It’s been a while since I’ve had the usual pint on Saint Patrick’s Day. Aside from a general indifference to tradition and a specific aversion to the way that holiday’s been borrowed and bastardised and bent into an excuse for problematic daydrinking — I’ve also got a particular gripe against Guinness for so completely overshadowing the way so many people think about dark beer or anything on Nitro, let alone both.
You hear it all the damn time, as a bartender: “Not sure what I feel like, really; I like all beer, so long as it’s not dark” or (on seeing you offer a taster of black beer) “So it’s like Guinness, is it?” or (less confidently, on noticing how the bubbles settle in a pint of Nitro or handpulled beer) “So, is it like Guinness..?” It’s maddening. And I like Guinness,1 occasionally. Now, at least. I hated it when I first tried it, as a teenager, and I suspect that’s a common-enough thread in other peoples’ lives that it accounts for the strangehold Guinness has on the imagination. In reality, it’s a weird beer, right at one end of the “black beer spectrum”, if we must posit such a thing: it’s dry and roasty, relatively strongly flavoured for its light body, which in turn clashes with those Nitrogen bubbles to give it that paradoxical thick-but-thin texture. In trying to help people navigate the wide world of beer,2 I spend a frustrating amount of time pushing back against its colossal mindshare.
So none for me on March 17, thanks. I do like a Nitro stout, though. And nearly following a tradition felt somehow like more of a thumb in its eye than avoiding it entirely, so I was fortunate to learn that Garage Project’s ‘Aro Noir’ was on the Nitro tap at Shepherd, over the road from work. So I ambled over after I signed off and sat down for one in that cute heavy-crystal tumbler — and then another in a ceramic mug, why not. It was gorgeous. Restful and restoring, it was interestingly different from its usual self, which is half the fun of serving beers this way: it’s like the dials on all the flavour settings get spun a little, lifting some notes, suppressing others, and settling somewhere else that might3 work nicely. For me, this did, and it was just a charming companion — along with an excellent book and an amiable bartender4 — for the lull between my shift ending and the restaurant getting busy.
Just before I’d left Golding’s, though, we’d tapped our first keg in ages of Stone & Wood ‘Pacific Ale’,5 which — if you really made me choose — might just be my favourite beer. So I couldn’t not go back for one of those. The bar was pleasantly deserted, in relative terms, for a Friday night: Saint Patrick’s Day had crammed the people into the knock-off-Irish bars, or perhaps already exhausted the stamina of the daydrinkers.6 One beer again turned into two, as I rambled with a regular about movies, and joined in a few conversations over the bar between new staff and confused customers about just what the hell a “Pacific Ale” might be. Perhaps one day it’ll be as synonymous with the New South Wales coast as Guinness currently is with Dublin — though hopefully without the unfortunate assumptions that’d lead it to similarly colour everyone’s mental image of “hazy golden beer” or “beer with some wheat in it”7 — but for now it’s mostly one of those words that you define by pointing: it’s one of them, or something like it.
Eventually emboldened by such a gradually-social evening, I walked down to Malthouse, predictably the busiest non-Irish-themed bar in town since it was playing host to its annual Sour Fest. There, a sizable crowd put another dent in the notion that sour beer is only the fringe concern of ‘hipsters’ — a trope that just won’t die, for some writers — as they worked through a dozen or so examples of various takes on the genre, such as it is. I tried a varied few: Garage Project’s ‘Plum Plum Plum’ (from the fruited-up gose-ish-thing subspecies), Emerson’s ‘St. Wickliffe’ (their take on a lambic and another good sign that creativity hasn’t been lost in their assimilation into the Lion Conglomerate), and North End’s ‘Blanco’ (aged in sherry barrels) — all were fun in their own ways and it was heartening to see the place I’d worked for so many years, so many years ago, still heaving. It was an excellent, open-minded crowd; one of those festival-esque rooms where “so, which one did you get?” makes the perfect icebreaker.
What started as a smooth-bubbled glass of black beer on my own as the vaguest of sarcastic nods to someone else’s tradition thereby morphed, enjoyably if unexpectedly, into several louder glasses of beer in a large group of like-minded people. Which is, I suppose, very much in the spirit of Saint Patrick’s Day, if not according to the letter. I’ll take that.
Original Diary entry: Aro Noir on Nitro 17/3/17 @ Shepherd. Never not hunting for Nitro beers other than you-know-what. I still have happy flashbacks to London Porter at Backbencher with Jono. I’ve had one in chunky crystal already, and couldn’t resist another in ceramic. Gives it a lovely snap, somehow. So fun how all the knobs on the flavour profile just get spun a bit this way and that. Citrus + roast down, [coffee, I meant] + smooth chocolate up.
- And Guinness, admittedly, deserves massive historical credit (apparently; I’m not a historian and can’t vet these things) for the introduction of Nitro, but it’s an independently-existing thing, now, and shouldn’t be tied to its origins.
- You know, when people ask me to, over the bar or in tastings or whatnot — I’m not just going around railing about this stuff like a snobbish boor. At least, I hope not.
- Or might not, of course; try it and see. Subjectivity and all that. Why some people have to be a berk about it and complain about these taps like they’re some kind of war crime is entirely beyond me.
- My former colleague Nick — also a fellow Malthouse veteran — whose untarnished enthusiasm for this business always does a frequently-jaded old cynic like me real good to see.
- On account of the brewery struggling to keep up with demand and local distribution being a little weird (very Auckland-centric, which makes a certain sense) since it, at last, recently resumed.
- I should say: there’s not a damn thing wrong with a bit of daydrinking, usually. But en masse and on account of a stereotype-laden rendition of a national / religious holiday that probably isn’t the participants’ nation or religion, statistically speaking? That seems like a bad reason.
- Which is definitely a topic for another time soon, given the similarly cacophonous confusion around “wheat beer” as a category.