Tuesday, February 22, 2011

‘Plough’-ing through some good beer

Take an unassuming little country pub in an unassuming little country town and bring in a Bloke from the Big Smoke to select a menu of five different beers of very different styles to be matched by the chef with some local produce cooked up in some very ‘cheffy’ ways and what do you get?

86 very keen locals ready to be impressed.

Prof Pilsner was invited to The Plough Hotel in Myrniong to host a beer and food matching evening this week and a bit of Google-y research gave me little more than the town’s location and access to the Community Noticeboard so expectations were minimal as the Myrniong turn off came into view.

In fact, if I had to be perfectly Francis, there was half an expectation that the pub would come into view and visions of Bob’s Country Bunker would race into my head along with both its types of music. The reality could not have been further from the expectation.

The Plough Hotel is not just a pub in Myrniong – together with the school it IS Myrniong. 80 odd clicks from Melbourne and 30 minutes from Ballarat, Myrniong sits just off the Western Highway nestled snugly into a picturesque series of plains beneath Mt Blackwood. Its community is scattered throughout the rolling hills of the region and concerns itself with little more than the business of producing beef cattle, pigs, sheep and chooks as well as crops of barley, wheat, oats and canola.

Little surprise then that the dining room at The Plough was filled with farmers and teachers and CFA volunteers and rabbit shooters and local tradies and various pub suppliers and the entire production line workforce of Westside Meats (who we shall meet in more detail later). The only question was; How would these honest hard-working ‘folk of the fields’ brought up on that well-known mainstream lager of two simple letters greet a selection of Victoria’s finest small batch brews?

The answer wasn’t long in coming as the True South Kolsch was poured on arrival and drank with some very tasty Thai prawn cakes. Seriously, these boys and girls can get a party started. Some of them had a schooner in one hand as the other hand was still closing the front door behind them! After a few curious stares at the glass and less-than-whispered comments like “Geez. Bit cloudy isn’t it?!” and “Got a fair pong on it, eh?!” the keg tapped out twenty minutes after the doors opened. Can’t get a much better recommendation than that, can you Sam?

Chef Mark Mills who, with partner Jody, revived the run-down (and at the time closed-down) Plough just over twelve months ago wanted to treat his guests to some beer styles that they had never tried before and between us we figured we should give them a few ‘challenging’ beers as well as some more approachable ones. Mark sorted out the food side of things and my task was to showcase what good beer was all about while expanding the beery horizons of the appreciative locals.

A braised rabbit and white bean cassoulet was paired with Bridge Road Brewers Hans Klopek’s Hefeweizen – if we were to scare them, may as well do it early! For most in the room this was their first experience of a wheat beer and, after a brief discussion about the style and what to expect from it, I moved around to gauge the response. While it’s fair to say that some were still to be convinced (many after the second pot, mind you) there were many for whom this beer and the food matching was a pleasant surprise. A couple of non-beer drinkers were even heard to remark; “I like that! That’s not beer!” I’ll assume they meant that it wasn’t macro-swill.

As no-one had stormed out or demanded monies back by this stage we blazed on into the third course of Steak Diane with green beans and a keg of Mountain Goat Hightail Ale. Again, a big flavoured English style Amber Ale described by its creator, Dave Bonighton, as a ‘crazy mongrel’ for its American hop bang is not something many of the crowd would naturally seek out but the third empty keg of the night justified my decision to introduce them to Goat Beer.

Hungarian spiced lamb wrapped in a tasty flaky pastry pillow with roast pumpkin garnish rounded out the main courses and the Arctic Fox American Pale Ale, while a tad hoppy for some, was well received overall. And for those with any room left, the evening was capped with a Tira Misu matched with Holgate’s Temptress Chocolate Porter. While this proved a little dark and foreboding for a few, there was little left over when the tables were cleared.

Just the fact that the guests had worked their way through a Kolsch, a Hefeweizen, and English amber and American pale ale and a porter thus far was reward enough.

The various beers’ back stories and tales of the brewers certainly helped to paint the picture for them and ease the acceptance of these strange brews, but in general, the task was pretty easy. A relaxed atmosphere with plenty of food and more than plenty of beer coupled with a friendly host chatting to each table throughout the night made their initiation into the Good Beer World a relatively painless and enjoyable one. The fact that my hand still hurts today after the volume of vigorous shaking it copped as each guest left indicates that they left having had an experience they wanted to repeat.

As I left the next morning I discovered that it was an experience I would be repeating, too with a generous offer to return in eight weeks to do it all again with another five beers – this time from the expansive portfolio of Lion Nathan, whose regional representative was among those enjoying my light-hearted repartee and very ordinary gags. Goes to show, give ‘em enough beer and they’ll commit to anything!

This is a gig I’ll happily repeat and for some pretty compelling reasons that had not before occurred to me. Firstly, it’s great to get to meet people for whom beer is pretty much cold, wet, fizzy and from Foster’s and introduce them to the flavours and colours and tastes and mouthfeels and the stories of the beers that we who are a way down the track can take for granted. It’s comforting to talk to people who have just tried something for the first time that you now feel is an ’old favourite’ and listen to them tell you how much they like it.

Or to have someone call you over to say they’d never even heard of a Kolsch before tonight – and where can I get some more?! Even to see a hardened old VB stalwart (who only ever buys stubbies and not cans and never anything BUT VB) have even a few sips of Hightail, half a glass of Hefeweizen a mere sniff of an APA made the night worthwhile. To hear that he had three pots of Kolsch had me dancing on the table!

But, for me, the most pleasing feeling came from seeing a pub as it was meant to be – a hub, a meeting point, a gathering place for its community. No pokies, no pubTAB and no piss-heads spoiling the vibe. A vibrant and living place. A destination. In addition to the entire population of Myrniong, they came from Ballarat and Gisborne and Bacchus Marsh and Melton and they promised they’d be back.

Let me know if you want to join me next time – we might have to squeeze onto a table out the back, but it’ll be worth it.


Prof Pilsner

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fields of Gold

If you’ve ever visited a brewery that opens to the public you probably have an underlying sense that while these places are under the stewardship of people who care about the product and the procedure they are essentially a manufacturing concern.

This, of course, is necessary as gleaming stainless steel and spotless well drained concrete floors ensure that the beer that comes out at the other end has been kept separate from all of those microbial nasties that would seek to destroy our favourite brews. But you’d be wrong to think that a brewery is just a beer factory.

There is still a strong link between the fields and the foaming pot.

And this link is no stronger than in the relationship that Cascade Brewing Company has with its raw ingredients. In days of old it was common for a brewery to have its own malting house where the raw barley would come to be washed and dried and kilned and bagged in big hessian sacks before travelling a short trip to the Brewhouse. Today, in Australia, Cascade is the only brewery with a maltings facility.

But the relationship goes even further than that. When you see this relationship at work you are forced to realise that the beer in your glass is the result of more than mere mechanical processes and chemical reactions between mysterious physical properties. There are real human relationships evolving to ensure that your schooner of ale has more in it than the sum of its ingredients.

You could be forgiven for thinking that an invitation to visit to a farm to see barley growing would elicit the same response as that of a grade five lad to the prospect of a day at a cannery but when the visit is directly linked to one of Australia’s favourite and arguably its oldest brewery then a whole different complexion colours the prospect. You may just look at your next beer in a different light, too.

It’s difficult to convey the feeling of wandering through swaying carpets of grain where the only sound is that of the breeze and the distant call of birds and thinking that one day, with Mother Nature’s blessing, this will be beer. And here you stand within a group of seven and yet not a word is spoken until all have time to acclimatise the senses and process the feeling. It is actually just a little bit awe-inspiring.

And it’s more than even this raw agricultural connection that brings some provenance to the Cascade brews. With around 60 different farmers contracted to grow barley for the brewery there is a real and tangible community element to the story. You can imagine the supplier/customer relationships are as real and as honest now as they would have been when almost all commerce and trade were conducted this way.

The grain is delivered straight to the brewery – no far-off third party processing here – in big trucks where it travels through systems that are little changed from the days when a horse and cart would have done the same. It is steeped and kilned and stored on site until it makes its way to the Brewhouse to become the beer that has been a Tasmanian staple since the early 1800s and a favourite on the mainland since Cascade Premium Lager landed in 1985 to challenge the reign of the prevailing brews.

This link to the land and direct connection to the ingredients is at the heart of what Cascade Brewing Company could be all about. In an age where marketing and back stories (real, wished-for and outright imagined) are deemed almost as important as the liquid in the keg, it is odd to think that this facet of the Cascade product is relatively unknown. As more and more small brewers have brought their craft to the market, Cascade has perhaps been left behind by the average drinker and in a kind of limbo between its ‘premium lagers’ and perceived cheaper mass-produced brands.

Cascade produces a range of beers that sits firmly within what their local market demands and what the wider audience likes to see – sessionable, easy drinking and not-too-challenging beers for the everyday occasion. Perhaps today we expect too much of our breweries, that all our beer must have a ‘catch’ or an ‘edge’ or a ‘gimmick’ that we can forget the simple joys of a well made and reasonably priced beer that delivers just what it promises. Even if it doesn’t seem to promise much.

That Cascade Brewing Company also produces First Harvest Ale as a limited release annually should give them a certain deal of craft credibility with those who expect more from their preferred brewers. That many drinkers today enjoy Galaxy hopped beers is due to the ‘launching’ of this variety in the 2007 First Harvest.

A revamped packaging across the range and a focus shift from the native Tasmanian Tiger to the heritage and history of the brewery buildings themselves in the labelling and advertising, along with a very slick, but honest, development of the company website might just remind drinkers that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to produce standard representations of beer styles in your range, that it’s OK to have a portfolio of beers that doesn’t include high alcohol hop bombs or barrel-aged bangers – as long as you do what you do well.

Maybe it was the pleasant morning spent strolling through fields and communing with nature and leaving the big smoke behind or maybe it was the company of the Head Brewer and the Malting’s Manager, but the beers shared that night just seemed to taste fresher and better than I thought I would remember them to be.

And, put simply, that was not bad at all.


Prof Pilsner

Saturday, February 19, 2011

When Goats and Blokes get together

If you take one of this country’s most respected and creative brewing teams, including their often outspoken but always affable ‘Road Goat’, and pair it with this country’s most respected and creative Beer Dinner host* and put together a five course spectacular in one of this country’s most respected and well-known beer venues, well, you’d barely need to talk it up, would you?

Mountain Goat Brewery and their trusty pet Tom Delmont along with your very own Beer Bloke, Prof Pilsner, will combine to present a beery degustation of lofty proportions at Beer Deluxe on Thursday March 10.

Tom will warn diners of the dangers of eating hop flowers

Those who have enjoyed any of these three elements in isolation will only be able to imagine the result of a collaboration of this calibre. To fully appreciate the fun and entertainment available you really will need to be there on the night. With a venue that is a mere stagger from public transport options and the promise of some very special beer offerings and the Prof’s famous Beer Trivia and talent for finding the humour in every situation what more encouragement do you really need?

How about this? With Beer Deluxe looking to further establish its credentials as a premier Melbourne beer venue, punters can be assured of some very interesting food matches presented in the private and luxurious surrounds of the little known upstairs dining room.

If all that is still not enough to have you grabbing the phone to secure one of the limited tickets to this event then maybe this will get you moving - $55. That’s right; the brewers from Mountain Goat presenting their beers and chatting with you in a relaxed and friendly setting, Tom Delmont doing what Tom Delmont does best, five courses and five beers, trivia and giveaways all knitted together by The Prof in Melbourne’s finest beer venue for just $55 per head.

"You DO realise that bloke is not a real Professor, don't you?!"

But, in all seriousness, interest has already been strong and tickets are limited so please, show your support for Beer Dinners like this and have a rollicking good night into the bargain. Tickets and other details are available by contacting Beer Deluxe at Federation Square on 9663 0166.

Look forward to seeing you there,


Prof Pilsner

*Since I’m about the only bloke doing regular Beer Dinners I figured I’d get away with such a bold claim! It sounded better in the promo than “not the worst bloke you could get to do a Beer Dinner...” or “almost as good as pulling some dodgy random off the street...”