On Saturday, March the 24th, the fifth annual Marchfest took place at Founders Park in Nelson. It’s a festival designed to celebrate the beginning of the hop harvest and the growing craft beer scene in the Nelson/Tasman region. Each year there’s a theme, and 2012 was the year of the secret ingredient. So every beer, and cider, available, had at least one secret ingredient and festival-goers could guess those ingredients to win prizes. Some of the beer/cider names easily gave away the secret, others were pretty easy to decipher from the descriptions provided in the leaflet, while some were just really difficult to guess. I gave up on guessing early on in the piece, deciding instead to just enjoy the beer for what it was.
My partner David and I always go into Marchfest with a strategy. We arrive early (noon on the dot this year), claim a table close to the door which leads to the food stalls, and then look through the list of beer on offer. We put the beers into groups of two, starting with the lighter-sounding and lower ABV beers, working up to the stronger and darker beers.¹ Once grouped, David and I go up and get a half glass of one of the two beers, and once tasted and noted, we switch glasses. This cuts down on the amount of beer we need to consume to taste all of the beers, plus means we get to go up and grab full glasses of our favourite beers before we’re completely plastered.
While Marchfest has music, food and brewers talks, for me, Marchfest is primarily about the beer.
There were 11 beers available this year, all of which had never been brewed before (a requirement of the festival). There were also two ciders with secret ingredients, but unfortunately, I’m not much of a cider drinker², so I just stuck to the beers.
Unlike other beer festivals, I tend to go into Marchfest with lower expectations as to the quality of the beer. Because all of the beers are first-off brews, the brewers don’t always get things right, and some have little time to perfect a brand new recipe.
This year was a good year – of the 11 beers, I enjoyed six, found two okay and disliked three. In 2011, only three of the 12 beers available made the top grade.
Envy of Empire – Founders Brewery 5.3% ABV
Founders’ Envy of Empire scored the highest grade in my notes. It was a very clear amber with an off-white head and a subtle aroma of grassy hop, citrus and a touch of vanilla. It had a good, solid body, and tasted of earthy hops, with a wonderful roasted malt flavour and a grassy flavour on the finish. Incredibly earthy. The secret ingredients were green tea and ginger – I picked up neither.
Muscle Stout – Moa 5.5% ABV
Moa’s muscle stout was very black in colour, tinged red on the sides of the glass, with a tan head. It smelled of peat and brine, but the flavour was more complex. It tasted smokey, with a dark roasted malt character and sea salt flavour, but the peat was both the first and last thing I tasted. Full-bodied and really easy to drink with all the strong and dark flavours going on. The secret ingredient was green lipped mussels – which was obvious from the name of the beer, but the briny character also shone through in the beer ³.
Soma – Monkey Wizard 4.2% ABV
I only ever get to drink Monkey Wizard’s beer during Marchfest weekend, and they really surprised me with their Soma brown ale. It was dark brown in colour, with a fluffy light tan head, and had chocolate and coffee aromas. It had a great roasted malt character, with a coffee bean character and great bitterness on the finish. The body held the flavours nicely and seemed higher in alcohol than it actually was because of it. I have scrawled in my notebook “good all-round beer”, and it was the first beer I went up to get seconds of. The secret ingredient was mugwort, which I clearly didn’t get, having never even heard of it before the 24th of March, let alone had any inkling what it may smell or taste like.
Silver Lining Stout – Townshend Brewery 4% ABV
Townshend’s stout didn’t quite make my top three, but I think deserves a special mention. It had a lot going on in the aroma – smelling of milk chocolate, peppermint, cocoa and brown sugar. It tasted like milk chocolate, with hints of roasted malt, but was a little thin on the body which couldn’t quite carry the beautiful, but heavy, flavours. I have written in my notes that I would have scored it higher if it had a bigger body. The special ingredient was a tricky one – the brewer, Martin, did four kegs of the beer, one with vanilla, one with raspberry, one with chocolate and one with coffee as the secret ingredient. I have no doubt I tasted the chocolate one, no idea where that peppermint character came from though.
While the good beers were great, there were some pretty bad ones too. My least favourite beer was full of diacetyl⁴, so much so that I could barely get my mouth close to the glass without gagging on the sickly sweet butterscotch aroma. Butterscotch was NOT the secret ingredient. Another beer, which I was really looking forward to, also tasted quite faulty, with a strong plastic flavour and medicinal notes. In the case of this beer, it could’ve actually been the secret ingredient which was giving off some of the off characters, but whatever it was, I didn’t think it was very nice.
The weather, unfortunately, was also not-so-great, with we festival-goers having to contend with strong (for Nelson anyway) winds and rain. But it didn’t deter the hordes of people who came through the gates of Founders Park and I sure had a great time despite the poor weather.
I’m already counting down the months until Marchfest 2013!
¹This doesn’t always work – this year there was a 4% stout which we still placed in the second-to-last group, but could have gone a place or two earlier, and a 4.2% brown ale which we grouped second, but probably should have gone a place or two later despite it being one of the lower alcohol beers.
²At all actually, despite continuous attempts by certain people to try and change my mind.
³Some people think the brine character from clam, oyster and mussel stouts is all in the drinkers head. I personally think that the character comes through not only as a subtle flavour, but gives more body to the beer too.
⁴Actually tasted just like a beer I tried at a Regional Wines & Spirits tasting that was purposely spiked with diacetyl.