Is there good beer north of Auckland?

I travel the country for work (business travel, that is – I’m not a hobo*). So I’m regularly looking for something interesting in towns where Monteiths is flash and the Chinese restaurant is exotic.

This month I was in Northland. The forests are subtropical but finding a good beer is like finding an oasis in the desert.

Here’s some impressions and a challenge:

Lion Red/Speight’s is available just about everywhere. Develop a taste for this one and you’ll be replete.

The Duke of Marlborough in Russell claims to be the oldest pub in the country. So do at least two others so I’ll let them sort that out between themselves. It does have a great view across the Bay of Islands and a decent beer list featuring a good, simple range of New Zealand craft lagers and ales, including most of the Founder’s range and one or two Emersons’. No hurry here – if you miss the next ferry there’s always another one in half an hour.

Across the bay in Paihia there are lots of cafes and restaurants with wine lists aimed at the tourist. Local beers are almost impossible to find. The local bottle store has an impressive wine range but, according to the owner, there’s no point stocking craft beer because no one asks for it. That bottle store is for sale.

Frank’s Pizza Bar and Cafe on the Paihia waterfront is a basic cafe with a range of imported premium beer including Hoegaarden and Pilsner Urquell. Cheers Frank – throw a few decent local beers on to the list and you’ll have the town to yourself.

Whangarei has an unsurprising mix of bars. You can find Guinness, Stella and Hoegaarden on tap and won’t have any trouble finding Monteiths.

Reva’s restaurant on the Town Basin had Sassy Red on tap. I ordered a glass. Five minutes later the waitress came back empty handed. “That wine you ordered isn’t available tonight”…

Brauhaus Frings is the only brewery in Northland and it had three of its own beers on tap when I visited – premium lager, draught and old ale. They are clean and competent examples that obviously appeal to the locals. All of the Frings brews are more mainstream than craft in their flavour and finish, and to be honest I was left underwhelmed.

Of the three, the old ale was my favourite although I suspect the lager yeast was used in this one. The brewers weren’t around on either of my visits, so please correct me if I’m wrong. Frings website says it offers seasonal brews, but none was available early in July.

So here’s my challenge to Brauhaus Frings. This compact little outfit obviously has the passion, skills and equipment to produce the good stuff. It’s in a town and region crying out for a good craft beer. Why not develop a flagship local beer that will push the local palate and provide a distinctly Northland beer for locals and tourists alike? Call it something local like ‘Flagstaff’, and make sure it’s a good match for the outstanding Northland fish & chips. ‘Down a Flagstaff tonight’.

Northlanders – let me know if there’s anything I missed. Next week – Weapons of Hop Construction – the IPA Challenge.

*According to family lore, I have ancestors who “travelled with the gypsies”. We weren’t gypsies mind, we just travelled with them.

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