In 1968, Stephen was a 14 year old Blenheim Boy who hitchhiked to Christchurch and back to buy the best beer ingredients available. It was the first time Steve had seen liquid yeast cultures available and green hops! The results of that first brew, with fresh ingredients (to a recipe by Ben Turner), was called 'Ben's Best Bitter' and was a Natural Breakthrough!
Naturally, when Stephen's best mate decided it was hoppy enough to label and sell to other Blenheim Boys...... and identified the brewer ...... it was just good marketing to say, “Yes. That's the brewer over there. He's Ben.” The name stuck and Ben Middlemiss was on the verge of a lifelong journey in the quest for knowledge and quality ingredients to make the next best beer.
He didn't. The name of his beer fridge was, and still is, Wayne. Ben moved to Australia in 1978 and began "brew in bladder" home brewing in Brisbane. Fortuitously, he soon met a pioneer of microbrewing in Australia. Graham Howard was putting together a micro-brewery in a local pub, and Ben was fortunate to be able to offer engineering advice. The two brewers formed a great friendship and Graham introduced Ben to BABBS. (Brisbane Amateur Beer Brewer's Society.) However, in inter-club competitions, two Germans, (Jurgen and ...yes....Jurgen), were hard to beat with their fine and wide-ranging variety of beers.
Naturally, Ben saw this as a real challenge to brew the best beer possible and take his turn on the podium. His next lucky break came when he met an invited guest speaker at the club, an expert on brewing-yeasts and microbiology. Peter Rogers and Ben formed an alliance. Ben made stout for Peter, in return for valuable knowledge and assistance in the art of yeast culturing. Ben's yeasts and the friendship flourished but one more thing was missing from the picture in order to produce the winning beer – a brewery!
Ben then embarked on regular visits to stainless steel scrap yards searching for likely looking objects. With welding and cutting help, he put together a mash-tun, brew kettle, heat exchanger and conical fermenter. The grainmill rollers were made by cutting down pieces of machined iron-bark from a 100 year old telegraph pole. Six sharpenings of the chainsaw later, and with an old washing machine motor and gearbox installed, Ben had a turning point!
It was not long before the Teutonic Twins were facing extremely tough competition and Ben went on to win several awards at State and National level. So when the British Beer Guru Michael Jackson visited on his 1992 brewery tour of South East Queensland, Ben fell into the role of being his local host and driver. As the two travelled they talked beer, as you do, and another firm friendship was forged. Michael introduced Ben to professional beer producers on the tour and as he held his own in the beer conversations they naturally assumed Ben was in the industry. Over lunch with Otto Haag, chief brewer for Four-X Breweries in Brisbane at the time, there reached a point in the conversation where it was only natural for him to ask Ben, 'So why aren't you brewing professionally?'
Within 6 months of Otto Haag's question, back in Blenheim, Ben's mother had spotted an article in the local newspaper about a group of businessmen starting up the first brewery to operate in town since W.W.2. After 14 years in Australia and with his young family, Ben packed up and moved back to Blenheim to take up his first fulltime brewing position.
With his engineering skills and vastly developed brew knowledge, he naturally mastered the brewing and handling of 10,000 litres per week and ultimately managed to produce over 1.3 million litres without loss for the Marlborough Brewing Company. The consultant believed this to be an unprecedented event and planted the seed that Ben should look towards running his own operation. In the meantime, on behalf of this brewery, Ben won The Best Small Brewery in Australasia award, several Golds, plus silver and bronze medals. In one of the Australian International Beer Awards, Ben won runner up to the Beer of Show, with his "Steam" beer being the second best overall entry chosen from a strong line-up of international entries. But a seed had been planted and second best wasn't Ben's best!
In 1995 after introducing his highly awarded 'Steam' beer, Ben decided to move on and become involved in an exciting new project; the design and building of the Steam Brewing Company – Cock and Bull in Auckland. As chief brewer and partner, Ben designed the brewery and commissioned an engineering friend, John Tennant, to construct it in his highly advanced, state-of- the-art workshop. The completed brewery was despatched from the South Island and sent up on massive truck trailers, (there were only two of these trucks in NZ back then), and still arrived at a competitive price and looking fabulous. Ben could hardly wait to get it installed and commissioned. Capable of producing over 2,750 litres per brew, it was soon kept busy coping with the demands of 8 different styles of beer. When a mainstream brewery rep came into the bar under construction and asked, "Where would you like our taps to go?" it was with great pleasure Ben was able to give his answer. "Nowhere!"
Again the accolades flowed for the products and by this stage Ben had accumulated over 24 international awards. The standards were always high and maintained at that level and each style developed its own devotees. Sadly for Ben, the stress of family life mixed with business lead to the collapse of his marriage and the business partnership, and he could not continue there and reap the rewards of his hard work and creative input. However, it was here he mentored a very eager initiate and contributed further to the renaissance of craft beer in NZ. Luke Nicholas continued brewing Ben's recipes for the Cock and Bull after he left and the beers continued to take international awards. Luke has of course since gone on from taking Ben's lessons and is using hops to new levels with his Epic Beers!
In 1997 Ben moved on to produce some individual and assertive beers; styles which were becoming forgotten. Without his own brewery, Ben approached Keith Galbraith of Galbraith's Ale House, with the hope of leasing his equipment in down-time periods to produce his own products. Mr Galbraith was more interested in being involved and so a partnership was formed and initially named the Antipodean Brewing Company, later to evolve into the Australis Brewing Co. Ltd. Ben had already formulated the 3 chosen styles:
1.Benediction - an 8.7% Abv. Abbey-style Ale. The name had come to Ben in a dream complete with the halos over the i's and was a play on his own name and his addiction – good beer! 2.Hodgson – a full-bodied 6.3% Abv India pale ale. The name was in honour of George Hodgson, a brewer instrumental in the brewing and export of IPA to the troops in India during the days of the Raj. 3.Romanov – a 7.8% Abv. full-bodied and complex Russian imperial stout. This name was in honour of the last of the Czars who would commission English brewers to produce the special beer to help fortify the imperial troops.
These 3 beers can be seen featured in Michael Jackson's 500 Great Classics and each was a winner in its own style. Benediction, however, was to be the beer selected for the highest honours and perhaps held in the deepest affection by Ben himself, and in the fondest taste bud memories of many the world over. There are even those who await its return!
Who knows what the future will bring but please note that Benediction was of a millennium past. Those of you who remember it so fondly are strongly recommended to get hold of Ben's latest signature beer - Nota Bene!