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 know the usual Holiday Beer story — go to warm and/or sunny location; mooch around; enjoy the local pale lager; (re)discover the fun of blandness-as-a-virtue and enjoy a forceful reminder of the power of context1 — but mine’s a little different. After the frantic Festival Season subsided, Beer Diary HQ relocated for a week to Niue, which isn’t big enough to have its own brewery. So I drank Steinlager, instead.
It’s a lovely day for a beer festival. Admittedly, I say this without bothering to look at the forecast or indeed out the window. Today is the fourth running of Brewday, a festival of wider Wellington’s beer and beer-adjacent communities, held over the hill in Martinborough — a place long thought of as wine country (and quite rightly) but also just generally the City’s sunnier back yard.1 I attended the previous three, and had an excellent time at each — in three very different capacities — but am sitting out this one on account of a looming shift in the bar this evening.2 But I have my own theory of making the most of Missing Out, and so this year I am enjoying the festival nostalgically.
On our roughly spherical planet, yesterday is still today for a good while into tomorrow. Which is convenient, given my topic. But then, whenever you’re late to talk about an annual conjunction of timing, you’re also just really early.1 Anyway, the 30th of August is my birthday,2 and also the anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson — by which I mean the beer and whisky writer, not the other one. Given that it’s also usually the end of beer festival season here, it’s an excellent time to ponder inspirations and go back to the classics. And M.J. so radically overhauled and reinvigorated what became my avocation ― i.e., rambling about beer ― that he might as well count as its inventor. One of our fundamental organising principles, the notion of “beer styles”, was even his (surprisingly-recent) invention. You really can’t overstate the influence. And we’re lucky to have him looming over us, because he was damn good.
My first introduction to him was the Malt Whisky Companion that kept me sane while I was working at a bar with a dismal beer selection but an unexpectedly excellent shelf of five-dozen whiskies. Only later did I discover his work on beer — once I’d relocated to a better bar — but across both subjects he had the same easily readable, gently educational, and enthusiastically cosmopolitan passion for delicious things enjoyed mindfully and in context. Though it’s maybe too anachronistic a term for someone of his generation, he was a proper geek: just obviously keen to share his love of his favourite things with anyone who’d listen. Despite his (deserved) stature as the authoritative expert of his time, he doesn’t give off a whiff of snobbery. Read him on something that was ‘new’ and emerging and maybe much-maligned — like the craft beer movement of the U.S. in the eighties, or Japanese single malt whisky — and you’ll see him strongly rejecting the common and lazy assumption that different is automatically inferior. Instead, he’d pick up much-more-rewarding threads like the broad arc of history, how almost everything old is eventually new again, humanity’s long-running tradition of mucking with long-running traditions, and how fashion (for Islay whisky, or IPA) is just fashion and will one day be replaced.
I have my quibbles at the margins, naturally. He’s said some frankly-bananas things about glassware and serving temperatures, which I’ve reluctantly torn apart in User’s Guide-style seminars.3 And a lot of his work was in the Big Compendium Of Tasting Notes genre which has unfortunately spawned a generation of imitators4 who (to my mind) don’t do nearly as good a job of tempering that approach with the necessary context and quirky evocativeness which he excelled in.5 But he remains a subculture superhero, and a classic forever worth revisiting.
Speaking of which: this glorious thing. My friend and former bartending comrade6 Peter gave me a bottle of Chimay Grande Réserve7 for my birthday yesterday. It’s long been a favourite — since I plucked it out of a menu on a whim at an excellent little birthday dinner a decade or so ago, if memory serves — and this bottle happened to be from the 2007 vintage, so brewed the year we lost M.J.. No better way to mark the moment, salute your superhero, and end the evening, then, than to open it and pair it with a little of the Highland Park that the Companion made me fall in love with equally-many years ago.8 And it was simply sublime. Delicate and luxurious, rich but not overblown, full of perfectly nightcappy flavours like dark chocolate and deeply fruity port. We’d all be lucky if we were aging half as well.
So here’s to M.J., and to making the most of however-many orbits of the Sun you’re eventually allotted. As you go along, imagine his avuncular voice in your head — like Obi-Wan gently nudging Luke — as he says:9
I want you to think about every beer you put to your lips.
Original Diary entry: Chimay Grande Réserve 2007 — 30/08/15 Almost wrote 79 by sheer form-filling habit. @ home, after an excellent birthday. Watching the still-charming Beer Hunter series — he’s just such a natural, if a total dork — and pairing it also with a Highland Park. Seemed fitting all round, since it’s the anniversary of MJ’s death, which was in 2007. This bottle a present from Pete. So utterly lovely. Suprisingly light palate, so portish + with lots of chocolate flavour later on. Ages so well. The beer. Can’t speak for myself, obviously. But I did alright today. Very lucky chap. Pancakes + bubbles + beer + books + mooching + wandering and just generally having a top notch Sunday. Wouldn’t dare ask for more than that. What would be the need?
— Appendix: The Other M.J.
Meanwhile, an excellent coincidence of timing and timezones bundles the other Michael Jackson into all this: the 29th was his birthday and — as I said, given our roughly spherical planet — a good chunk of that day for an American just is the 30th for me (or the M.J., for that matter). To tie it all back to beer and other things of which I’m more-properly a fan, here he is drinking a Bud (remember: to each their own, and everything in its right place) while sitting next to Bruce Freakin’ Springsteen:
Feminism, as they say, is1 the radical idea that women are people too. By very simple extension, women can be beer enthusiasts, bar owners, beer writers, and brewers. There’s a lot more to say on the subject, obviously, but it’s not really my gig to hold forth given my obvious lack of lived experience — a Very Special Podcast Episode was recorded this weekend which will probably elaborate thereon, instead, and that reminded me about this tasty beer and its somewhat-unusual context.
LBQ — that is to say, Little Beer Quarter; a well-established bar here in town which happens to be owned by women — was hosting a mini-tap-takeover by Moa, a company with something of a well-deserved reputation of boorish, sexist and otherwise-bigoted marketing. The high-water mark, such as it is,2 was perhaps their relentlessly shitty IPO document, but their offenses — both stunningly major and perplexingly minor — would probably be just too depressingly exhausting to fully catalogue. Their outright dismissal of women as potential consumers (nevermind investors or just non-ornaments) sees them fail at the earliest possible moral hurdle and earned Moa a spot on my own personal (and mercifully short) Boycott List.
The tension here — that between the character of the bar and of the brewery3 — was noted a fair amount online, with many surprised that LBQ would give Moa the oxygen, after freely taking (gentle) jabs before. Personally, it was admittedly gratifying to be reminded that I wasn’t alone in holding a grudge. A lot of people will independently bring up their history of appalling marketing and cite it as a reason for not buying their beer, skipping their offering at a festival, or not going to an event of theirs. We are, after all, enjoying a preposterous embarrassment of riches in our options in the beer world, so it’s relatively easy to boycott something for over a year and not really feel like you’re missing out at all. Consumer choice wide enough allows consumer judgement on any criteria they feel like applying — which is precisely how things should be. Moa, it has to be said, had been keeping their heads relatively low, lately;4 it looks like they thought they could just slink away from their prior bullshit and have everyone quietly forget about it — and it looks like they were wrong. Re-starting with a sincere “we screwed up — we acted gross, and we’re not going to do it again; we’re actually mostly going to get out of the way and let the beer speak for itself” could do a lot.5 They’ve conspicuously failed to make any kind of attempt in that direction, and that’s unfortunate for all concerned.
And maybe LBQ were still giving them a nudge in the ribs even as they hosted this perhaps-premature event, because on the afternoon of the takeover, they announced that they’d tapped a keg of the Beer Baroness-brewed edition of ‘Unite’ Pale Ale, the International Women’s Day collaboration beer. So I had that, for my own point-making circumstantial reasons, but I’ll eagerly have it again for its inherent deliciousness because it was just splendid. Nice how that works out, sometimes. A zippy little sessionable pale ale, it was very much My Thing — and a fresh batch is reputedly On The Way. The titular Baroness is Ava Wilson, who is also the manager of the ridiculously wonderful Pomeroy’s Pub, convenor for the NZ chapter of the Pink Boots Society (soon to have its inaugural meeting, and the mothership of which organised the global brewday), seminar-wrangler for the Great Kiwi Beer Festival, and an all-round superawesome individual. If you, like Moa’s marketing suits, live in the same country as Ava and you still don’t think women could be “beer people” then I submit that you are an ignorant retrograde.
I would at least hope — in a rare fit of optimism — that the craft beer ‘community’ was on the whole a welcoming, safe, and enjoyable place for women to be. Better than ‘the average’ (non-beer bars and festivals, the public at large..?), maybe, somehow. But it’s a long way from perfect, and every awful bit of sexist branding,† all the tired old stereotypes and presumptions that never quite die (see, e.g., how often people think “girly beer” might actually be a category, and what it’d consist in, and why), and every crappy bit of treatment women still endure in bars — they’re all worth calling out and resisting. So yes, among my self-chosen descriptors, I’ll wear “feminist”6 as happily as I do “beer geek”.
Original notes: Beer Baronness ‘Unite’ Pale Ale 17/7/14 @ LBQ, amid a Moa tap takeover, so at least partially for irony + point-making. But the thing itself hardly needs an excuse; really nicely zippy + zesty hoppy little 4% thing. Not hugely weather-appropriate, but the bar is super cozy anyway. Lots of interesting reactions to this event, but my take is just that it’s premature. Apologetic fronting-up, then the charm offensive and re-focus on the beer.
1: If I felt like quibbling — and, let’s face it, I basically always do — I’d say “begins with” rather than “is”. But it’s a damn fine slogan, and at least damn close to the mark. ↑
2: With “water” in a decidedly euphemistic sense, let’s say. ↑
3: “…or at least its marketing department”, as the usual caveat goes — including from me (e.g., footnote 1 in my post on the IPO itself). And while it is true that the beers range from fine to great and the brewer himself is indeed a lovely chap, there comes a point where something goes on long enough and everyone involved really is at least a little bit culpable by association. ↑
4: Well, other than hiring Shane Warne to front their product in Australia. Which makes little goddamn sense for several reasons, not least of which the boofhead reputation he’s transparently struggling to shake. Against their otherwise softly-softly tactics of late, I’m pretty much at a loss to explain that one. Perhaps it’s a mistake to try to attribute a rationality behind it at all; it might just show their instincts. ↑
5: Just because someone will always come along and set a worse example, I suppose it’s at least a relief they aren’t just trying to obliviate their past misdeeds and erase them from the record (except for one example that we’ll get to later…) — unlike WilliamsWarn, whose foray into #everydaysexism was made all the sadder for their reaction to criticism. ↑
6: Simplicter. I was in the habit of saying “~ ally”, but I’ve lately been convinced otherwise. ↑
†: Coincidentally, in the inadvertent extra delay in getting this online, the guys at the Ale Of A Time podcast uploaded an episode wherein they also address the sexist branding / beer-naming problem. So at least it’s getting a little more air and pushback — though I take a stronger line than both of them. ↑
Over the decade I’ve been taking handwritten notes of my beer-drinking experiences, I have inevitably developed an idiosyncratic Style Guide.1 Broadly — though there are exceptions early on as the pattern developed, and sporadically throughout as I either forgot my own practice or thought of some now-lost rationalisation for a variance in some particular case — it’s like this: beer names are all capitals in the pen-and-paper form for easier cross-referencing, but otherwise just regular Title Case, with single-quote marks around a beer’s name when it’s a name, in the proper noun sense rather than a style descriptor. So Epic Pale Ale, but Epic ‘Mayhem’, if you follow. But this one, the latest in Monteith’s white label Brewer’s Series,2 necessitated I reach for the double-barreled scarequotes instead.
Objectivity is hard to find — and usually not worth looking for — in the beer world (or any other sensory pursuit), but I think I can comfortably say that this is no American Pale Ale in any sane sense of those words. Beer writer Neil Miller got a freebie in the post3 and Tweeted that it’d come with a package of Citra hops. The obvious jab — “Hey Monteith’s, the hops go in the beer…” — swiftly ensued, but turned out truer than anyone could’ve known: the beer has damn-near zero aroma or hop flavour, and certainly none remotely in the ballpark that “A.P.A.” would entail and require. I was instantly put in mind of the pale ale in Lion’s ridiculous ‘Crafty Beggars’ range4 — both smelled more like an empty glass that had previously held beer than one which currently did. It was insipid, incredibly boring, and what extra flavour did manifest itself as it warmed up a little and I grudgingly proceeded down the glass was not the kind that was welcome. The 40 I.B.U. — “International Bitterness Units”, a doomed-but-useful way of trying to measure the palate-punch of hops — on the label implies a relatively easy-going pale ale, sure, but this was so insubstantial as to amount to a cruel joke.
Because the problem here is that this kind of massive mislabeling cuts both ways. It’s not just that beer nerds and brewers should feel affronted to see a venerable and popular style being so poorly aped, it’s that anyone who likes this could well be horribly surprised if ever they buy a true-to-style American Pale Ale. Everyone would be better served if this was marketed as Heineken Trading As Monteith’s Brand Fermented Product Number Sixteen, instead; as it is, no matter how much you know about the words on the label, you know nothing about the beer inside — and vice versa . That it comes from the same sprawling conglomerate who’ve long abused the term “India Pale Ale”5 on a sweet and caramelly brown lager, as well as selling a “Radler” that isn’t a Radler, should put them firmly On Notice. It could always be pure incompetence and ignorance — and we are supposed to presume cock-up before conspiracy — but it’s so consistent that it looks more like deliberate piss-taking and deception. It’s as if Tony Mercer, the putative head brewer, is channeling Tony Soprano, running around the style spectrum and trying to ruin people’s idea of what each variety of beer can really be — much like the latter drove all over Jersey to meet with all the best divorce attorneys just so his wife couldn’t hire them later. A company of this scale could be a properly-wonderful provider of accessible ‘gateway’ beer and fridge-friendly stuff for the masses however nerdy or not, but sadly they seem to prefer wallowing in nonsense and pretending to be all kinds of things they aren’t.
Original notes: Monteith’s “American Pale ” 18/3/14 @ home. 5.7% “40 IBU”, freebie from a retailer perhaps best left unnamed. I really want them to join the real world and start playing ball. They could be such great gateway providers. But no. They’re either taking the piss, or are just totally incompetent — or, I suppose, marketing is one and brewing is the other, each doing their share. This is damn near free of aroma. It’s like that Crafty Beggars Pale was. An empty glass. Bland, slightly buttery. Utterly boring, until it warms and worsens. Just horrible. That this is labeled “APA” is a problem for everyone. Are they Tony Soprano-ing all the beer styles?
1: “Decade”? Crap. I missed my own note-taking anniversary. Probably because I have the kind of memory issues that necessitate note-taking in the first place. “Inevitably” because the Diary started just after (my first round of) University finished. ↑
2: Paging Dr. Freud, meanwhile. A “Brewer’s Series” does seem like a strangely-blunt admission that the main range is dictated more by the marketing and accounting departments, doesn’t it? ↑
3: Almost certainly both because I am a notoriously grumpy bugger, and I am not a proper professional writer, I tend not to get sent samples. Indeed, a stickler in my own weird ways, I would (and have, on occasion) usually turn them down. Notable exceptions, though, are the bottle of Epic’s ‘One Trick Pony’ IPA that Luke Nicholas generously sent me on each version’s release (because I helped name the series), the couple of bottles Moa sent me (before I could get around to telling them not to; I’ll find a home for those soon…) — and this, which came from a bottle store who were somewhere between mystified and outraged by it, and wanted to share the experience around. ↑
4: I hear a rumour that the Crafty Beggars brand has failed to meet expectations, and will be axed. The big breweries sure are fickle with their new ideas. Meanwhile, I am still happy calling the whole experiment “ridiculous”, with the proviso that the everything in its right place principle did render one of its members worthwhile on a very specific occasion. ↑
5: Occasionally, you hear a minor defence of D.B. along the lines that they appended the “East” to IPA and thereby made up a nonsense new style and so technically aren’t bullshitting anyone. Sadly, that fails on two counts: “East India Pale Ale” really is the original style term, and D.B. explicitly (and very, very wrongly) link their product to the Usual History of IPA. ↑