top Rung fresh hop pilsner was made strictly from local Taranaki hops, even some from the taproom’s overgrown back garden, and when Forgotten 43’s new location on the corner of Broadway and SH43 is up and running in a few months, the team is keen to provide employment for Stratford locals in an expanded operation serving pizza, burgers and platters. Mike and Caleb are unlikely to brew a milkshake sour anytime soon, but visitors to Forgotten 43 can definitely look forward to well-crafted beers and an authentic sense of place.
Back in New Plymouth, my Taranaki beer journey continues at a brace of urban taprooms both opened in 2019. Head brewer at Shining Peak, Jesse Sigurdsson, is another brewer with impeccable Taranaki credentials, born nearby in Inglewood, and with brewing experience including six years at Mike’s in Urenui.
“I also used to clean Joe Wood’s tanks,” he recalls over a tasting flight of Shining Peak’s beers.
The first one I try is their recent Nelson Sauvin reboot of Gung Ho, dry and dank and definitely my favourite 2022 fresh hop beer, but other highlights include Detained & Fabulous, a lean and elegant Bright IPA, and Octopus Clamp, Shining Peak’s chocolately take on a traditional Schwarzbier. Launched on tap just a few hours earlier, Battle Axe is another 9% Taranaki wonder, an Imperial Scotch Ale packed with notes of peat and smoke, and definitely a beer to hunt down in the heart of winter. Jesse’s other standout brews include a barrel-aged Brett saison, and a recently-brewed blond ale is also set for a stint in bourbon barrels. Factor in great shared plates with recommended beer matches and Shining Peak’s taproom is one of New Zealand’s best.
Adding a funky overlay to the historic New Plymouth Savings Bank building on Devon St, Three Sisters Brewery is the city’s second recent opening. Prior to taking over the heritage space in 2019, co-owner and head brewer Joe Emans crafted beers in his Oakura garage with wife Sarah Markert-Emans.
Based on the scores of colourful beer labels framing the taproom’s walls and effortlessly high ceiling, he’s another brewer with strong sense of creativity. Across 14 taps, there’s a wide range of styles with Lila, a juniper-infused witbier made with the distillers of Taranaki’s Juno Gin, going head to head with Is it Reddy Yet? — an autumn-ready fresh hop red ale — and Sour Plooms #7, a stonefruit-infused pastry sour. It’s all impressive stuff and signals a big future ahead for 2021’s Brewers Guild Champion Micro Brewery, especially with their upcoming crowdfunded expansion into a new dining space in an adjacent building.
All of the region’s craft breweries will be represented at the Taranaki Beer Festival, taking place in New Plymouth’s TSB Stadium on July 1 and 2. See www.taranakibeerfestival.co.nz.