More information always seems like a worthy idea. But the truth is a complicated thing and some people are very skilled bullshitters — able to spin a rare species of lie from saying something entirely accurate, which carefully exploits ambiguities in someone’s question or levers off errors in their background understanding. ‘Beer the Beautiful Truth’, a new campaign launched by the Brewers Assocation,1 is sadly just this kind of bullshit. It’s the opposite of what beer needs right now.
So, that was 2016. It was… interesting. As you perhaps noticed. Plenty happening in the beer business, but no shortage of distractions in the wider and weirder world. Despite working on various of beer’s front lines, I felt a little disconnected from it all last year. And so rather than trawling through my notes looking for particular favourites (such as I’d do when preparing for a Year In Review episode of the podcast) I took some time for a more-general contemplation of the year gone by, and its heroes and villains — or at least those who are not helping,1 and those who are. Here, I present three loud boos and three cheerful hurrahs.
I’m a big fan of sour beers. I like what they do to my brain, in terms of their inherent deliciousness. But also — and I say this as a bartender, host-of-tastings, and general observer of the business — part of the fun is what they do to the brains of other people. Nothing more efficiently upends a newbie’s naïve understanding of “what beer is”,1 and nothing seems so capable of making professionals spout nonsense. After a few recent articles and tasting sessions,2 I just want to take a moment to defend sour as a character and as a category.
So, that was me. I’m the wag, in the old-timey parlance of the newspaper. There’s little point pretending otherwise, since the sign was twenty steps from the front door of the pub where I work — and a large part of my m.o. here involves uploading literally hundreds of handwriting samples you could compare against. I’m all for the normalising of beer into the wider popular culture, but this crap isn’t helping. And I say that as a bearded someone (admittedly, it’s neither “bushy” nor “bristly”) who works in the (for want of a better word) craft beer business.
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.
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?
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.
Most beer writing is crap.1 This should be unsurprising and uncontroversial for the simple reason that most of everything is crap. Enshrined as Sturgeon’s law, this isn’t a cynical or depressing conclusion; just a sound observation and call for better mental hygiene. But that strangely-comforting general cause shouldn’t blind us to the idiosyncratic causes of crapness in beer commentary — insidious things which we should strive to keep in mind. Reading with your faculties more-sharply engaged is just as life-enhancing as drinking more thoughtfully is. I recommend both.
I was forcefully reminded of all this when I picked up2 The Ultimate Book of Beers, a glossy British publication3 from just last year which attempts to round-up the world and history of beer by way of two hundred pages and four hundred examples. The result is, quite frankly, terrible. But it is at least instructively terrible, and that makes it great — even though it’s not the greatness they were seeking.
Too much beer writing sinks to the level of crap insidiously, because it either is or just appears like it might be advertising in drag; most amateur and professional commentators still won’t spell out commercial entanglements with their subjects (which might account for surprisingly-strong praise or mysteriously-missing criticism, or both), or even just note that the proximate cause for them talking about some particular thing at all is that free samples from the brewery arrived in the post.4 But sometimes, you don’t even need to start pondering potential moral wrongness; occasionally something will just overdose on old-fashioned factual wrongness. Here, there were some telltale false steps early on — like retelling a debunked version of the history of IPA that’d make Martyn Cornell spin in his grave, if he wasn’t still alive — but the wheels most-obviously fell off, for me, when I flipped ahead to the New Zealand section, curious to see their summation of the place where I live, and (after all) usually drink.
The three-spread section features sixteen beers5 and manages to make errors both trifling and troubling which vary from obvious marketing-guff passed on as gospel to patently bizarre weirdness pulled from nowhere obvious. They get their hop varieties confused, slightly mangle a few brewery and beer names, entirely elide the reality and centrality of contract brewing in our modern scene (Epic, Bach, and Yeastie Boys are all listed as if they were bricks-and-mortar operations),6 completely ignore the many-branded natures of our bigger companies,7 and a give over a half-page section to a beer (namely Pink Elephant’s ‘Imperious Rushin Stowt’) that hadn’t been brewed for several years when the book was published.
The selection, as a group, is also pants-on-head nonsensical. This isn’t even destined to be useful to future generations as a (flawed) historical document because the sampling is so un-self-consciously bizarre: it doesn’t track with present or historical popularity, or award-winningness, or uniqueness, or any kind of story about what we’re doing here. It’s not even a case of “we went there and this is what we had”, which would at least be obviously personal and idiosyncratic. My best guess is that the breweries listed were the quickest to respond to requests for photos and blurbs — not a great way to go about an “ultimate” survey.
Then there’s the utterly baffling claim in a break-out text box that “ice brewed beers are popular in New Zealand”. This is an unbelievably niche practice of freezing some of the water out of beer to make what remains stronger, and you’d struggle to find more than one example around here, if that.8 When the answer to one Did you know? aside is “no, I fucking did not, because I understand what ‘knowledge’ is and your statement was complete bollocks”, all the others are cast into question. There’s basically one of these putative factoids per page, and while I’m a determined collector of trivia I’m nowhere near expert enough to rule on most of the others. The presence of that, though, is an unpromising sign. Which is a perfect microcosm for the rest of the damn book — given the smattering of errors and distortions I can spot in the accounts of beers I know, how can I put any stock in the listings for things I’d never heard of? Easy: I can’t. If they so weirdly and subtly and pointlessly flub the story of beer in New Zealand — a country so historically and culturally linked to theirs that their flag is (for now) on ours — there’s scant hope for the rest of the planet.
All of this is emblematic of wider problems: this area — like all fields of criticism and reportage — is beset by challenges of overturning myth, unpacking spin, overcoming biases, and navigating conflicts of interest. I don’t know nearly enough about the creation of this book to accuse it of falling foul on the ethics — that’s a minefield for another time and another example — but the point is that you need to be wary of crapness in all its forms and whatever its cause. And when you hear the clang of a factual error or catch the whiff of an un-declared conflict of interest, hold on to that skepticism. We should do more to make it unnecessary — and it wouldn’t take much; a little more humility, a little more honesty — but unfortunately, it’ll still serve you well.
After a (nearly) three-year sojourn among the (nearly) nine-to-fivers, I’m back bartending.1 Happily, I can report that this is still an excellent town in which to do so. Despite an increasingly-plausible2 rivalry between a few centres, the sanest conclusion is that Wellington is (still, for now) the country’s best place for going out and having a beer. The established reputation and the potential challengers make it an easy target for muggle-media dispatches ― of which two recently caught my eye for their disconnect between how things look to their authors, and how they appear to me, a long-serving drinker and drink-server.
The first ― a travelogue-ish piece from Donna-Lee Biddle in the Waikato Times ― is innocuous enough. It’s a little overawed and awkward, but isn’t that basically all of us upon stepping into a new scene? Two minor details were a little jarring, though. The line that “plenty of brew bars have the brewing equipment on display” overstates things rather a lot, unfortunately, since we only have three such places (one of which is very recent) and this is one area in which our “beer culture” is unambiguously bested by (at least) Auckland and Christchurch. It’d be unseemly to brag about the things you knew you were behind on.
Weirder, though, was the doubled-up emphasis on Golding’s Free Dive as the after-work hangout of all the brewers in town. Which is firstly unfair to all the other bars ― this town’s beer drinkers are, in my experience, a more ecumenical lot who merrily wander about the place and could fairly be said to be “regulars” of multiple places ― and paints an unreal picture of brewers’ social lives. By and large, more’s the pity, they go home. They work stupidly long days which usually start at Unreasonable O’clock in the morning. And besides, they make their own beer, of which there’s always offcuts to take home, and the beer business is frankly just not among those lucrative enough to support the habits and hobbies some others maintain. I wouldn’t want to give anyone the impression that any or all of our bars are perpetually crammed with industry insiders. They’re more diverse and welcoming than that.
More pernicious, however, was the nonsense in Cuisine magazine from David Burton,3 who is to local food writing what Gordon McLauchlan is to local beer writing: a dinosaur without the actual-dinosaur saving graces of being awesome and/or extinct. His protracted whinge as to the state of beer-bar food bears basically zero resemblance to reality and does the City a real disservice. The anchor of his piece is this claim ―
With each successive craft bar fit-out in Wellington, in has gone the deep-fryer, and out have come the bar snacks of old school Kiwi pubs, albeit this time in the guise of “dude food”.
― which is manifest bollocks on multiple counts. For starters, let’s torpedo his overused “dude food”4 forever, as a phrase. With very rare exceptions, food has neither genitals of its own nor opinions as to yours. This is a non-category for precisely the same reason that there is no such thing as “girls’ beer”.5 People of various kinds enjoy things of various kinds. If you’ve been paid to spend time in restaurants for several decades and haven’t noticed that, just what the fuck have you paying attention to?
Secondly, deep-fryers are just machines. They can be used for bland stodge as much as for delicious interestingness; I’ll wager there’s one in most places he raves about. And anyway, he’s simply wrong: Hashigo Zake and Golding’s lack them entirely and the former, especially,6 bends the usual notions of “pub food” quite dramatically and has been around for yonks in local subculture terms. It would’ve at least made for a fine counterexample ― but instead he weirdly cites The Hideaway, a spot which is in no sense a craft beer bar; not by its own claims, or by its menu, or his own review, or… anything. And against his implied boast that the good-wine places are still exclusively the good-food ones, you need only look back to his notes from Ortega Fish Shack: in a rightfully glowing review he entirely fails to even notice their lengthy and mindful beer list, which regularly gains beer-nerd praise (and isn’t the only top-end restaurant in town to do so).
The simple fact is that David Burton just isn’t a “beer person”. And that’s fine and fair. Not everyone has to like what I like as much as I like it. It becomes problematic, however, when he’s repeatedly tasked by editors to report on something he neither particularly knows nor especially cares about ― and yet feels so free to pontificate despite those two factors. Donna-Lee Biddle might not yet count herself a beer person, but her mis-steps are the polar opposite; the tiniest stumblings of an open-minded and enthusiastic newcomer.
‘Outsider’ writing is a necessary and excellent thing; a key part of bringing more outsiders in, if they find themselves keen. And there’ll be a lot more of it in the run-up to Beervana and then (later) during the annual Brewers’ Guild awards season. I just hope it tends toward the Donna-Lee kind and increasingly little comes from throwbacks like David.7
1: About which more in the next episode of the podcast, he says, getting very-slightly ahead of himself. ↑
2: If still prone to occasionally lapses in to mean-spirited-ness and badly-judged / poorly-executed humour. (Looking at you, Steve Plowman, on the latter.) ↑
3: Perhaps mercifully in this case, they don’t put their stuff online. Unless and until they tell me to take it down, though, here’s a vaguely-readable rendition so you know I’m not misrepresenting the bastard, at least. ↑
4: Limiting myself to one easily-searchable location, he uses it for write-ups on Coene’s Provisions, Crafters & Co., and San Fran. Judging by the latter, we might have Tim Ward to blame for introducing him to the term. ↑
5: Note the careful apostrophe. ↑
6: As to the latter, you’d think he might’ve noticed while praising the bar and its surroundings ― and feebly trying to coin the nickname “Little Portland” for the area. But alas. ↑
7: And since I’ve put myself on first-name terms, I’ll close with a quiet smattering of applause for the “says Beth” and “said Scott” of Donna-Lee’s piece. The newspapery pratice of Last Names Only For Everything, like we’re stuck in some fucking Dickensian boys’ school, really grates on my brain. ↑