At midday, the temperature in Taupō had soared and, angling to quench my thirst, I came across a sign that announced The Crafty Trout. At first, it just looked fishy, a small shop of trout trinkets to lure tourists, but it turned out to be a fortuitous catch.
Closer scrutiny revealed that the back of the boutique opened into the tiny Crafty Trout Brewery, an enterprise owned and run by Anton and Rebecca Romerer. As brewmaster, Anton carries on his Austrian family’s long brewing tradition and produces beer styles with names like ‘Hook, Line, Sinker,’ in keeping with Taupō’s defining sport.
Anton was onsite when I called. He’s an exuberant man, and he launched without preamble into an exciting discourse on the history of beer. In the early 1800s, his forebears had been brewers in a brewpub called Kobenz in Steiermark, Austria. “That’s very recent in beer terms,” he said. “Beer was first recorded in the Middle East 7000 years ago, developed from the art of bread-making.”
Anton runs tours daily through the brewery. “There’s not a lot of walking, quite a lot of talking and a fair amount of tasting,” he says. “I include among the topics politically correct instruction on how to taste beer and match it to food as well as politically incorrect views on brewing, world peace and politics.
“Children and dogs are welcome,” he grins, “and muzzles are provided for children if required.” An interesting fact about The Crafty Trout Brewery is that it was the first in the world to be fully automated. The system, known as SMARTBREW, and now adopted in North America and Australia, was developed by New Zealand’s well-known brewing guru and international judge, Brian Watson, together with Canadian engineers.
I would have liked to have joined a tour but couldn’t spare the time and, anyway, thirst was driving me towards the narrow stairway next door that led to the couple’s Bier Kafé.
Seating in a cooling breeze on the balcony, my friend and I scanned the goings-on along Tongariro Street.
The interior of the Bier Kafé carries a hint of the alpine cafés of Austria, with rustic timber furniture and leathery sofas grouped around a massive fireplace. Cuckoo clocks hang from the walls. The central light fixture is made from a cluster of deer antlers. Hand games, such as hammerschlagen nagelspielen (a complex competition involving hammers, nails and drinking) encourage patrons to linger in this homey, friendly environment.
But first for us was a ‘bottoms-up’ with a cooling ale. I chose a Hook Vienna Amber on tap, a mix of malt and hops using the traditional lagering method of the early 1800s from the family brewery in Steiermark. It was smooth and biscuity and a good match for tomato-based dishes.
This led me to order one of the Bier Kafé’s famous wood-fired pizzas - my choice was Not Trout, which had a topping of salmon and prawns. My friend ordered a Picket Line Pale Ale and a wiener schnitzel from the 15 types of schnitzel on the menu. In true Austrian tradition, the proportions were generous.
Nearly all the food is made in the café’s kitchen. As we’d reached the top of the stairs, we’d been seduced by a bready aroma. Rebecca was sprinkling salt on newly baked pretzels that were impossible to resist. “I was a cook on Santorini for a while,” she says, “and I ran a Greek restaurant in this building when I got back from overseas.
And then my husband at the time was killed, which left me with four children to raise. I had to take time off. Later I met Anton. I’d known him at school in Taupō. We formed a relationship and started looking for a job to do together. One time, on holiday in the South Island, we discovered a brewery called Wanaka Works.
It was a light-bulb moment. Why not set up a brewery of our own? We knew nothing about brewing, but we could learn, and then there was Anton’s family history. On the long drive home to Taupō, we couldn’t stop talking about the concept. The past seven years have been a fascinating learning curve.”
Now the Crafty Trout Brewery turns out thousands of litres of craft beers every year, many international award-winners among them. “The restaurant was a later development,” said Rebecca, “and now that my children have grown up, it is a family affair. They help whenever they can.” I’m sorry to say I couldn’t even help myself. I ordered another large lager called Player, and my friend became the designated driver.