Ben Middlemiss is a stalwart of New Zealand brewing. With achievements including starting the iconic Cock & Bull pub, getting three beers listed in Michael Jackson’s seminal Great Beer Guide (that’s more than Chimay for the record) and now working on his own range of specialty brews. He chatted with Beer & Brewer about his long career and where he’s going in the future.
Silly question first – Who is Stephen? Where did Ben come from? And should we call you Steve or Ben?
I was born Stephen. I became widely known as Ben at high school when I started making a beer called Ben’s Best Bitter which was modelled on a recipe by Ben Turner, an English beer writer. In the beer world I’ve been known as Ben ever since. I happily answer to both Steve and Ben.
What first triggered your desire to start brewing?
The wines that I was producing at home were getting consumed too quickly by my mates and the waiting time between vintages was too great so I decided I needed to make something that could be turned around a bit faster. It also seemed like no one was able to make good homebrew at the time so it became an enjoyable challenge trying to discover the secrets of making good beer. That was when I was 14.
How and why did you come to get involved in Cock & Bull?
In 1995 after brewing 10,000 litres of beer a week for the previous three years at The Marlborough Brewing Company I started to feel a bit trapped and limited and felt the need to get out and be a bit more inventive. So I formed a partnership with my brother in law and a school friend of his in a quest to establish our own business. The other partners were keen on making an Irish themed bar but I was keen to go for an English style pub. I put the name Cock & Bull forward and set about creating and brewing about 10 different beer styles.
Why was it important to have a pub that didn’t sell mainstream beer?
It was about the beer. I wanted to be able to produce high quality craft beer. Back in the 1990’s we were one of the pioneers in New Zealand craft brewing and we wanted to open people’s minds a bit to try something that most beer drinkers hadn’t had the chance to. It was a huge challenge due to the dominance of the major breweries. I’d been influenced while living in Brisbane by Graham Howard’s amazing efforts at the Waterloo Brewhouse where I’d experienced firsthand the enjoyment of patrons drinking craft beer for the first time.
How did it feel to have your beers (with Australis I believe?) named in Michael Jackson’s list? (And to have more listed than Chimay to boot!) They copped some pretty high praise!
It was absolutely amazing, and it still is. Michael and I became fairly close friends. I met him at Graham Howard’s house in Brisbane in 1992 when I was asked to take him on a tour of Queensland’s breweries to which I gladly accepted. I always held Michael in very high regard and to have three of my beers included in one of his books was a great honour and always will be!
What was your interest in brewing beers that you perceived to be almost lost styles?
The three beer styles that I brewed which appeared in Michael’s book were all individual and assertive in their own way yet had been dropped from the portfolios of the major breweries a long time ago. I wanted to resurrect them! In the case of Benediction, I formulated and brewed it because I simply loved Belgian Trappist Ales. Also with Hodgson and Romanov, a big part of it was the history and story surrounding their origins. Beers with this complexity of flavour were rarely available in the southern hemisphere.
Is Nota Bene really just like the famed Benediction?
In short yes. For legal reasons we were forced to change the name. I am gradually tweaking the flavour profile as I am acutely aware of the right balance of flavours and people’s likes and dislikes. This ever constant quest for excellence is one of the main reasons for the success of my beers over the years.
What is next for Ben Middlemiss Brewing?
We have evolved into a family business with my partner Jo and son and stepson, Phil and Tim respectively, all becoming equally passionate about the industry. There are many exciting new brews planned, some traditional and some rather innovative. We are planning to bring out our imperial Baltic stout “Romanov” based on the original recipe from Michael’s book soon. I can’t keep the passion bridled for experimenting and creating new brews. Recently I’ve been revisiting a beer I last played with in the 90’s that uses the flowers from Gorse, a thorny bush common in New Zealand since being introduced by colonists as a form of stock control. The flowers impart a delicious coconut and peppery flavour and aroma but are a pain in the ass to harvest! Lucky for me, my son Tim and my stepson Phil have been harvesting them for me! They’re also passionate amateur brewers and really helping to grow the business side of Ben Middlemiss Brewing.