As a teen, Steve ‘Ben’ Middlemiss liked to blow stuff up.
He’d zip between Blenheim’s two garden centres, grabbing the raw ingredients for his explosive hobby – all the while remaining vigilant to never buy everything he needed from one place, in an effort to throw-off any scent of his true intentions. In a very real sense, Ben was engaged in a practice not dissimilar to modern-day chemist-hopping – sans the methamphetamine, but with similar capacity for turning his insides-out.
Seeing that their Son’s thirst for Making Stuff Go Boom was blossoming into more than just a passing phase, Mr and Mrs Middlemiss nipped the potentially-lethal hobby in the bud – and banned Ben from its pursuit. So he did whatever any exceptionally-gifted but now-completely-bored-shitless Thirteen-and-a-Half-year-old would do:
He started making booze.
Seeing brewing as the lesser of the two present evils, Ben’s Mum and Dad (wisely) embraced his new hobby – even letting him tear-up the back lawn and build an underground conditioning cellar. When he nearly killed his brother in a freak fermentation accident – think: dozens of quarts, hastily bottled too early, and a warzone-like eruption of glassy shrapnel – they just made a new rule: no more fermenting inside the house.
No worries, and Sweet As, Bro; Ben just made space in his pseudo-cellar – space created by smuggling the wine he was making into school, and continuing its fermentation behind his classroom’s wall heaters.
I mean, who thinks like that?
Oh, yeah. Smart people.
And on the topic of smart people, Ben eventually revealed that Morton Coutts was a personal hero – and I’m really not surprised. The two were cut from the same cloth: both engineers-at-heart (as well as by-trade), who clearly were taught at the School of Why Not. Ben even had the privilege of working with Morton – the father of continuous fermentation (look it up; it’s f**king genius), and namesake for the annual Trophy for Innovation at the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards – and spoke reverently of the late brewer. I imagine the two had plenty to talk about while the mash was on – most of which would have sounded, to a fly-on the-wall, like Greek translated into Portuguese and then read aloud by a Mexican.
Or something like that.
* * * *
There’s a certain amount of pressure that comes with trying to chronicle the life and times of Ben Middlemiss – since to understand Ben’s story is to understand a substantive chunk of New Zealand brewing’s modern history. Whether head brewer, consultant or anywhere in between, Ben’s indelible fingerprints are all over our brewing landscape. Epic, Renaissance, the Cock n Bull, Galbraith’s; these are all brands which owe at least some of their narrative to Ben’s dab hands.
He’s also been at the flashpoint of some events that could easily be the subject of a documentary – starting with the triangulation between a brand named Australis, a beer named Benediction and a gentleman named Michael Jackson (not that one). These are matters which deserve to be studied and understood three-dimensionally; but as that would require actual journalism, I am, quite frankly, ill-equipped. I’m just a glassy-eyed fan-boy, living the dream by supping outstanding beer with his heroes.
Rather than start our hui with a gentle nudge, Ben plunged me straight into the deep end; I was barely in the door before he revealed something rather special he’d dug-out for the occasion: a four-year-old bottle of his famous Nota Bene – the Belgian Abbey-style Ale based on (but definitely not, for proprietary reasons) the aforementioned Benediction.
Nota Bene was, of course, heaven – as was the deliciously-sticky two-year-old Hodgsons IPA that swiftly followed – but it was Ben’s third offering which had my tongue in twists. A new beer from his stable, Sir Archie is a session-strength Pale Ale, made with an obscure hop variety known as Sorachi (see what he did there?). With any luck, the obscurity of this hop will ease – since Sir Archie was like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. It was next-level stuff; the kind of drop that rips-up everything that you thought you knew about beer, and reminds you that the possibilities are genuinely endless. Sir Archie is testament to Ben’s seemingly-limitless capacity for surprise and reinvention – and is hands-down my Beer of the Year thus far.
Our final beer had me on the edge of my seat – since it was none-other than Brew Hui Stout, v1.0. As scary a proposition as it was, I simply couldn’t turn-down an opportunity to pass a glass of my own sticky stuff under the nose of a living legend. And Ben didn’t disappoint; true-to-form, the hui quickly turned into Homebrew 101, at the School of Why Not:
All I can say is this: bring on Brew Hui Stout v2.0.
I’d been warned – by Yeastie Stu and Epic Luke – that I’d need a solid eight-hour hui with Ben to truly tap his rich vein of fascinating stories; and they were, of course, spot-on. Somehow, three-and-a-half hours just didn’t seem enough; it was as if I’d barely scratched the surface.
From shrapnel in Blenheim to Michael Jackson alumni, Ben Middlemiss may have been brewing since Adam was a Cowboy – but with exciting new offerings like Sir Archie and the pedigree of Nota Bene, this engineer is far from finished with the industry that he helped build.
Twitter: @jasegurney | Facebook: www.facebook.com/brewhui