Wheels of Invention Keep Turning

Beers on tap at the cellar door. Garage Project, Aro Street, Wellington, 2013.

Wellington’s Garage Project were voted New Zealand’s best in the 2014 SOBA Awards. Pursuit editor Michael Donaldson can understand why.
Photos by Jed Soane.

I’m not surprised at all to the see Garage Project top the SOBA awards list … after all the boys from Aro Valley came out on top in my annual assessment of the country’s best breweries.

This is what I wrote in my column for Your Weekend magazine earlier this year:

“Five hundred years ago The Germans came up with the so-called `purity law’ which states beer must be made from just four ingredients: malt, hops, water and yeast.

Someone obviously forgot to tell the boys at Garage Project.

Cornflakes, truffle, honeydew melon, seaweed, chipotle, mango, lime, cocoa, lemongrass, grapefruit, grape juice, dried fish. Dried fish!? Oh Yes.

This time every year I sit down to replay my beer memories as I try to identify my brewery of the year. Most years, it’s incredibly difficult to single out one the many talented brewers who increasingly populate our brewing landscape.

Not this year. For me, Garage Project – like their elevated stand at Beervana – stood head and shoulders above the rest.

And it’s not just because they produced New Zealand’s best ever result at the Beer World Cup, winning a silver medal for their Cockswain’s Courage Double Barrelled Porter.

When this brewery burst onto the scene a couple of years ago with their wild and imaginative flavours, there was always a question of how long they could sustain the energy.

But the creativity of Jos Ruffell and Pete Gillespie is like a perpetual motion machine … ideas just keep coming.”

During Beervana I talked to Jos about where the ideas come from for beers as diverse as the seaweed – and fish-driven Umami Monster to Two-Pot Flat White … a shot of imperial stout followed by a cream ale charged with nitrogen to create a fluffy top. Like so many in this business, Jos had a “beer epiphany” in the United States – not one beer but a series of them – which showed him “beer could be a lot more than I previously thought it was”.

Pete Gillespie, brewer. Garage Project, Aro Street, Wellington, 2013.

With his background in computer gaming, it was a short step to see how beer itself “can be an amazing vehicle for creativity, for playing with flavours … then there’s elements of science and art.”

His video game background was also about art and science but that industry was all about secrecy and long-term planning whereas brewing is “immediate and tangible”.

“With gaming you can work on things for years – multi-years even – and you weren’t allowed to talk about it. In brewing, ideas can turn into real things very quickly.”

Umami Monster – which features 20kg of kombu and 30kg of katsubushi “we do brew with a lot of adjuncts but we don’t throw things in willy-nilly” – started life as a simple idea: “I just had a thought `what would it be like to brew an MSG beer’.”

After batting the idea around with partner Pete Gillespie and concluding people might not be ready for MSG in their beer, the pair settled on trying to brew an umami flavour and looked at what was happening in the culinary world with fermented foods and how they might brew the beer on a base similar to dashi, which uses katsubushi, preserved fermented fish, and kombu, an edible seaweed, “and suddenly we’re trying to buy 30kg of katsubushi from the local Japanese food warehouse”.

Amazingly that first batch of Umami Monster was brewed without any kind of test.

The team backed themselves to get the flavours right – and when you’re playing with seaweed, fermented fish, smoked malt and salt water, that’s a pretty brave call.

Naturally says Jos, not everyone liked it. “Not my cup of fish,” was one response.

“But if everyone loved it you wouldn’t know where to go next. We’re OK with people not liking our beer as long as the beer is technically well made and the flavours work.”

Perhaps that’s why Garage Project are so popular with SOBA members – everyone it seems, can find a beer they like.

From Day of the Dead, conditioned on cocoa nibs and chipotle, to its little (or should that be big) sister La Calavera Catrina, brewed with watermelon and habanero chili, and their cousin Death from Above, with chili, mango and lime juice … to Wabi Sabi Sour, which features yuzu and honey dew melon and a kettle souring process.

Then there’s Mecha Hop – the beer made with entirely “industrial products” such as malt extract, hop extract and packet yeast. “We had no idea what that would taste like and we were blown away by it.” And one of my favourites for this time of year, Cereal Milk Stout, brewed with cornflakes and designed to capture that “bottom of the cereal bowl” taste.

Or what about Sauvin Nouveau and Chateau Aro, beers made with grape juice which came about when the team was asked to put on a keg of beer at a Pinot wine conference in Wellington. Actor and grape grower Sam Neill had already outed himself as a fan of Pils n Thrills so “it popped into my head … Pinot Pilsner,” says Jos.

While others were doing fresh hopped beers this time last year – “if we see people going one way we go the other way” – Garage Project took the Pinot Pilsner concept and tweaked it by brewing with Sauvignon Blanc grape juice and Nelson Sauvin hops.

For his part, Pete Gillespie is careful not to let Garage Project brews turn into tricked up beers.

“We never do something just for the sake of it – our beer might be weird, but there’s always a reason certain flavours are in there. I try to never do anything as a stunt because it will backfire and be one-dimensional, and people will know you are doing it for a reason.

“Umami Monster might seem like a stunt because it’s got fish in it,” he says, before pointing out that the savoury and smoke elements act as a balance to the sweetness of beer just as the bitterness of hops do in an IPA or sourness in a lambic ale.

“The best beers somehow balance the scales – but I do like beer that takes you on a journey,” Pete says.

It’s been some journey so far for Garage Project … and the beauty is that you never know what’s around the next corner.

Back to The Pursuit of Hoppiness: Autumn 2015


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