Niue — sixteen Steinlagers, a comparable number of dolphins, and a humpback whale

Steinlager Classic (Matapa Bar, 5 September 2016)
Steinlager #12 — celebrating a successful circumnavigation of the island

You know the usual Holiday Beer story — go to warm and/or sunny location; mooch around; enjoy the local pale lager; (re)discover the fun of blandness-as-a-virtue and enjoy a forceful reminder of the power of context1 — but mine’s a little different. After the frantic Festival Season subsided, Beer Diary HQ relocated for a week to Niue, which isn’t big enough to have its own brewery. So I drank Steinlager, instead.

With twelve-hundred residents — that’s 25% less people than attended the high school I went to — and a landmass just three times the size of Wellington Harbor,2 Niue is small. But it’s “small” like Earth is, relative to Solar System: it depends on how easy it is to get around, and how much there is to do while you’re there. Slightly-dodgy roads make the former slower-going than you’d think, by bike or by car, but there’s plenty of the latter to compensate.

Niue Steinlager #10 (at Washaway Cafe, near the southern boat ramp)
Steinlager #10 — at the southern boat ramp

Our most dramatic outing was a morning cruising around the coast, swimming with a pod of dolphins — including some weapons-grade-adorable foot-long infants — and just metres from a stonking great big humpback whale as it lazily surfaced for breath and relaxed on the ocean floor, still visible through absurdly clear water that made it feel like we were levitating in a weird blue universe.3 We also had an equally-unmissable (but way more low-key) trip inland for a guided tour of the island’s history and ecology with local legend Misa — including the near-infinite uses of coconut palms, ebony-spear warfare, and a tree-climbing uga crab as big as my head.4 Otherwise, we mostly meandered about, finding swimming spots or stunning limestone cave formations down just about every blue-signposted sea track.5 And we ate in that unsustainably-indulgent way that holidays basically require: there were a few excellent little spots,6 the fresh fish was always a good idea — and the Steinlagers were four or five dollars.7

Steinlager #3 — at the bar not-quite a hundred metres from bed
Steinlager #3 — at the bar not-quite a hundred metres from bed

For me, Steinlager is one of those guilty pleasures so enjoyable that it’s not really even guilty anymore. It’s probably my ‘mainstream’ beer of choice in New Zealand (depending, inevitably, on precisely how you define the m-word). That seems to shock some (fellow geeks and non)8 but it it’s a lovely and flavourful little lager-pilsner thing — just as dependable and even more widely-available than the same conglomerate’s Mac’s Hop Rocker or Emerson’s Pilsner. It seems to’ve fallen from grace and prestige, but I’d encourage people to give it another go. I certainly hated it when I first tried it as a teenager, but that’s no better a guide to anything than, say, grace or prestige. It’s got punch and presence and I don’t only enjoy it in the tropics.

Steinlager #5 — with the ruins of #4, and one of Em's
Steinlager #5 — standing in front of the ruins of #4 (and one of Em’s)

Its distinctive flavour comes from the Green Bullet hop, which is a criminally-overlooked thing, locally. You can find it name-checked frequently in beers around the world9 but neglected here at home; I can’t think of another brewer featuring it proudly and prominently, and I have no idea why. Its taste might have become bound-up in the mythical “Steinlager headache” — a bit of persistent old-school nonsense almost certainly accounted-for by the beer being a percentage point stronger than most New Zealand Draughts and other mainstream standbys10 — but overlooking it now is missing out: Green Bullet was dank before dankness was cool.11 Its delicious and unmistakable grassiness — in both the legal / lawnmowing and the prohibited / potsmoking senses12 — should be right up there with the passionfruit-burnout of Nelson Sauvin in terms of hop celebrity in the local scene, but you’re more likely to stumble upon it on holiday — in Steinlager or otherwise — and that’s a shame.

Your homework, then, is to try it (again) and see if you like it — as a drinker or brewer or both, whoever you are. Me, I’ll get back to idly pondering whether Niue really is big enough for a brewery, and whether I’d like to open it. I wasn’t only taking photos of Steinlagers while I was there; the place is pretty damn gorgeous:

Diary III entry #98
Diary III entry #98

Original Diary entry: Birthday Absence 30/08/16, again, thanks to the weirdness of timezones, and onwards. Niue! It’s warm + muggy and lovely and the Steinlager is $4. I’m catching up on notes on day three, and its become my holiday beer. The competition was mostly Speights + Tui, so I haven’t surprised myself. We’ve been biking around + swimming + on the lookout for coconut crabs. None yet. Hopefully whales today. Burgers last night were stupendous, even if they did mean biking home by phonelight. — And then again three nights after. Old pros, now. Still no moon. Sighted it today (Sat) nice to know it’s still there. A great many more Steinlagers. And so much fish. Two meals at Falala Fa, and two at Kaiika. Great stuff, both. Jumped in on a Kai Niue gig tonight, and met a wine salesman from Chch / Yealands. The booze business is everyone. We’ve also had a fair amount of wine this week. Tonight’s was his, but also a nice misc. sake, Matawhero Gewürtz and Chilean P.N. in the fale. Literally the cheapest on the island, that. Still good fun out of the fridge after biking home in the warm + utterly dark. Seriously, though, eat more fish. And try Misa’s poor-man’s lunch of pawpaw + coconut. — Now we’re at Washaway, one of the only places open on Sunday. Only Sunday, for them. Great place to watch a mother humpback and calf muck about in the bay — and some Muppet tourist who swam out to pester them. He’ll likely catch a fin to the face or a riptide to Tonga. I’ve lost count of the Steinlagers. Now now, I mean. It’s lunch. Just one. But generally. Counting back, I think this was #10. Make that #11. Not revising the count; adding to it. This isn’t the island for impatient + hangry diners. — Then one today at the relatively far-flung Matapa Bar, near that awesome chasm + served by a govt. minister, no less. We drove around the long way, post-whale-watch. From which we’re still a bit dazed. And finally [I wrote, before making a liar of myself with a nightcap and two at the airport the next day] #13, back at Falala Fa.

  1. Jess Ducey took a nice angle on the Usual Story in SOBA’s Pursuit of Hoppiness.
  2. Or, equally, if it’s more evocative: it’s like you could pick it up and fit it into Lake Taupo without touching the sides. I don’t have a handy metric for foreigners, sorry.
  3. Phil’s Half-assed Niue Guidebook: There’s two tour operators, with a not-so-friendly rivalry between them. Rough water caused a few cancellations and lead to us dealing with both — the trip that went ahead was with Buccaneer, but we found Magical Niue hugely professional as well. Niue’s got strong and respected rules about not bothering the cetaceans if they’re acting territorial or stressed or accompanied by young calves — which definitely takes the edge off the feeling of being an obnoxious monkey interloper in someone else’s ecosystem.
  4. Phil’s Half-assed Niue Guidebook: A few others will take you uga hunting, but Misa’s breadth and depth of knowledge is unparalleled. Book at the visitor’s center — with a day or two’s notice to let him get set up.
  5. Phil’s Half-assed Niue Guidebook: Matapa Chasm was easily the best and most-reliable (regardless of tides) swimming spot. Plus, it’s right next to the track to the magnificent Talava Arches. Avaiki cave and pools, closer to Alofi, were also gobsmackingly gorgeous.
  6. Phil’s Half-assed Niue Guidebook: Falala Fa was our hands-down three-visits favourite, and the sushi at Kaiika was bang on.
  7. Despite infrequent and labor-intensive shipping (given the shallow port), I’m guessing that’s down to a lack of sales and excise taxes.
  8. Local food bore David Burton once straight-up called me a liar for saying I drank such things.
  9. The first I noticed was Green Flash’s apparently-retired Green Bullet Triple IPA, but there are literally thousands of hits on an Untappd search for that name — lots, even allowing generously for homebrews and coincidences.
  10. The 5% level was, in many ways, the mark of “premium” in the Dark Ages of the nineties. And if you don’t believe me that the difference between 5% and 4% ABV is (practically, and surprisingly) huge, then remind me to run you through my Session Beer Maths some time. Curiously, the Steinlager on Niue, which was export-branded and ready for sale in Hawai’i, was declared as 4.8%. I have no idea if that means there’s two production streams, or if it’s actually 4.8% in NZ as well (which would be within allowable accuracy limits for labelling), or what the hell’s going on with that.
  11. There’s a good little explainer of the term here. The usual beer-geek But In A Good Way caveat applies; no need to get rid of it.
  12. I once had a stranger ask me if I had any weed, seemingly entirely on the smell of it around me as I drank one in a bar. But no. I’m liberal about these things, but that’s not one of my drugs.

Have at it: