Allow me to indulge myself, if you will. By way of context and apology, this recollection runs months late, clouded by natural disasters, knee surgery and the birth of a second child. Cue: Flashback music….
I had spent the day of the tasting at a Brewer's Guild meeting at the Twisted Hop of which Søren Eriksen is on the exec. After a long day's deliberation the Guild raced to Pom's for his tasting where we grabbed a table and the atmosphere was buzzing. Throughout the evening I was having a tremendous amount of (well documented) fun, when it was cut short by a phone call from a sick wife - I rushed home quaffing the last tasting.
The next morning I met again with Søren in regards to his own website, then David Cryer, chairman of the Brewer's Guild. Søren must have left our offices in Hereford Street around 10.30 or 11 driving back up north. Cryer at about 12.30 on his way back to Pomeroy's B&B. Other members of the Guild were at the Hereford St Bus Station waiting for an airport transfer. Our company were running late for lunch, debating where we should go. Then there was a huge noise and we ducked under our desks as the world fell apart and unravelled. Time passed, The Guild escaped unharmed and Pom's doors opened.
So now we build again, Pomeroy's a beacon of craft beer hope in the CBD-less wilderness… I hereby declare: Søren's tasting was a brilliant evening. And a recollection it shall have!
Pomeroy's is packed, these tastings seem to get busier by the month. Following up the Yeastie Boys is no small task either, but I have a feeling - based on a steady consumption of Søren's flavorful offerings in recent times - that he'll meet the challenge.
Game on. Before we even get into any background on 8 Wired we're sampling one of the year's most unique offerings. Underwired is a big and bold 2.2% beer. This, it seems, is not a contradiction! Using more ingredients than you'd find in the average beer and pushing a complex strand of flavors to the fore, Søren shares his desire to counter the uber/ imperial trend with an "un-imperial" twist - to brew something "as low as I could" in his words, but retain flavor by playing with the levels of specialty malts and the balance of a traditional recipe. The crowd bustles, and I get the feeling they're hoping for larger offerings (which they should not worry about).
This beer splits the geeks who often proclaim flavor over ABV but then are hesitant to class this as a "real beer". Indeed, you can talk up flavor all you like but when faced with a choice of pints, one 2.2% and one 5.4% and both the same price - in my experience alcohol tends to win! As for myself, I find Underwired that most curious of beers. It's not the first time I've tried this, being on tap at Pom's in the preceding weeks. As a driver it's a blessing, but I remain undecided I can't help but note that I'm wowed by the audacity at the very least!
As the glasses are refreshed with Rewired, in itself a challenge to the modern day palate, we get Søren's backstory. It contains a decent geographical spread - a Dane who met his Kiwi wife in Bangladesh, before settling in Perth, Australia. It was here that breweries like Little Creatures exposed him to a world beyond "beer", an XXXX'ing craft finger raised to the tepid Tooheys wasteland of commercial fare. With his interest piqued, he became the owner of a homebrew kit for Christmas thanks to Monique and… well, as with all the tastings it seems that there is a beer epiphany which leads to an insatiable and unquenchable thirst!
So two and a half years ago Søren and Monique found themselves in New Zealand with a dream to open a brewpub. As the commercial reality of setting up such an enterprise dawned on them, Søren took a job instead at Renaissance in Marlborough, one of the country's leading figures in the craft brewing scene. From this seized opportunity came another - Søren still wanted to brew his own beers and Renaissance offered their facilities, empowering Søren and Monique to take the plunge.
Following on from the Yeastie Boys last month, we discuss the nature of contract brewing. I note however that in light of Søren's day job, his "inside knowledge" of Renaissance's facilities means the contract model is a little more intertwined in this case, and his commonality with peers like the Yeastie Boys is their shared passion for, as Søren puts it, "high quality [with the reality of] low volume".
Back to Rewired. For 8 Wired's first beer at a commercial scale, Søren picked the "overlooked" brown ale. This probably says a lot about craft brewers, who actually seem to mean that they brew with themselves in mind! Indeed, a curious choice for a debut with a dubious history in New Zealand, Søren nevertheless rescues the brown ale from the 5'o'clock swill with his robust, malty and complex interpretation. Your grandfather's brown this is not. "Roasty, toasty", I note and it is a warming beer that it's hard to dislike. It does, however, remain one of those mood beers for me and I find myself merely satisfied with it tonight, as opposed to past meetings, perhaps a combination of my familiarity and in anticipation of what's to follow.
With that Big Smoke makes an appearance, the glass filling with dark delight. As the room is served Mr. Craig "BeerNZ" Bowen - quizzes Søren on the brewery name. Søren shares that it is of course about ingenuity - in business, in range, in flavor - and also about the need to brew and to make ends meet. It's a tribute to the Kiwi spirit and he shares his initial vision for exclusively using New Zealand ingredients and for never compromising on flavor and quality - although he admits the latter has broken the former's promise!
At this stage I make no pretense about unbiased opinion. I love dark beers and Big Smoke is one of my favorite brews, a Beechwood smoked malt packing Smoked Porter in the style of Invercargill's Smokin' Bishop and Renaissance's own Elemental Porter. It is anything but standard, a large beer for big occasions, able to warm a house with a single glass. The table is divided but my heart is won, and whilst I cannot fathom how someone couldn't love this beer I love that fact that these tastings bring you into contact with such a variety of palates! As we discuss and debate it's merits, Søren shares his love for porters - a brewer's favourite - but believes it should be even more smokey. Even I wonder how that would play out! However the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive so it will stay as is… "for now", he says with a cheeky grin.
So what could be better than Big Smoke? Barrel Aged Big Smoke. Because of the hindsight that comes with taking months to complete a writing assignment I can share that Luke from Epic will confess with some regret to selling his barrels to Søren, perhaps half tongue in cheek, at his tasting evening.
These oak barrels are the same that produced Epic Armageddon - itself another fine drop - and as with that instance it's amazing what difference the barrel makes. The process involved is shared - and again people, turn up to the nights if you want the information verbatim - but Søren filled the barrels and tended to them for around a month, topping them up as the liquid evaporates through the wood. He discusses the element of chance involved, the organic nature of the barrels always keeping him on his toes although, luckily, with this one what he found when he tasted was spot on.
Spot on? I concur, finishing the glass, savouring a bourbon-oak sharpness that cuts through the Big Smoke's smokey depth. Even now I can taste that beer, and I think the room is impressed with this one, a true highlight of the night. In good news, Søren has more plans for the barrels, and he mentions a huge stout in the works.*
Over the course of a Pom's tasting evening such big beers can take their toll but there's no let up. Tall Poppy is presented. Already a Pomeroy's tap fave, and in keeping with the philosophy of a new world take on traditional flavors, this is a 7% "Indian Red Ale". The glass positively glows as Søren says he wanted to, "make a beer the exact opposite of a bland lager [and avoid the] lowest common denominator". It's not a style so you can argue what it is exactly, but these hybrid beers are on the rise - is it an amber ale, a doppel amber, a red ale?
Whatever you choose to call it, it's hoppy but avoids the IPA tag due to it's strong malt characteristic. It's also the beer to break the NZ Hop philosophy as it's a combination of four hops with the US imports taking this one to the basket for the slam dunk.
Murmurs have abounded all night, but finally, someone asks the question about Poker. Søren is not only a brewer for Renaissance, the brewer for his own 8 Wired, a Brewer's Guild of New Zealand exec member, and more importantly new father - priorities people! - he's also two time New Zealand poker champ. The crowd erupts, challenging him to various games of chance. Søren thens shares the practical reality of craft brewing.
His big beers command a large excise, to be paid before we buy the product. Thank John Key for that. These wins have given him the finance to attempt 8 Wired, so perhaps we should be thanking Lady Luck next time we down an 8 Wired pint! Or wondering why the government doesn't drawn a distinction between cans of sugar, cola and alcohol sold in 6 packs to encourage drinking and a craft beer sold by the bottle to encourage the pleasure of enjoying a quality crafted beer. Semantics? I digress.
Just like every brewer has their "beer epiphany™", arch brewery has a release that comes to define it. For many people, 8 Wired's flagship is Hopwired. This big, hoppy 7.3% IPA positively jumps out of the glass, the aroma all spicy citrus come hither and hoppy "don't mess with me" swagger. An all New Zealand hopped brew, it was the make or break moment for 8 Wired. Early on Søren produced a half batch to test the market - it sold out within two weeks. From that point on it's become a beer inextricably linked to 8 Wired, a quirky and bold take on West Coast American hop monsters, but with a balance that must be hard to achieve when you're operating at such altitude.
We find the room in a conversation around hops and malt. The word "balance" appears frequently, as it did with the Yeastie Boys. Søren believes Hopwired takes into account both and explains the life cycle of the brew - the flavor changing as the hops die down and the malt lives on, cutting the brightness of the fresh product with a sweet fullness. Big, but eminently drinkable, Hopwired is a perennial fave, although Søren shares that the amount of hops in this beer, plus the ABV, combines to form a potent financial combo - less litters produced due to hop absorption and a higher excise - so whilst it's not the smartest "business" beer, although it continues to delight the craft beer crowd.
The night is drawing to a close. Laughter erupts as soft drink bottles are produced containing a pilot batch of a Saison that Søren's working on.** As with the above disclaimer I find myself quaffing this one and running, but I'm compelled to scribble that it's "spritzy/ funky/ bright" in this early iteration.
The 8 Wired tasting concludes, and my workmates and I discuss how fascinating the night was the following morning. Søren's at the vanguard of the new school brewing movement in the country, and he combines an idiosyncratic take of flavors with shrewd technical mind, tempered by a generous approachability.
As with all the brewers I've met so far in tasting evenings, his passion couldn't be more evident and the joy of sharing it with a room of 60 plus craft beer fanatics is one that's clearly enjoyable. For mine, then as now, each release from 8 Wired is something to be celebrated and never missed.
The next day I'm just on time for work! We talk about how the year is off to a hot start with the Yeasties and Søren, looking forward to Townshend just four weeks away. I step into a few meetings, one of them with the man of the hour himself. We talk about aftershocks and the past and the future. A few hours pass… then… well, you know the rest.
Thank goodness that's not the end of the story!
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* Message from the future now #1: This Stout will become Batch 18, a 12.5% imperial stout that redefines big flavor featuring an Indian sugar called jaggery and fair trade organic coffee! When one talks about an "occasion beer" this should be the first one you recommend…
** Message from the future now #2: This beer has become the Saison Sauvin, a 7% Sauvin hop fueled take on a traditionally low ABV beer that uses a a French Saison yeast, to impart "a plethora of funky, earthy, very 'Belgian' flavors."