Elisabeth Easther is introduced to the beers that are in the market for perfect suitors.
To get into the spirit of the Monteith's Wild Food Challenge, I made an expedition to the West Coast town of Greymouth where Monteith's has been brewing beer for more than 140 years. And, despite its ripe old age, there is nothing tired about this historic brewery.
After an extensive refurbishment in 2012, the building is now a veritable temple for worshipping beer, with more than 35,000 visitors stopping by last year alone.
Coming in from the cold, the high ceilings, wide open spaces and warming fires all serve to make visitors feel right at home. Even spending a penny here is an adventure, with the path to the bathrooms running alongside vast stainless steel vats where the beer is crafted.
The hoppy aroma is like a slap in the face and not dissimilar to the tonne of mulch I'd recently had delivered at home, sharp on the nose yet still pleasant.
Ushered into the space known as Beertopia, its walls covered in historic brewing implements and curious facts, this would be our classroom for the afternoon and the subject for the day — beer and the Monteith's Wild Food Challenge.
Kerry Tyack, the originator of the MWFC took the floor to explain how it all began.
"Eighteen years ago, when I was studying at the American Culinary Institute, I was invited to an event in Poughkeepsie where beer was being matched with food and I thought it would go down well in New Zealand, but it needed some other kind of hook. Back then, I could see that Kiwis were great at hunting and fishing, catching and cooking, but none of that food was ending up in restaurants, which is how I came up with the wild foods concept."
Kerry went to a couple of breweries with his wild idea and DB ran with it — and what a smart move that turned out to be.
Following the first Wild Food Challenge in 1998, Monteith's sales grew by 20 per cent and continued to rise steadily for the next five years, while sales of most other traditional beer brands went down.
Fostering creativity in kitchens, the spirit of the MWFC is to inspire chefs to try something utterly new. The main criteria is that two of the dish's significant ingredients must be sourced from within 100km of the participating restaurant and the meal must be paired with a beer or cider from the Monteith's range.
"This is one of the most fun things a chef can do," says Kerry, "because it gives them a license to be different."
Before getting stuck into the beer — patience is a virtue — a variety of hops, a key brewing component, were passed around and we were invited to nibble them. They're really rather tasty. Crunchy, nutty, chocolatey, they wouldn't be out of place in a lunchbox.
I knew very little about beer prior to this excursion, bar that it's bubbly and brown, but there's so much more to it than that. For a start, it needs to be fresh — you don't cellar beer even though "lager" comes from the German word for storage.
You also want to keep beer away from light or it'll start to taste sulphury, reminiscent of Rotorua. Duly noted. Don't drink beer from a bottle if you can help it because you'll miss out on the aroma which means you won't properly appreciate the taste; so be couth: use a glass.
And the biggest surprise, beer isn't a great match for spicy food so all the times you've had a pint with your curry, you've been doing the beer and the food a disservice.
With all this talk of food and drink, I'd worked up quite an appetite. Pork belly was perfect with ginger beer; mussels in coconut cream teamed beautifully with a golden lager; and the chocolate mousse with Monteith's Black was a match made in heaven.
Here's a curious fact: Unlike wine, which has natural acidity and is likely to strip the palate, beer has a more luscious texture and tends to coat the palate.
Well-informed and well fed, it was only right to finish our education with a tour of the brewing facilities.
Tony Mercer, master brewer and a vision in high vis, took us through the business end where art and science shack up. I can now say I've seen the inside of a keg and that the interior design ensures every last drop comes out. Isn't that nice?
But my favourite thing was the machine that fills and caps bottles — first they are cleaned, then filled, then capped and stickered. I could have watched it all day, utterly mesmerising.
Now it's your turn to tantalise your tastebuds. From July 1, restaurants around the country will be competing in the Monteith's Wild Food Challenge, vying for the $15,000 prize money.
A combination of regional judging and diner voting will determine this year's finalists and it's sure to be wild.
Cheers to that.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to Hokitika from Christchurch up to four times daily.
Wild tastes: See Monteith's Wild Food Challenge for more information.
The writer was a guest of Monteith's.