Construction of the picturesque Gold Bay pub was completed only hours before opening with Andrew Dixon, a former builder, doing much of the work himself. The unique macrocarpa bar top alone is testament to his skills.
A tiny brewery was built behind the pub in 1998 because Andrew claims he wanted to “get out of the kitchen.” It really was pretty small – the initial average brew size was just 350 litres. Several years ago the brewery was expanded, both in terms of floor space and brewing capacity, with several 1,200 litre batches a week now the norm.
I have been to the Mussel Inn precisely once and it remains one of the highlights of my beer drinking life. Sure, it is in the middle of nowhere and it was pouring with rain but the place just has such a great vibe, as well as serving up a huge range of their own beers. The furniture and fittings are made of solid wood, there is a welcoming fire, books and newspapers and games are freely available, live music is common and a range of local foods available from the kitchen.
There are quirky touches – they won’t serve Coke or chips, cell phone use is discouraged with several old handsets pointedly nailed to the wall and the toilets are the organic composting variety. I poured one of their Heat Rash beers and a whole Serrano chilli fell into the glass. Having tried the pungent brew, I was pleased not to have risked the Cayenne version. They even allowed me to be photographed behind the distinctive bar – most venues are wary about letting me loose behind their taps.
For most of its history, the beers of the Mussel Inn were conveniently available almost nowhere outside of the brewpub. I relied on the occasional rigger bought back by kind Golden Bay natives. A couple of years ago, Andrew and his team made the decision to sell a selection of their beers in bottles around the country. They had no bottling plant and no desire to build one in the bush. Instead, they looked for a brewer they could trust to make their beers elsewhere.
In the end, they picked Steve Nally of the Invercargill Brewery who is fast building a reputation for his mad contract brewing skills. Just ask the Yeastie Boys. Andrew says they chose Invercargill because it “had a good track record and no interest in making crap beer. We have to taste it of course before it goes into production, and it’s a bugger of a job, but someone has to do it! But then it is a good excuse to travel to interesting places, meet interesting folk and enjoy good beer.”
Three Mussel Inn beers are mainly bottled – the Golden Goose lager, Dark Horse black beer and the iconic Captain Cooker. All three are currently available at the Malthouse.
Golden Goose is a well-made, quenching lager. The brewery describes it as “no shell, no feathers, just pure gold.” It is a delicious quaffer, particularly on a hot day.
The Black Horse dark beer is quite different. Dark and silky with roasted, chocolate-y notes, the brewery describes this offering as “a solid and dependable performer – pulls away strong at the finish.”
The star of the range is undoubtedly the Captain Cooker, made with the tips of the Manuka tree. That Manuka is fresh in the Golden Bay tap version and dried in the Invercargill bottled version. In either form, there are tonnes of great aromas and flavours – ginger, rose water, Turkish Delight, perfume and a surprising amount of hops. It is inspired by Captain Cook’s first brew in New Zealand but is by no means a clone.
Andrew tells the story of how it was created: “I wanted to brew a beer that would fit somewhere between our Golden Goose lager and our Dark Horse black beer – something that looked like your typical kiwi beer or what your typical kiwi bloke meant when he asked for an ‘ale’, back then – but I wanted something special. I liked the idea of being able to present a beer to the customer with a comforting familiar appearance and then totally surprising them with a unique flavour. At the risk of scaring them off, drinkability has always been of great importance. I was already aware of Captain Cook’s original beer and the connection with the pig fitted perfectly with our animal driven beer name theme. The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that I had to brew this beer.”
I also asked him how he reacted to people like me calling it an iconic beer. He replied “With a certain amount of pride of course but I see what we’re doing with the Captain Cooker more as reinstating something that used to be – from Cook’s original beer, the widespread use by the Maori for medicinal purposes and the use by our forebears as a substitute for tea. The fact that manuka grows from one end of the country to the other, from sea level to sub alpine regions, makes it one of our most easily recognisable and well known trees and is a bit of an icon itself – especially given that it too is a coloniser (that’s spelt ‘bane’ to farmers) and is helping to restore much of the native forest that we have wasted.”
Finally, I asked Andrew if he drank Captain Cooker and his initial answer surprised me. “I didn’t particularly like it when I first made it but popular demand required I keep brewing it. It didn’t take me long to acquire the taste and I’ve been drinking it regularly ever since at around 3 to every one of whatever my fav of the month is. It’s very quaffable and a great session beer.”
So, whether you feel like a refreshing lager, a decadent dark or a spicy slice of Kiwi brewing history, pop into the Malthouse for a Mussel Inn. Or, if you are ever anywhere near Golden Bay, a visit to the Mussel Inn is an absolute must for any fan of beer.
Real Beer New Zealand
Beer and Brewer Magazine
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