David Nicholls must be the James Brown of the New Zealand brewing scene. Already famous for being one of the hardest working men in the beer business, Beertown.NZ now declares him to be our Godfather of Sour! Take it to the bridge!
David started on Moa’s sour series in 2008, making it the oldest commercial sour beer programme in the country. Before joining Moa, David worked for Heineken in the Pacific, the Caribbean and Holland.
“I spent a fair bit of time in Holland and I was continually trying different things*. It was probably about the late 1990s when I had my introduction to Lambics and sours. I’ve always had a love of all good things Belgian. Geuze as a style is one of the most interesting beers that’s made and things like the 3 Fonteinen are absolutely stunning.”
David says Moa’s sour series isn’t an attempt to directly copy any Belgian sours. “It’s more an attempt to go down that track with local ingredients.”
Sour things take time, and the programme’s output has doubled each year. “It was small scale to start with and this year I’ll end up with more than 5000L of the Cherry Sour and the same of the Sour Blanc. This year I purchased something like 1.4 tonnes of cherries. The Sour Grapes uses Sauvignon grapes from my vineyard (outside Blenheim).”
Unlike the big, sterile processes used to make Heineken, Lambic beers use wild yeasts living in the brewery to generate a spontaneous fermentation. David uses a combination of commercial and wild yeast “and I’ve developed an in-house blend of nasties”. He’s acutely aware of the risks of bringing this combination into a commercial brewery, where it could potentially get into other brews.
“You’ve got to know your bugs, that’s for sure. I’m lucky to have some pretty good micro-test gear which enables me to check for cross-contamination. I’ve also got the luxury of having separate pumps and hoses for the sours.
“The 2014 Cherry Sour and Sour Blanc were bottled two weeks ago, so last week was spent pulling down the bottle filler, replacing the seals and giving it an annual maintenance. I do that after a sour bottling run. And today I’ll do some testing to make sure we’ve knocked everything over and there’s nothing that’s going to survive and cause problems.”
After reassembling the Moa bottling line, David uses test kits from Invisible Sentinel to quickly test the equipment. They look like pregnancy tests, but these babies detect Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus.
Sour beer availability has gushered in New Zealand in the past couple of years, and Moa’s barrel-aged sours have has been joined by similar programmes at 8 Wired (since 2011) and others.
“It’s good that it’s growing. It’s a beer style that I like and having other people doing them means I’ve got a variety to taste and benchmark against”, David says. “I’m not a fan of some of the techniques being employed. Apart from a couple of Berliner Weisse, I don’t do accelerated souring. Mine tend to be left for a minimum of 12 months and that’s how you get that complexity and depth of flavour. If you read about the classic Lambic styles, it’s all about time, it’s all about being patient.”
Moa’s sour series is a blend of beer aged in barrels and in stainless steel. So far, David has released single-year beers only, but as production grows he’s holding back stock of older beers to blend with newer vintages, true to the original Geuze techniques. “I’ve just got hold of some 2000L barrels which will enable us to continue to size up.”
“Sours are here to stay. We’re growing our volumes and we wouldn’t be doing that it if it wasn’t selling. You see that first hand in our cellar door, it’s a beer epiphany moment for some people – ‘This isn’t beer!’ You see lights turn on, it’s great.”
*Beer things. He means trying beer things