Station Ident: Midnight Maß

A Hofbrau stein, technically. (My house, 25 January 2015)
NB — photo quite-fittingly not contemporaneous. But it’s always midnight somewhere.

Some beers turn out more symbolic than you intend. I’m an avowed fan of the Occasion Beer — a drink somehow keyed the moment of its drinking by whatever punning or poignant link of timing or theme takes your fancy — and decided I’d end my shift on Christmas Eve with a Midnight Mass of good-old bog-standard German lager. (Geddit? It’s a homonym. A late-night religious observance and a one-litre serving size, most familiar from Octoberfest. Right? Anyway. I make precisely zero apologies.) But the day, like a great many of them in the tail end of the year, got busy and got away from me and left me underenthused at the prospect of four standard drinks before bed just for the very-minor joke of it. Midnights, though, do just keep coming around fairly regularly. And so, after a much-calmer shift on New Year’s Eve1 — and a few very-civilised beers at Malthouse on the way home — my first Beer Diary entry for 2016 was this. On reflection, it nicely encapsulated the year before — it was big, enjoyable, pleasantly exhausting, admirably simple and uncomplicated, and just generally a fine idea delayed (but not defeated) by circumstance.

Two ulitmately-neglected Hofbraus. (Golding's Free Dive, 24 December 2015)
The original plan: Hofbraux and a big-ass mass.

2015 included a great-many wonderful beer-related moments, for me. Not enough of them happened here on the blog, for my liking, but still. It’s lovely being back on the front lines and bartending again, there’s a steady stream of people for whom to host tours and tastings2, and I had buckets of fun giving talks in front of festival-going beer drinkers and conferences of food writers and historians and such. It’s a privilege to be able to cobble-together a (vaguely) financially-viable life out of all this — and to remain entirely capable of enjoying beer in its many forms from cheerful and companionable to cerebral and challenging. And the genuinely-delightful thing is that there’s just always more to do and to learn and to discover. Roll on another year of that.

I’m Phil Cook, and I’ve been keeping a Beer Diary for twelve years. It’s never once felt in danger of being close to finished.

Diary III entry #69: A Midnight Maß
Diary III entry #69: A Midnight Maß

Original Diary entry: A Midnight Maß — 31/12/15 – 1/1/16 @ home, after a work-filled end-of-year. 1L of Höfbrau Original in a stein, I suppose, rather than a maß as such. Not sure. That’s a lot of liquid, nevermind a lot of beer. Delicious, though, in its way. RESOLVED: Use this more often. Most-recent entry in October is inexcusable. 2015 was an excellent year of transition. More to do. Unfinished. As it ever is. This litre is, but. At last. I feel like a videogame character after a [drinking] montage. The controls don’t respond quite right. Ah well. ’tis the weekend at last.

The Fun Of Missing Out

The Wheatsheaf, Adelaide (photo by Em, 8 November 2015)
The Wheatsheaf — one of the nicest pubs to which I’ve never been

A version of this post originally appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of SOBA’s quarterly magazine Pursuit of Hoppiness. The idea came to me during a guest spot on the Ale Of A Time podcast — though I didn’t realise at the time that I could just reuse and rework the standard acronym — and I was recently reminded of the point while Em was on holiday last week and managed to visit the Wheatsheaf (in Adelaide) before me and without me.

The Fear Of Missing Out is an ancient impulse made ever-sharper and more problematic by modern communications technology bringing news of happenings that are too far-flung or ill-timed, or both, to personally enjoy. It crops up often in the beer world, often rendered as “FOMO”1 — both for brevity’s sake and to encompass the wider emotions of anxiety, sadness, and jealousy that also so-naturally accompany missing out. But let’s recalibrate our f-word, so to speak.

Start with the realisation that what you do experience will always be dwarfed, by orders of magnitude, by what you don’t. Accept, first, this inevitable Fact Of Missing Out. Then realise that this is true of and among all of us; I’ll only ever experience a tiny fraction of what you get to, and vice versa. Somewhere down this path, with practice, lies the Fun Of Missing Out. As well as “responsibly” and “in moderation”, you can enjoy beer vicariously. Which is handy, because everyone is missing out on something. And that’s fine.

This may sound a bit rich coming from someone in Wellington, a town that sometimes seems to get more than its share of the fun. What we have here is worth celebrating and/or visiting, and its (ongoing) creation took the sustained effort of a diverse group of people over a few decades of hard and risky work. But there’s nothing particularly freakish about this place, no secret ingredient blowing in on the wind. Great things are possible everywhere; indeed, they’re happening all over.

But keep in mind that local greatness is always unique. The things that make your place wonderful aren’t mandatory markers of success for somewhere else. Wellington is an amazing spot to drink beer, but we (mostly) lack the deep history you can find in towns further afield, we (mostly) lack the neighbourhood-anchoring brewpubs of Auckland and Christchurch, and more generally it’d be fair to say that our richness in bars masks a relative dearth of pubs ― if you know what I mean by the difference. So it’s always a thrill to hear about what’s going on elsewhere. It gives new perspective on what you do have, and it’s comforting to know that plenty of awesomeness awaits stumbling-upon when you next get a chance to travel the country, or indeed the world.

A rich ecosystem is characterised by diversity, and diversity all the way down is best.2 We don’t need to aspire to the same experience in each region, or festival, or neighbourhood, or even venue. Better to have a freaky fractal than a homogenous blob. Subtle little flows of inspiration, product, and personnel (in all directions) will keep things evolving and everywhere will benefit. But it entails a lot of Missing Out for us individual drinkers.

All we need to do is adjust our mindset. Just as we should all resist letting our beer-geeky enthusiasm mutate into snobbery (which is both needlessly cruel to non-geeks, and anyway counter productive in ‘spreading the gospel’, as it were), we should guard against letting our regional ‘patriotism’ slip into xenophobia. Let us all be more cosmopolitan in our cheerleading. There’s treasure everywhere. Find the stories of what’s happening near you, and tell them. Make me jealous that I’m missing out. I genuinely love it.

91 Aro Street — a backstage pass to Garage Project’s bar

Main mural (91 Aro St, 15 October 2015)
The main mural, though other art and easter eggs abound
Front door (91 Aro Street, 15 October 2015)
An open door, at last

Way back in August 2011, the Beer Diary Podcast’s first ‘away mission’ took place in the then-fledgling Garage Project, er, garage. Yesterday, George and I were invited to record another at the ‘dress rehearsal’ test-run of their new bar just up (and over) the road — which opens today. As it turned out,1 I spent most of the four year stretch between episodes actually working at the brewery myself and though the idea for this place was locked in a while ago, I didn’t personally work on it and not much non-paperwork progress had been made before I left. So it was a real treat to drop in and see what they’d been up to on the eve of this, their latest Next Big Thing. The episode will be online soon2 and disclaimers ahoy, obviously, given my lengthy association with the company and the fact we were there on a special invite and drinking on their dime, but I just wanted to share a few photos and some brief first impressions — because the place is a) gorgeous and b) interesting.

Garage Project 'White Mischief' (91 Aro Street, 15 October 2015)
Mirror mischief

It’s tiny, for a start, and that put me very much in mind of the 24/24 series that the brewery itself started with;3 a little bar, so close to the mothership, will let them tinker in the open and test and evolve ideas before spawning bigger operations further afield — whether that’s downtown, or overseas, or one, then the other. Launching a much-larger venue as their first bar would’ve been entirely feasible, given their level of success, but this fits with how they’ve done things before and feels very them. The decoration takes cues from their sprawling family of label artwork and the design is reminiscent-enough of their existing cellar door, so it all hangs together well already and should be even nicer once it’s lived-in a while and the final touches are finished off. Aro Valley has until now lacked a local, as well, so it’ll be fascinating to see how the locals react and to gradually get to know a few of the soon-to-be regulars.

Garage Project 'Rum & Raisin' (91 Aro Street, 15 October 2015)
Rum & Raisin and taps

Among its quirks, I have my early bets for which will prove problematic and need revision and what’ll be a hit and radiate out among other bars — their own and otherwise. How they’re serving their beers looks hugely promising; gorgeous glassware,4 a broad range (eighteen taps, with two handpulls inbound from the UK and a dedicated cask fridge to supply them), with lines at different temperatures, and the ability control gas pressure and mix for each beer thanks to some nice hardware like adjustable taps and a Flux Capacitor — a fitting thing to get going in October 2015. So my White Mischief (a 2.9% peach gose) was cold and had lively carbonation, emphasising its snappy acidity, while the Rum & Raisin was considerably warmer and softer, which works nicely for something so dark and rich and boozy. Garage Project always makes a splash at festivals with unique ways of presenting beer; the famous fire-poker porter, the ‘flat white’ blend of coffee stout and nitro cream ale, IPA slushies, beer ice cream, and such.5 This place will let them do that more regularly and more broadly, to resurrect favourite old tricks, and prototype new ones. Win-win-win. The only sticking point — especially for locals and, um, normals dragged along by pilgrims — might be the non-beer. There’s the locally-ubiquitous Six Barrel Soda, but currently all the booze in the building is GP-brewed. An on-license in New Zealand mandates the availability of a sub-2.5% beer, so they brewed one (and it’s great, actually), but there’s no wine or spirits at all, for the simple reason that there’s (as yet!)6 no GP winery or distillery. It’s a bold move, and one worth trying7 — and if too many mixed groups balk at it the brewery has at least done enough work with other producers that bringing their stuff in to fill any gaps could still feel cozy and focussed enough.

It’s awesome to see the increasingly-numerous staff so excited, and to see the founders so chuffed that such cool fruits are sprouting from years of slog. Welcome to the world, 91 Aro Street; you’ll be an excellent little addition to the many maps I scribble for people at bars and tastings.

Beer taps (91 Aro Street, 15 October 2015)
Tall taps and tiny tiles and lovely brass and laboratory glass

Buyouts and reactions-to-buyouts

'Crash of the Titans', artist's conception of the night sky during an Andromeda-Milky Way merger (Public domain, credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), and A. Mellinger)
Now that’s a merger

So last week, Asahi bought Mountain Goat. And earlier this month Heineken bought half of Lagunitas, then the company which makes Budweiser acquired something called Golden Road, and just under three years prior to that Emerson’s was subsumed within Lion.1 Meanwhile: Russia re-annexed Crimea, Pixar has so far spent a decade in the belly of Disney, India smack-merged with the Eurasian Plate fifty-million-or-so years back and (geologically speaking) threw up the Himalayas, and in four billion years our galaxy will non-violently combine with Andromeda and send countless millions of worlds swirling into new orbits until something else supermassive comes along ― plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.

The details, ultimately, don’t hugely concern me.2 It’s all very much business as usual and the same old ebb and flow that’s been going on for yonks. It’d be PhD-level economics to figure out if it’s ‘ultimately’ been good or bad for consumer choice, and I suspect the answer is somewhere in the vicinity of “a little of both, from place to place and time to time, and basically a wash in the end”. As for the latest pair of newsworthy sellers and buyers, I have fond memories of Mountain Goat (but no real ongoing adoration) and Asahi are just another conglom (but aren’t on my boycott list since their machinations don’t seem anything beyond par for the course)3 ― so my reaction was a combination of a quiet huh, an eyebrow-raise, and a lazy shrug.4

For now, I just want to note that you don’t have to “wait and see” with these things. It is perfectly okay to decide that you’ll never again buy a Mountain Goat beer, just as it was totally legitimate for Hashigo Zake to stop buying Emerson’s as soon as the sale contract was signed. They were wrongly criticised for a “knee-jerk reaction” and encountered a strange kind of meta-snobbery that accused them of being pretentious when they were just pretty-obviously following a long-stated principle of only stocking “independent” beer, which Emerson’s suddenly wasn’t. If you care about ownership, you can make your decision on the day you learn about a change in ownership ― indeed, it’d be weird if you didn’t. People blindly predicting that the beer will be ruined are exactly as wrong as people dogmatically insisting that it’s (only) the flavour in the glass that counts. Ownership and scale don’t logically or historically correlate with quality and any number of buyouts have seen it improve5 ― but other things are relevant, if you want them to be.6 I’m not personally an absolutist on this, but you can have your own priorities. The pile of possible factors-to-consider is vast and includes regional origin, aesthetics, price, the people involved, the tenor of their marketing, and of course ownership and taste. Do with them (all!) what you will.

And yes, making buying decisions based on corporate ownership will always be fraught with tensions if not outright contradictions ― as Rob Ruminski succinctly pointed out ― but that’s just the way of it. Moral purity is probably impossible in the messy world of modern capitalism, but you set your own threshold and tolerance and you do your best.7 The hard part, most of the time, is actually learning the facts about these matters given how hard many companies work to obfuscate their origins. Here, there’s an announcement and everything. So it’s fine to react to that, as-is.

An anniversary — and an accidental cellar

Accidental cellar census (My house, 23 September 2015)
Notes from a cupboard census

The weekend was the fifth anniversary of, well, this thing. It was Sunday1 the 26th of September, 2010, when I first hit the ‘Publish’ button on anything here. I’ve since done so three hundred and forty times,2 for an overall rate of one post every five or six days — which just shows you the nonsense you can bury under an average. In truth, my activity here has fluctuated wildly, as has what you might call the mandate or mission. The initial intent was for this to be simply a backed-up and searchable version of the original, which itself was born about five years earlier when I scribbled the first-ever entry and transmogrified a blank notebook into a Beer Diary.3 On finally filling those pages and starting in on my second volume, five years and twenty-three days ago, I wanted to scan and upload its predecessor for safekeeping — and on account of the fact that you can’t grep dead trees.

What started as ‘Afterthoughts’ to that project quickly took over,4 though the Diaries still exist, gathering notes and bearing witness to my primary impressions of a beer or festival or whatnot. The revised and broadened nature of, well, this thing slowly found an audience and even picked up an award. But with a shift in my “day job” (to an actual day job), productivity here waned; the switch in what energy was used up during the day and what was left to burn off saw my swimming and gardening increase and writing time decline.5 I’m still attempting to rebalance all that again, with mixed success.

But anyway, I was put in mind of all of this — i.e., these five years and the utterly marvellous and/or baffling beers and occurrences and best-of-all people that have been bound up therein — by (of all things) a spot of spring cleaning a few days ago. In the kitchen cupboards at home was an unexpected trove of bottles that spanned such a swathe of time that I idly wondered if it covered the entirety of this thing’s existence and so had to look up the dates. And lo, here we are. And yes, they do. The Beer Diary started its life6 as a memory aid. Fitting, then, that a steady accumulation of forgotten things would furnish an excuse to think back, try to remember how these nearly-three-dozen bottles came to comprise my stash — and ponder what to do with them. Because some beers really do age spectacularly gracefully and can sublimely cap off an occasion. Others, of course, do not. Time, then, for a census of my accidental cellar, to see what it says about the last few years.

Unintentional stash (My house, 23 September 2015)
Accidentals, assemble!

Continue reading An anniversary — and an accidental cellar

The beer-media baseline

I spent a few hours on Saturday in the beer-bunker that is Hashigo Zake, in the company of two-dozen-or-so like-minded folks and enjoying the Brewers Guild Awards beaming at us from Auckland over a mercifully-dependable livestream. It was a properly marvellous occasion,1 and the Guild (with new host, Hilary Barry) put on a great show. It’s truly heartening to see the gradual evolution of the industry, particularly the maturation of the “craft”2 corner thereof as it becomes less of a niche or subculture and settles into being just part of the landscape. But as if on cue, two abysmal videos surfaced late last week3 — both from TV3’s ‘Story’ program — to remind us how far we have to go in terms of generalised acceptance and understanding. If you can stand the cringe, I think they’re worth watching for how instructively shallow and terrible they are.

Screenshot from
Apples, oranges, and a silly hat

The first is styled as a taste-off between craft beer and quote-unquote “normal beer”, with the former signified by hats, hipsters and IPA and the latter bluntly equated with lager. Through four rounds of anonymous beers from unidentified styles served in a misnamed bar (“Beer Brothers”), the contestants follow their tired generational stereotypes and spend a suprisingly long time saying not very much of substance. The comparisons, kept completely mysterious, don’t really illuminate anything: were the beers they put up against each other even trying to do similar things or was this pure apples-to-oranges time-wasting that forgot that everything is best in its right place and something calm and friendly isn’t automatically inferior to some-other-thing attention-grabbing and audacious? Who the hell knows?

Screenshot from
Heineken and other nonsense

Weirder and worse, though, is the rambling chat with Scott McCashin.4 It puts the “taste-test” piece to shame in terms of its wordy emptiness, with bonus side orders of contradiction and claptrap. The website dutifully regurgitates McCashin’s nonsense claim to being New Zealand’s first craft brewery — a boast which rings hollow whatever your definition of that contentious term5 — and you could easily come away from listening to the piece knowing a lot less than you did going in. It’s an absolute mess: mainstream beers are all ‘thinner’ and brewed with ‘less ingredients’ and perhaps particularly ‘less hops’, seemingly across the board — and Heineken fills a strange duel role as the name-dropped example of something flavourless and disappointing and the hoppy interesting thing that started a revolution. Craft beer, he says, “doesn’t have sugar added” which will come as a huge shock to generations of Belgians and Brits and others — if you don’t understand that sugar isn’t an inherently evil ingredient and can be used to make certain types of beer more enjoyable (rather than merely for cost-cutting) then you need to stop “educating” the public immediately and maybe reconsider whether this is the right business for you. Scott’s sole good point about the wide appeal of craft beer is lost under a mountain of muck and the reporter does nothing to tease out any clarity or coherence, instead belaboring a weird analogy about religion and dragging out the old “extreme beer is for hipsters” trope. His late realisation that all this uncritical dreck amounts to a mere ad is depressingly tossed aside.

Both of these pieces should’ve been spiked. There’s just no there there, in either of them. They add precisely nothing, merely reinforcing old clichés and (worse) muddying the water. The latter, in particular, is hopefully an embarrassment to the producer, editor, reporter and subject alike. If the brewery are delighted with it, or the Brewers’ Guild and/or their PR firm have chalked these up as marketing wins,6 then excuse me while I despair. There is a lot of good stuff going on in the beer-related and beer-adjacent media.7 Some of it, to my delight, percolates into the mainstream and is presented to diverse new eyeballs. But we all need to do more, and do it better, to break through the stereotypes and misinformation and nonsense.

Trophies and truth-telling

Last weekend, a small army of judges assembled in Christchurch to assess a considerably-larger army of entries in the annual round of the local Brewers’ Guild Awards.1 We won’t know the results until next weekend2 but ― SPOILER ALERT ― Tui will not win the trophy for New Zealand styles. I don’t say this because I have any form as a gambler or guesser of these things, nor because it doesn’t deserve to score highly in the peculiar context of how beers are judged against predefined styles. Instead, it’s ruled out of trophy contention thanks to a new rule ― well, new-ish; it seems it was enacted last year, but I didn’t notice,3 and didn’t see anyone else mention it, but I think it’s worthy of some attention and some applause.

Brewers Guild of New Zealand 2015 Awards Guide
Truth in trophy-giving

“A beer will not be eligible to win a trophy if the commercial name of the entry stylistically differs from the class it was entered in,” says the new4 rule. So Tui, a brown lager which fits squarely into the New Zealand Draught category despite being feverishly marketed as an “East India Pale Ale”5 can’t add to its small collection of silverware. Likewise there’ll be no more European Lager Styles trophies for the vienna lager which Speight’s dress up as “Distinction Ale”. And maybe there’s a case to be made that Boundary Road’s Haägen ― which wears a German flag and generally looks as if it’s trying to sneak into a bar using Beck’s driver’s licence as ID6 ― should see the end of its winning ways in the “New Zealand-style lager” category.

The general justification, anyhow, is solid: once you admit that the awards aren’t entirely an inwards-looking game that the industry just plays among itself, and instead you acknowledge that some non-zero fraction of the beer-buying public also gives a damn about them, then some kind of gatekeeping obligation kicks right in. It admittedly wouldn’t make the top million in a list of the world’s most-pressing problems, but beer producers have a longrunning habit of fudging the terminology around styles and processes when it suits them, and it really does get in the way of wider and deeper public knowledge which, in turn, presents an obstacle to more people more-easily finding more beers they’ll love. As people at the geekier end of the spectrum ― if not outright bending the needle on the nerd detector ― it’s all too natural for us to assume that “everyone” can see through the nonsense of some marketing departments, but spend a little while bartending or hosting tastings (as I, you know, do) and you’ll see how depressingly common assumptions like “yellow = lager, black = Guinness, anything in-between = ale” are, and how they get in the way of people’s tastes evolving ― in whatever direction and to whatever degree they feel like, of course. Misinformation is no good for nobody.

Malthouse blackboards (1 September 2009)
A lifetime ago, in beer years ― the Malthouse blackboard celebrating Tui’s 2009 trophy win (as a way to troll me for my birthday) plus several bonus cute little anachronisms

The tricky bit here is the two inevitable slippery slopes:7 1) how strictly to police this ― whether it really is just names and really is just outright contradictions that disqualify, or if implications as to styles in the wider presentation of a beer also counts (such as the label text, marketing bumf, and sales material ― where quite a few black lagers are gently implied to be, say, porters) ― but more-pressingly, 2) why just trophies, and not also medals and the mere participation in this process at all? The first question is of the kind that’s always hard to solve, but the second seems pretty plain; the same reasoning which now denies Tui its trophy should also hold back a medal.

And in fairness, this nonsense is perhaps starting to fade. Monteith’s “Winter Ale”, a frequently-award-winning doppelbock, is now actually marketed as a doppelbock. This, remember, from the same conglomerate that so consistently misrepresents Tui.8 These terms all mean something, and it’s not hard to imagine a future in which they might be more dependably informative ― which, again, would benefit just literally everyone. That the Brewers’ Guild has decided to more-carefully dole out the prestige of its trophies with this in mind is an excellent start.9 But only a start.

Tastings and ramblings and whatnot