“You hear that?” asks Peter Leniston, as he closes the door behind us. We’re surrounded by dozens of 40-litre glass fermentation vessels merrily bubbling away. “It’s the sound of beer making itself!”
It sure is a wonderful and strangely relaxing noise—and smell—and Peter jokes about recording it to make a mediation CD to rival whale music. Peter is the founder of the Occasional Brewer, a Wellington-based home craft beer brewing operation that is not just unique to New Zealand, but the world. Guests are expertly guided by a star-studded team including two pharmacologists and a microbiologist in the art of making beer.
From start to finish, no-one but you is allowed to touch your brew — though the staff do take charge of the time-consuming cleaning up (and beers brewed by them can be sampled from the on-site bar). “We have a very high success rate,” beams Peter. “I’ve had a few local commercial brewers quite astounded, saying that they didn’t think we could take people off the street and make such quality craft beer from scratch. There are lots of things can go wrong, but it’s like cooking — if you follow the recipe, have good sanitation and manage all your temperatures, then it’s going to be a decent product. “We’ve really thought long and hard about how to make sure the product is good because it stands and falls on that.”
Each of the 14 brewing stations produce 40 litres of of the golden, tan or black stuff (20 six-packs), and the process takes around three hours. This is followed by a couple of weeks of fermentation before customers come back — with their own designed labels — to bottle it. The array of options include American- and India pales ales, blondes, pilsners, stouts, porters and bitters. Though craft brewers add all manner of weird and wonderful ingredients to their wares, I was fascinated to learn that much of the flavour comes from how the grain, usually barley, is kilned (those heated for longer have a stronger taste of dark chocolate or coffee, I can vouch for that because I munched on them). All of the brewery’s ingredients are locally sourced, usually from South Island. Customers tend to fall into the 30-50 age range, mainly professionals, small business owners and tradies. The space has also become popular for corporate functions and stag-dos. Around a quarter of the customers are female, many of whom, adds Peter, are very serious indeed. “People aren’t simply doing this to save money,” he says. “We often joke that we’re not selling beer, but bragging rights!
There are now thousands of people in Wellington who have a deep understanding of how to make beer and what goes into it.” Peter believes craft beer will soon be treated with a similar reverence to wine, and paired with appropriate foods. I ask why he believes the industry has taken off in such a big way. “It’s sitting in the same kind of space as cooking,” he says. “People have learnt so much about food and it has become this cultural phenomenon with all the TV channels and so on. I see craft beer sitting 10 or 20 years behind that. Once people have been drinking it, they won’t go back to the generic draughts of the six o’clock swill. There has been a definite shift in mentality.” Peter plans to open an Occasional Brewery in Auckland. I sure hope we don’t have to wait too long.
Brewing Beer at a Glance
Beer is mainly made from four ingredients: grains (usually barley), hops, yeast and water. The reason for this tradition stems from a 16th century Bavarian law known as Rheinheitsgebot — or ‘the German Beer Purity Law’ — introduced to prevent brewers using excess wheat, necessary for baking, and thus keeping bread affordable. Grains are moistened, which tricks them into thinking it is spring so that they sprout and produce enzymes which are ‘stolen’ later to produce simple sugars. The grains are heated to prevent germination, which would otherwise consume those potential sugars, before toasting, or kilning.
The extent of the toasting affects the strength of that chocolate or coffee taste. This whole process is known as ‘malting’, the resulting grain usually referred to as ‘malt’. Next up is milling, which essential means crushing the malt in preparation for mashing whereby the grains are steeped in hot water to activate those enzymes to release the sugar. The water is drained, leaving a sticky, sweet substance called ‘wort’.The wort is then boiled, and hops (these give beer its distinctive aroma and bitterness) added. This would also be the time when craft brewers add any of their more unusual ingredients. The mixture is now left in the fermenting vessel, along with the yeast which consumes the sugar and releases its waste products: CO2 and alcohol. This of course means the resulting beer is flat. Bubbles can be added through forced carbonation (a bit like a huge Soda Stream), or the more traditional method of adding dextrose during the bottling process, causing the yeast to kick back into life and release more gas.