Nelson: Spreading the gospel of craft beer

By Victoria Bartle

MarchFest is an annual festival celebrating ew Zealand's small but staunch boutique beer-brewing industry. Photo / Supplied
MarchFest is an annual festival celebrating ew Zealand's small but staunch boutique beer-brewing industry. Photo / Supplied

It seems everyone wants to say "Good on you, mate!" to the organisers of Nelson's MarchFest.

But, no one says it quite like Mat Elmhirst. "Fantastic, brilliant anarchy - that's what it is," he enthuses, thumping organiser Mic Dover on the shoulder.

Having just a few hours earlier opened the gates to MarchFest 2009 - a festival celebrating New Zealand's small but staunch boutique beer-brewing industry - Dover and his business partner Eelco A. Boswijk are looking pretty relaxed, almost chipper.

Their mood is in stark contrast to the previous year's inaugural MarchFest when torrential rain had them ruefully renaming the event MudFest and too many intending festival-goers staying home.

This year, it's a typically perfect Nelson weather afternoon and the city's Founders Heritage Park is humming with 1500 people mingling around the wholesome food stalls, sitting on their picnic rugs and wandering to the bar where business is brisk.

The flow of locals and out-of-towners through the gates is constant.

Dover looks pretty chuffed with Elmhirst's gleeful judgment of the event, enjoying being thought of as an anarchist.

It "fits well", he says, with what he and Boswijk are trying to achieve through their craft beer promotions business, Dead Good Beer Events.

Elmhirst enthuses further: "MarchFest pushes the boundaries against the authority that's represented by the big beer conglomerates. It's a civilised way to steer people away from the mass-produced beers... an anarchistic approach to spreading the gospel of craft beer."

Just when it seems he's really warming to the subject and has so much more to say, he suddenly shakes Dover's hand and hurries off to praise Boswijk, too, "for all this brilliant anarchy".

Still grinning, Dover heads for the bar to pull pints from a range of 14 boutique beers, one of which is a Mat Elmhirst creation called Monkey's Uncle Lager.

It's unusual, to say the least, having been "aromatised" with basil and wild chamomile, then primed in the keg with bush honey.

"It's probably going to run out soon," Dover predicts.

"Mat's beers always run out first. They're a bit of a favourite with the punters."

Elmhirst is a dentist by day and a craft beer brewer by evenings and weekends. He's also one of a very small group of locals producing good old-fashioned apple cider.

His Monkey Wizard Brewery is a very noticeable building on the main highway through the tiny settlement of Riwaka, between Motueka and Golden Bay and Abel Tasman National Park.

It's painted a striking deep-purple and, on weekends and Friday afternoons, there's an extraordinarily tall man striding about in the carpark, dressed from head to toe in a flowing purple wizard's costume. He beckons motorists inside with a grin and his craggy wooden wizard's staff.

This is Mat Elmhirst's bar manager, Greg Hodgkinson, who's a butcher by trade and once worked in the circa 1940s building when it was the locally famous Goodman's Butchery.

Hodgkinson has done a comprehensive car-counting exercise from the carpark and discovered a car goes past every nine seconds on weekends. Everyone heading for the Abel Tasman National Park and idyllic Golden Bay has to go through Riwaka.

"There are always lots of campervans, too," he says.

"The holidaymakers like to stop and stock up with a few riggers of beer and the older ladies like their cider supply when they're off camping."

The little brewery has only been open to the public for a few months. Licensed only for selling takeaway riggers, it's not a pub and the opening hours are restricted to the days when Mat Elmhirst is not tending to someone's teeth in the dentist's chair at nearby Motueka.

He's reluctant to let it be known he's a dentist, having been bruised over the years by uncharitable opinions of his profession.

It's not as though he's juggling his dentist's career with a part-time job in a chocolate factory, he adds, and there's not an awful lot of sugar in beer, but there is an assumption out there that dentists take in obscene amounts of cash.

And there are a few folk who assume he must be funding his beer-brewing with the payments his patients make for their dental treatments.

"Being a dentist apparently means I should own 10 properties and several luxury yachts, but I've actually come close to going under. I've had to sell my house and I've been buying secondhand dairy equipment and adapting it to use in the brewery."

Elmhirst's home is a sleepout in someone else's orchard, though that's a vast improvement on his former bedroom, the windowless butchery chiller.

Still, dossing down in the old chiller didn't force him to get used to any lingering smells from sides of beef and mutton.

Fortunately, those fleshy aromas have long been replaced by the heady scents of hops and malted barley and some more unusual smells, the natural perfumes of ingredients such as chamomile and basil for the Monkey's Uncle Lager, citrus for the "LemonAle" and some hard-to-come-by, fresh elderflowers for his very popular Summer Ale.

While his flavouring methods may seem unusual and very modern, Elmhirst says some are actually truly ancient. The use of chamomile and basil is simply flavouring the beer with herbs, not hops, he says. It's known as a "gruit" and dates back to the 1680s.

There's often the wafting scent, too, of fermenting apples around the Monkey Wizard Brewery, thanks to Elmhirst's organic cider.

"We're surrounded by apples here in Tasman and the Moutere - we'd be daft not to make cider."

Monkey Wizard Brewery's Pomona Cider is drier than New Zealand's usual ciders, Elmhirst says, and strong enough to quite rapidly bring a glow to the cheeks.

FURTHER INFORMATION

MarchFest.com is held in Nelson annually at Founder's Heritage Park.

Boasting the most craft breweries per capita, Nelson and its surrounds is the hub of hops and the perfect destination for going on a breweries tasting tour.

MarchFest's website lists the majority of craft breweries and can assist visitors on how to find them.

Monkey Wizard Brewery is on the main road through Riwaka - about 50km from Nelson - and just past Motueka. It is usually open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Mat Elmhirst's Pomona Cider and his beers are on tap in Nelson City at the recently opened Free House, a small pub dedicated to serving only craft beers, ciders and local wines.

- NZ Herald

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