Give most blokes a beer and they’re happy. Give Anton Legg the dregs from a mis-pour and the spent grains from the brewing process and he’s beside himself with excitement.
Legg, head chef at Wellington gastropub Fork & Brewer talks about brewing by-products with the sort of appetite most people reserve for the amber nectar itself.
After joining the Bond St establishment a year ago, he realised the wastage involved when kegs were changed and started thinking about what could be done with it.
“Every time we clean the taps you have to pour off a litre of beer, and there’s only so much beer batter you can make for fish and chips,” he explains.
“So I started doing a bit of reading and decided we could start making vinegar. Now the guys know to collect the beer for me when we change the kegs or clean out the taps. There’s no such thing as a mis-pour any more, it all gets collected and put in the chiller.”
Starting the “mother” (the beneficial bacteria that turns alcohol into acetic acid) was a bit of trial and error, but Legg has made three boutique beer vinegars so far – a pale ale vinegar, a black beer version and a stout reduction. The vinegars are silky, flavoursome and almost drinkable.
“A classic malt vinegar is about 2.6 on the pH scale, whereas these ones are 3.4 to 3.6 so they’re much less acidic,” he says.
“Craft brewers put so much effort into producing their beer and it’s got so many flavours that it’s just great to work with.”
Legg has a gin and tonic vinegar in his sights next, using New Zealand-made Quina Fina tonic water. But the success of his little experiment, and the fact that brewing is expected to start at the bar this month, means he now has to look for another site for his vinegar factory.
“We started doing the vinegar in a little storeroom out the back, but you can’t really have bacteria and brewing done in the same place.”
Still, the start of brewing will make it easier for Legg to source one of his other new favourite products, the spent grains left over from the beer-making process.
Legg started experimenting with the grains, which are usually discarded after the first stage of brewing, after a chance remark from a Tuatara Brewery rep.
“As a chef you think, well, there’s got to be something we can do with this. So I took some home and went hard-out. I tried making pasta with it, I made bread that was like a brick, then I realised there were other ways of using it.”
Legg takes the spent grains, which are most often used as horse or pig feed, then dries them in the oven and grinds them to a gritty powder before using them in a spicy dry rub for chicken wings or in crackers.
“It started off as a bit of a gimmick, but now they’re doing really well, people just love them.”
His other big beer-related project at the moment is perfecting his answer to the country’s great Marmite shortage.
“A customer came in at the height of the whole Marmageddon thing and we were talking about how Marmite used brewer’s yeast,” he explains. “He challenged me to make some of my own and I thought, well, they were making Marmite 160 years ago in a pot called a marmite, so I should be able to figure it out.”
Legg won’t divulge his recipe, but reveals his testing involved brewer’s yeast and a duct-taped crockpot set on low for 24 hours. The result looks just like the real thing but slightly runnier and with a more caramelised flavour.
“The boys in the kitchen call it ‘chef’s gold’,” he laughs. “They know they’re not allowed to touch it.”
Legg, 39, grew up in Upper Hutt and has been working in the hospitality industry since the age of 18, “polishing the brass door handles at Bellamy’s in the days when there were 40 chefs for 90-odd MPs”.
He still lives in the Hutt Valley with his partner of 12 years and says he owes his interest in food to his parents, who ‘grew everything they could and foraged for the rest’. Legg has followed their lead.
There will be little time for hunting and gathering this weekend though – he is presiding over a sold-out seven-course beer degustation dinner on Tuesday as part of Visa Wellington On A Plate.
And he’ll be busy dispensing spent- grain-rubbed chicken wings, homemade porter marshmallows rolled in toasted coconut, and Barmite and cheese scrolls at Beervana next weekend.