The first annual X-Ale was held by Hashigo Zake at an empty ParrotDog Brewery on April 21.
Thirteen beers were on offer, a collection that Hashigo Zake described as the fruitiest, riskiest, biggest, bitterest, sourest and strangest beers that had been made available to the bar over the past year.
Only 130 tickets were available for the inaugural festival, and one $50 ticket entitled the holder to one 100ml sample of each of the beers, free reign of the buffet of cheese, cold meat, breads, crackers, nuts etc., as well as a sneak peak of the venue which will soon hold a 2,500 litre brewery.
I arrived about five minutes before the festival was to begin with a full stomach and my game face on. While 13 beers in four-and-a-half hours seemed very doable, it would take some skill to drink all the beers at just the right pace so as to taste everything, but not get too drunk.
I don’t really have time or room to write notes about all of the beers on offer. But because all of the beers were either amazing or, let’s say, an experience, I thought I should at least list them all.
- Emerson’s Subcontinental Pilsner – a 7% chilli lager
- Green Flash Le Freak – a 9.2% hoppy Belgian IPA
- Hallertau Funkonnay – a 6% sour ale aged in chardonnay barrels
- Hallertau Porter Noir – a 7% barrel aged porter
- Liberty Summ!t – an 8% imperial IPA
- Mike’s Sour American – a 7% sour ale
- Mikkeller / 3 Floyds Boogoop – a 10.4% buckwheat barley wine
- Mikkeller 1000 IBU Light – a 4.9% intensely hopped pale ale
- Mikkeller Black – a 17.5% imperial stout
- Mikkeller It’s Alive! – a 9% sour ale
- Mussel Inn Smoked Captain Cooker – a 4% manuka rauchbier
- Nøgne Ø Aku Aku Lemongrass Ale – a 5.5% lemongrass-spiced lager
- Nøgne Ø Holy Smoke – a 6% rauchbier
And at 5pm, servings of the incredibly limited 8 Wired Mighty Imperial Ale (MIA) - a 25% imperial ale, were available on a first in, first served basis.
A game plan seemed particularly important at this festival, with the vast array of styles and large range of strengths on offer. After a quick lap of the taps and a look at my 13-trip ticket, Nøgne Ø’s Aku Aku Lemongrass Ale became my first beer of the festival, before I claimed a place at one of the keg tables and began to take notes. As I enjoyed the last of my Aku Aku, I had a scan of the beers. The chilli lager seemed like the natural progression, but after that, it got difficult. After a discussion with one of my table mates, I decided perhaps sours would be the next beers to grab, then the smoked, then the bitter, before finishing on the dark.
However, after my first sip of the first sour beer on my list (the very delicious Hallertau Funkonnay I might add), I realised grouping all of the sours together might be a bit of an assault on the senses. An urgent strategy review was required. Perhaps doing a sour beer, then a smoked, then sour and so on, before going on to the bitter beers would work? It seemed a bit fruitless changing to a lowest-to-highest ABV strategy, since I’d already had a 5.5%, 7% and 6% beer, and there were two beers under 5% which I had yet to try.
And where oh where to place that dreaded¹ Mikkeller 1000 IBU Light? There was nowhere to hide it! The Mikkeller/3 Floyds Boogoop was another one that was difficult to place. While it was one of the beers I was most looking forward to, at 10.4% I didn’t want to have it too early on in the piece, but being a buckwheat barley wine I was expecting some subtlety to its flavours.
After changing the game plan several times, I did away with it completely, instead deciding as I was drinking one of the samples what beer would best follow it. Others were doing the same. One of my table mates had carefully numbered the beers in the order she wanted to drink them, then realised she didn’t much like the sour ones so attempted to re-number, but it ended up being a bit of a fruitless exercise. Others would just go to whichever tap bank had the smallest line.
The Overall Experience
The festival, overall, was one of the best beer festivals I’ve been to. With only 13 beers, plus a limited edition beer available later on, four and a half hours was a good amount of time to enjoy them all. People were able to purchase additional samples later on in the day if they were out of ticket clicks, and no one was really that panicked about trying to taste all of the beers in that amount of time, unlike Beervana when you really need to go to at least two sessions to try everything and see everything you want to.
I also really enjoyed the fact that there was no clear way to approach the beers. The festival was a celebration of the big, the unusual, and the downright crazy, so with no clear order, the uniqueness of each beer really shone through.
Having a buffet of finger food was a great idea and there was a lot of variety, even if at times what was on the table didn’t really make sense². The pretzels were a personal favourite of mine and perfectly complimented the beer.
As it was the first time the festival had been held, I didn’t expect it to be perfect, and there were a couple of things that could do with some improving next year. It was great how festival-goers were able to purchase additional samples of the beers on offer from 4.30pm, but it didn’t say anywhere on the programme/ticket, nor the serving tables themselves, that you needed to first buy $3 tokens.
As I lined up for the 8 Wired Mighty Imperial Ale shortly before 5pm with a $5 note in my pocket, I soon saw the people gathering around me had orange tokens in their hands. Panicked, I asked the man next to me what he knew about it, and I was told that one orange token was expected in exchange for the beer. With the crowds surrounding the serving stations and the knowledge that there was not enough of the beer for everyone, I wondered aloud whether they would accept my $5 note in return for the $3 sample. The kind man next to me handed me a spare token and refused my $5 in return, and I received my taste of the MIA with no trouble. I asked my table mates upon their return whether they had known about the tokens, and it seemed that only those who’d tried to purchase beer before the MIA was on offer were aware of the system.
The only other thing that I think is worth mentioning is that the X-Ale t-shirts which the servers were wearing were awesome, but there was no way we punters could purchase one. I understand printing t-shirts is expensive and if people don’t buy them the bar gets stuck with a whole lot of unwanted stock, but it would’ve been nice to be able to order and pre-pay for the t-shirts at the festival, and then pick it up or have it sent out when it was ready a week or two later. Pity, I really could have done with a bit of yellow in my t-shirt drawer³!
There were two beers on offer at the festival that really wowed me.
The first was Hallertau Funkonnay. It was a honey-amber in colour and smelt tart, of brett, with grape and dark fruit notes. It tasted of grapes, with a sour bitterness and a definite wine-like character, with sweet grape and vanilla flavours on the finish. The brettanomyces didn’t overpower the more subtle characters, yet it was the most prominent flavour in the beer, and it actually helped make it quite refreshing. I also absolutely LOVE the name of the beer. While it’s a funky beer⁴ aged in chardonnay barrels – funk-onnay – it also sounds a lot like the slang term “fuckin’ eh”. Genius.
The other beer that really impressed me was the Mikkeller/3 Floyds Boogoop. It was a clear orange beer, with sweet caramel and vanilla aromas. It had an earthy bitterness, with flavours of caramel, vanilla, earth, grain and sweet malt. A little syrupy, but oh-so delicious. There was no alcohol flavour despite its 10.4% ABV, and it was so drinkable and light and lovely, with just enough bitterness for balance.
The Liberty Summ!t was big and bitter with that citrus hit; the Nøgne Ø Holy Smoke was smoky and savoury, with just enough sweetness to make it the perfect rauchbier; the Mikkeller It’s Alive’s dark fruit and caramel sweetness matched the sourness perfectly; and the Hallertau Porter Noir had a wonderful mix of vanilla, berries, cherries, dark chocolate, roasted malt, and coffee flavours, with a slight tart finish.
X-Ale was very enjoyable and made for a wonderful Saturday afternoon. My only concern is that with it being quite an exclusive event, it could become more difficult to gain a ticket to next year’s festival!
¹ Yes dreaded. I had tried the full-strength, 9.6% Mikkeller 1000 IBU before, and boy did my mouth hate me for it. While it was syrupy sweet initially, the vast amount of hop bitterness had completely dried out my palate by the end of the glass. But the Mikkeller 1000 IBU Light essentially has the same amount of hops, but HALF the malt. While I knew it would be a unique experience, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.
² There were several times when there were plates of ham and salami and cheese on the table, but no crackers or bread. In fact, there seemed to be a lack of bread on the table throughout most of the day, which was disappointing when all I really wanted after my tastes of Mikkeller 1000 IBU and Mikkeller Black was an entire breadstick to rid the palate of the extreme flavours they left in my mouth. It did however, lead to the very clever, and delicious, creation of the ham pocket. I was taught by a very kind man at the table how to do it – grab a slice of ham, spread some hummus or cheese on it, and add olives or cherry tomatoes or whatever else might be on offer, wrap it up and eat it. Yum.
³ Yellow sooooooooooooooooo isn’t my colour, but I would definitely wear the yellow-on-grey design, and it would get a lot of use during the Wellington Phoenix football season.
⁴ Funky is a term used to describe beers fermented or conditioned with unusual or strange yeasts. In this case, the funk is that it’s been both fermented and conditioned with the wild yeast strain Brettanomyces.