Panhead custom ales

The new brewery is called Panhead Custom Ales – the name a reference to the rocker cover of a particular Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine.

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Having begun his working life at Dunlop’s tyre factory in the Upper Hutt suburb of Maidstone in 1977, Danny Neilson always hoped he’d finish his working days there.

Those hopes were dashed in 2006 when the factory closed and Danny was made redundant. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Danny’s son Mike developed an interest in brewing during a trip to Britain in 2008 and started brewing after returning to New Zealand.

“From there it sort of escalated from a hobby to a profession to a lifestyle and a career, so my whole life revolves around it and it’s sort of the norm for me now,” says Mike.

In March 2010, Mike joined Tuatara and worked as a senior brewer for the Kapiti-based brewery until February last year, when he left to start his own business.

After considering sites all over the Hutt Valley, Mike started brewing in one of the buildings within the old tyre factory complex. Having sold his family home and, with the help of his parents, Mike set about upgrading the building.

In May and June he installed a shiny new Chinese-built 2000-litre brewhouse and the first beer emerged on August 1.

Having invested $750,000 in the business, Mike was hoping to sell 100,000 litres of beer in his first year, but demand for the beers has been so strong that target has already been met. Mike now employs four staff, including his father.

Ironically, Danny Neilson’s new workplace is just 100 metres from the building where he first worked for Dunlop. With luck, he says, he’ll work for another three years or so at the brewery before retiring.

The new brewery is called Panhead Custom Ales – the name a reference to the rocker cover of a particular Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine.

Wikipedia informs me: “As the design of Harley-Davidson engines evolved through the years, the distinctive shape of the valve covers has allowed Harley enthusiasts to classify an engine simply by looking at the shape of the covers, and the panhead has covers resembling an upside-down pan.”

A passion for engineering and customising is reflected in Mike’s brewing philosophy.

“We love to strip a brew back to its essence and rebuild it in a way that honours tradition as well as the alchemy of creation,” he says on Panhead’s Facebook page.

“At our new brewery headquarters in Upper Hutt we’re turning out beers with character bursting from the glass, streamlined vehicles for malt, yeast and serious hopping.”

I had the pleasure of visiting the brewery last weekend.

Although Mike’s preference is undoubtedly for generously hopped pale ales, the Panhead range kicks off with a pilsner-style lager. Named after the local annual drag races, Panhead Port Road Pilsner (5.2 per cent) pours a bright golden hue beneath a fluffy white head. The aroma and palate offer a combination of citrus, gooseberry, passionfruit and herbaceous hop notes over a biscuity, sweet malt base and the beer finishes with an appetisingly assertive hoppy dryness.

Having tasted both the draught and bottled versions – the Panhead beers are available in both 330ml and 500ml bottle sizes – I’m really impressed with Port Road Pilsner and see it as one of New Zealand’s finest examples of the Kiwi pilsner style, alongside the likes of Emerson’s and Croucher.

Next comes Quickchange Xtra Pale Ale (4.6 per cent). Once again an automotive connection in the beer’s name – quickchange being a type of transmission fitted to drag racing cars.

Made with a simple grist of pale ale and lager malt and hopped with American hops (Citra and Mosaic), this bright, golden-hued brew offers a pungent aroma of tropical stonefruit (mango and lychee), citrus (orange and lemon) and pine. In the mouth there’s a deft balance of marmalade-like fruit and caramelised sweet malt which leads into a sharply bitter finish. It’s a flavour-packed and immensely quaffable brew that treads the line between an English summer ale and an American pale ale (APA). I love it.

Panhead’s regular range is headed by Supercharger APA (5.7 per cent). Hopped with a triumvirate of American varieties (Centennial, Simcoe and Citra), it’s a robust APA much in the manner of Tuatara’s American-hopped APA. Once again the Panhead beer shows exemplary malt-hop balance, meaning it’s one of the most sessionable Kiwi-brewed APAs on the market.

From the outset Mike has said the Panhead beers would be a “more commercial” style of craft beer, brewed to appeal equally to craft beer drinkers and those who are “happy to drink a Heineken or a Steinlager Pure or Stella Artois or something like that”.

I’m not so sure. Judging by what I tasted last weekend I’d say drinkers of big-name international lagers will be wide-eyed at the flavour and sheer intensity of flavour of the Panhead beers. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course.

As for me, I’m very, very impressed and the Panhead beers are well and truly on my radar.


– The Marlborough Express

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