The West Coast has seen booms and busts but the beer has been flowing for 150 years, writes Ewan McDonald

They say you should arrive in Venice for the first time by boat. You should arrive in Greymouth for the first time by train: bursting out of the Otira Tunnel into the mist, dropping past wild rivers, through deep-green rainforest, skirting Lake Brunner and stepping on to the platform at the tidily restored, wooden, Victorian station.

Gold, coal, greenstone, timber: Greymouth and Westland lived off them in colonial times.

Now tourism and beer are the money-earners.

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Which brings us — okay, the taxi from the station did — rather neatly to Monteith's Brewery in the town's small light-industrial district. It's one of the larger operations around here, appropriate for the region's top tourist attraction.

Modernised and enlarged about five years ago, the brewery and cafe reflect a heady optimism that hasn't always been part of the coast's personality. The district has survived booms, busts, mining disasters, even the near-tragedy of having the brewery shut down, but somehow it's battled on.

It owes its name to Stewart Monteith, who took over the Phoenix brewery just up the coast in Reefton in 1868, which is how Monteith's corporate owners claim that the beer is celebrating its 150th anniversary next year.

By the 1920s mining was on a downer, population too: five breweries, including Monteith's, merged into Westland Brewing Co, led by Stewart's son William, in Greymouth.

DB bought Westland in 1969 and changed the name to Monteith's in 1990 to reflect its origins. In 2001 the company decided that the cost of production wasn't viable and closed the brewery. You can imagine the reaction on the coast: DB filled the vats again four days later.

Heineken bought DB in 2012, and Monteith's beers are now brewed in Auckland, Timaru and Greymouth. But the West Coast site remains the beer's spiritual home, as its new head brewer, Rob Marshall, explained at a beer-and-food matching lunch.

Marshall has taken over the four-person brewery, and as tour guide, from Tony Mercer, who was head brewer and the brand's face as the star of many Monteith's TV commercials for the past 10 years.

Marshall has more than 28 years in the brewing industry, starting with McCashin's, the Nelson upstart that challenged the country's two big brewers some 28 years ago.

With a vast knowledge of beer, Marshall has moved to the coast and is crafting new flavours. "Monteith's has a history and authenticity that not many breweries in the world will ever have, having been in and around the coast for almost 150 years. It's an honour to add my take on the brews and add my name to the history of this iconic brand," says the affable brewer.

The first two out of the taps are The Barber and XPA. The first takes its name from the notorious, chilly wind that streams down the Grey Valley in the morning, funnelled through the Grey River/Mawheranui gap, and marked by a trail of white mist. It's known as "the barber" because it cuts you to the bone. Marshall prefers to describe it as "a breath of fresh air".

His version blends New Zealand, German and US hops, with citrus and tropical fruit notes, into a moderate bitter with a crisp aftertaste at 5 per cent ABV. Marshall paired it with a rich, fat-laden crisp pork belly dish.

The Extra Pale Ale — XPA in shorthand — is crafted as a hoppy IPA without the same level of bitterness, using New Zealand Riwaka and US Citra hops, at a lighter 4.8 ABV. Perhaps a beer for Thai food? The cafe kitchen brought it out with lemongrass chicken skewers.

Crafted in the small brewery beside the cafe, both are available on tap or in the bottle.

Other pairings utilised Monteith's long-time favourites: West Coast whitebait with Pointers Pale Ale; beer-battered turbot with Golden Lager; chargrilled beef with Original Ale; and venison sliders with Ripa Red IPA.

Between overseeing production and guiding brewery tours, Marshall will spend the next few months dreaming up some new beers for the 150th celebrations.

There's just time to visit one more Greymouth bar before the sun goes down: the crashing, heaving, fractured waves at the rock-floodwalled harbour mouth. Unlike Monteith's, this one is notoriously difficult to enter.

BEER BOYCOTT

In October 1947 West Coast pubs increased the price of a 10-ounce (300ml) glass of beer from 6 to 7 pence, the standard price elsewhere in New Zealand.

The West Coast Trades Council, representing the major unions, called for a boycott of hotels selling beer at the higher price. The only hotel in Greymouth to sell beer at the old price did a roaring trade; the others were deserted.

Union solidarity triumphed. After several weeks, beer returned to its old price.

CHECKLIST
Details: Monteith's Brewery is open daily 11.30am-8pm May to October and 11am-9pm November-April, with four brewery tours per day — 11.30am, 3pm, 4.30pm and 6pm. The $25 tour price covers tastings.

Further information: See monteiths.co.nz or brewery.co.nz.