Nelson: Intoxicating ride in hop country

By Victoria Clark

There's a cold beer at the end of this tour, writes Victoria Clark.

Guy Coddington holds a handful of dried hop flowers. Photo / Victoria Clark
Guy Coddington holds a handful of dried hop flowers. Photo / Victoria Clark

My delighted shout of "Woolliam!" startles a small flock of sheep as we cycle down a gentle slope towards their roadside paddock.

Curiosity wins over their fright, and they simply stare with big, golden-syrup eyes as the impromptu sheep-naming competition begins.

"Ewe-nis!" my friend calls, cruising along behind me.

"Baaabra!" I yell, and "Dagmaaaa!"

"Crikey, I think you're right - it is Dagmaaa. Dagmaaa Flockton!"

We're on a Beer Country Ride for the best part of a whole day and, yes, we've come from the local pub, but that was just our starting point for the day's excursion. Our sheep-naming silliness is in no way brought on by a single drop of the excellent locally-crafted beers. We are saving those to savour in the late afternoon.

So, with a supply of icy-cold water in each of our bicycle baskets, we're exploring a pocket of New Zealand's only hop-growing region, around 35km from Nelson's central city.

The top of the south conjures up images of vineyards and wineries. But west of Nelson city, the green fields of the Upper Moutere also boast a history rich in hop plantations, the distinctively-shaped roofs of antiquated hop-kilns, and European settler beginnings in the mid 1800s, centred in the quaint village of Sarau. Unmistakably-German names engraved into weather-worn headstones at the local churchyard, can be loosely tracked from one generation to the next, with many of the epitaphs suggesting intriguing and melancholic stories.

The church's crisp white bell-tower with its barn-red spire is the first thing motorists see as they drive into Sarau. It's on the suggested itinerary for the ride and a must to explore.

The Beer Country Ride is just one itinerary on offer from The Gentle Cycling Company, a tourism venture created by Rose Griffin, who put aside her talents as a ceramic artist to concentrate on her passion for cycling.

Rosesays recreational cycling is about exploring the region at a leisurely pace on bicycles with seats built for "real bottom shapes and sizes".

From her base in Nelson, Rose takes her clients by van to their countryside starting points, with the bicycles towed behind on a custom-made trailer. Our ride starts in Sarau, right outside the Moutere Inn which, she tells us, is the oldest pub in New Zealand.

Affixing little maps to our handle-bars and ensuring our cycling helmets fit, she advises us to wear her fluoro-bright bibs. Tourists on bicycles are a fairly new addition to the usual traffic seen on these quiet back-roads. As we part company, we promise to meet her back here at the Moutere Inn where we can quench our thirst.

But somehow, we got side-tracked and managed to leave ourselves with less than 10 minutes to spare before the return trip to Nelson. Our diversion was Guy Coddington, a hop grower who gave us a pocket history of the industry, explaining how the hops are harvested and the process that results in cool beers on a hot summer's afternoon.

Coddington's hop gardens are on Rose's itinerary, too. It's the only working hop kiln we'll see, she says, as all the others are relics of the past.

"The deal with Guy Coddington," says Rose, "is that he'll come and talk to my cyclists if he's not too busy - but just be aware there are times when he's much too busy to stop and talk." Seems we caught him on a reasonably quiet day. We wander among countless rows of hop vines.

From the wooden floor inside the hop kiln building, he gathers up long-dried hop flowers and tips them from his palms into ours. We inhale their distinctive aroma and cannot decide whether it's quite the pleasant olfactory experience we expected - or not. But, it's strongly reminiscent of beer.

We catch that scent again, late in the afternoon when - back in Nelson - we decide we have just enough time for Rose to take us to McCashin's Brewery. McCashin's is a family business, established 30 years ago, an almost in town brewery with its own cafe on Main Road Stoke, where they craft beers, ciders and juices.

After a day in the saddle of a Gentle Cycling Company bicycle, don't be surprised if you're reluctant to part with it. Comfortable and uncomplicated, Rose's bicycles come complete with carry-all baskets on the back.

Gourmet picnics are provided on request and all the country rides come to an end at charming country pubs. The city bikes can also be hired for half or full days to explore Nelson city, the waterfront and nearby suburbs.

CHECKLIST

* Further information: The Gentle Cycling Company website is gentlecycling.co.nz or call 0800 WEBIKE (0800 932 453).

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