Cheers

Don Kavanagh is the editor of Hospitality magazine.

Don Kavanagh: A little slice of heaven

By Don Kavanagh

Don Kavanagh marks next year's Okere Falls beerfest in his diary.

Okere Falls Store and beer garden is the venue for a beerfest of great flavours and drinkers of  good humour. PHOTO / ROTORUA DAILY POST
Okere Falls Store and beer garden is the venue for a beerfest of great flavours and drinkers of good humour. PHOTO / ROTORUA DAILY POST

If you were to think of a place for a great, authentic, German-style beer festival, I can confidently predict that Okere Falls would be the last place on earth you'd mention. Mostly because I'm sure most people don't know where Okere Falls is, for a start, and still fewer know that it has been home to a rather brilliant beerfest for about five years.

I have to say I wasn't sure what to expect when I set off, but whatever I was expecting, it would have to wait while I negotiated a particularly lumpy afternoon's traffic heading south out of town. Like lemmings, thousands of us headed for the State Highway 2 turn-off, clogging an already busy road.

By the time Rotorua hove into view, it was through a curtain of miserable drizzle. There is something about lakeside cities that makes them appear especially pathetic when it's raining, so it was a quick stop for supplies before heading on to the hotel.

Luckily, we were being put up in some style, which made up for the weather.

Amora Resort at Okawa Bay at the southeastern corner of Lake Rotoiti is such a serene spot that it takes some time to realise the only sounds you can hear are ducks and geese quacking on the lakeshore. You also realise that Rotorua's infamous aroma doesn't stretch as far as Lake Rotoiti.

In the morning, the sun was splitting the trees outside and glistening hypnotically on the lake as I sat to what turned out to be possibly the best hotel breakfast I've eaten. That was important, as the beerfest was looming at lunchtime and there is nothing more essential to the enjoyment of beer than a contented stomach.

Okere Falls is 5km down the road from Okawa Bay and it's a popular spot. The falls are gorgeous and were once part of an early hydro-electric scheme. Okere means "place of drifting" and the Okere River does drift along peacefully above the falls.

The nearby store looks as though it has been there forever. Once a petrol station, it was bought in 2004 and turned into a combined cafe, general store, deli and beer garden. Inside is a treasure trove of organic, sustainable goodness, with artisan products for sale and a lovely smell of coffee.

The sustainable angle is reinforced outside in the beer garden, which is overlooked by a bank of self-composting long-drop toilets, which promised much fun later in the day.

The store has been running the beerfest for five years, a reflection of the owners' German heritage and it is probably the festival most reminiscent of Munich, even if on an infinitely smaller scale.

The beer garden looks like it grew there, with rustic furniture and plenty of shady trees, which were blessings given the heat and glare from the sun.

Drinking beer in the sun is usually a recipe for disaster and, to be honest, I was worried when I saw the garden's small scale. How would several hundred beer-drinking people manage to enjoy themselves in such a small space without some friction?

I needn't have worried. For atmosphere, Okere Falls beerfest takes some beating; everyone was smiling, happy, polite and thoroughly enjoying themselves. Even the queues for the toilets were good-natured and polite. Maybe it's something of the serenity of the surroundings rubbing off, but the vibe was fantastic.

So, too, were the food and beer. Instead of trying to get as many breweries as possible involved, Okere Falls does it simply - two Croucher beers on tap and cases and cases of bottled beer from Bavaria's Kaufbeuren Aktien brewery.

The Croucher Pils and IPA are incredibly fresh and lovely, but the Aktien beers are a bit different. They are traditional in style and the only complaint I would have is that they weren't as fresh as they should been. Some of them were almost at their sell-by date.

That wasn't a huge fault and it is an occupational hazard when bringing in beer from Europe. After all, it takes a few weeks to get here, so it's never going to be as fresh as it is over there.

Nevertheless, the Aktien Buronator Doppelbock was hugely impressive, regardless of age. Packed with rich, dried fruit flavours and spicy notes, it was a heroic brew.

The others were good, too, and the Radler was a godsend, weighing in at 2.8 per cent alcohol and offering a nice in-between beer to keep you on the straight and narrow.

The food was cracking and included traditional favourites such as giant pretzels, bratwurst and Schweinshaxe - generous pork shanks served with potato salad.

It was all very German and jolly, made even more so by the appearance of the Guggemusik Auckland band. This was not an oompah band, by the way - they were specific on that point. They are a Swiss carnival band, but can turn their hand to most styles and managed to pack in several traditional drinking songs amid the more contemporary fare.

The beerfest runs over six days, so if you are near Rotorua around the end of October next year, it's well worth checking out. And if you're not, then maybe you should think about checking it out anyway.

I haven't had so much fun at a beer festival for ages - many festivals seem to be either far too serious or far too flimsy. But such a great festival delivered in such beautiful surroundings simply can't be beaten; I'll certainly be coming back.

Australia's boutique brewers

Head to Victoria where a number of local brewers grow their own hops, such as Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth and Red Hill Brewery on the Mornington Peninsula. In the Yarra Valley there are also a number of microbreweries worth visiting.

In Hobart, Tasmania, Cascade Brewery (owned by Foster's) melds beer and tourism seamlessly. The old brewery, with its imposing facade, is a popular attraction, inside is a modern brewery. Smaller Taswegian breweries such as Seven Sheds and Two Metre Tall grow their own barley and their beers reflect a sense of place - a place close to agriculture and the crisp, clean air of rural Tasmania. Moo Brew Brewery at Moorilla Estate is next to the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart.

In Western Australia, there are Little Creatures and The Monk Brewery in Fremantle, Bootleg Brewery in the Margaret River region and Feral Brewing Company in the Swan Valley. Queensland is still to fully embrace the craft beer movement. Visit Burleigh Brewing on the Gold Coast or MT Brewery at Mt Tamborine, in the hinterland. Further north is Townsville Brewery.

South Australia is a little different because of Coopers - a family owned boutique brewing company that has been around since 1862. South Australia has a little more cachet on the boutique beer front and many microbreweries have thrived.

These include BrewBoys in Adelaide, Barossa Valley Brewing and Barossa Brewing Company in the Barossa; Goodieson Brewery, Swell Brewing Company and Vale Ale in McLaren Vale.

Fly there with Air New Zealand. airnz.co.nz

Explore more at myaustraliapassion.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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