This time last year, I was recounting three years’ of Brewday experiences over the hill in Martinborough, as I missed out on the festival’s fourth incarnation. This time last week,1 I was on a train to Upper Hutt — the event’s original organisers had sold it, and it’d been relocated there for this year (and, all going well, onwards). The move brought some skepticism, including from myself, but I went exploring2 and am happy to report that the transplant seems a success and the prognosis looks good.
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.
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.
There’s probably some neat-and-vaguely-plausible theory to be elaborated about the psychogeography of a suburb called “Newtown”. I can only speak from experience about the two closest ones — in Wellington and Sydney — but they’re similar-enough in sufficiently-numerous ways to make me wonder if their history as the first-established alternate center of a city is enough to stamp them forever as a wonderful home to the non-dominant demographic and/or freshly migrated and/or just somewhat odd.
Anyway, the New-South-Welsh one is lovely, and I’ve had several enjoyable days wandering through it. It’s also blessed with its own brewery — the unaccountably unapostrophe’d1 Young Henrys — beers from which I first sampled at The Courthouse, a charming back-street bar to which I’ll happily return, despite their minor sins of a) bringing out the dodgy polycarb non-glass-glassware on the weekends (as if we were all going to start a riot and start shanking each other) and b) using “local beer” as a euphemism for “mainstream crap” in their Happy Hour rules such that the Y.H. stuff (though still a bargain) wasn’t eligible despite being from within rock-throwing distance, while Carlton Draught counted even though it’s from a whole ’nother fucking state.2
There’s a little cellar-door-and-bar attached to the brewery, and I made damn sure to pay them a visit these holidays having missed them — and their rather-restrictive opening hours3 — on a previous stop. And I’m glad I did; it’s a gorgeous little spot, a damn-near-perfect little in-house bar. If only they could stay open a little later, especially in the summer. You’re basically right there in the brewery, with nothing to separate you from the reality of the place as somewhere were work is done and it brings a lovely laid-back sense of open welcome which the staff nicely continue with amiably professional service and plenty of help for anyone unfamiliar with their offerings. It’s got a charmingly odd style, with nice little quirky touches all over the place that never seem overwrought or fake; you get the impression it’s a genuine local for a good number of people and a space that reflects the personalities of those who spend their days there.
The beers embody (intentionally or not) a nicely pub-first mentality; they skew hugely towards the sessionable and the simple-but-tasty, finding plenty of nuance and interest to be had within pretty damn friendly bounds. ‘Newtowner’ is an even-handed hoppy-and-golden thing, bordered nicely by their ‘Natural Lager’, being lighter and easier still, and the ‘Real Ale’, satisfyingly richer and apparently also gangbusters on handpump — an option I was talked-out-of on the day, given the weather. Instead, I ended my little visit two things I’d normally avoid: a cider, which was perfectly endearing and quaffable, and a much-boozier cherry saison, which did very well to throw nice doses of fruit flavour without coming across all candy-ish and phony as too-often happens.
They’ll quickly tell you of expansion plans, when you compliment them on their cute little setup,4 but hopefully they’re not self-conscious about for-now being a relatively-obscure suburban brewery. They do it very well indeed.
1: Coopers always confused me, as Australia’s other famously non-possessively-styled brewery. But I suppose, by now at least, they’re so multi-generational that it’s just a proud plural. I’m still not sure about Y.H.’s reasons — weirdly, people tend not to address these questions on their websites — but managed to get a mangled version of Supergrass’ ‘Alright’ stuck in my head just thinking about it: “We are young / we are free / we don’t need / no ’postrophe”. And if that now suddenly transfers to your brain and earworms you, I sincerely apologise. ↑
2: In the interests of full disclosure and Good Mental Hygiene, it’s worth pointing out that these two observations draw from two separate visits, the latter from my holiday last Easter(ish) — the write-up of which has languished a little unloved in my Drafts folder as ‘A New South Wales Travelogue in ≈38.5 Beers’ — so it’s at least possible that they’ve traded the former sin for the latter. ↑
3: Which provides a nice balance to the regulator-praising in my most-recent post; all is not Utopian in Sydneytown, of course, and sensible small-bar special rules still exist alongside apparently-overly-restrictive ordinances for relatively-suburban operations like this.↑
4: So, it must be said, will seemingly everyone in these corners of the market — even those you know to’ve already expanded, relatively-recently. It’s a terrifyingly exciting time in the beer business, and it must be keeping the steelworkers busy.↑
Still enjoying my Sydney sabbatical — especially now the heat has eased somewhat — I’ve been reconfirmed in a small thought about small bars, of which this town has increasingly-many, thanks (apparently)1 to a relatively-recent law change. I had a bit of a ramble recently on the podcast about licensing laws and will need to return to the topic properly now that New Zealand’s “reforms” are in effect, but for present purposes my concern is that our current (and former) rules were applied almost entirely uniformly, whatever they are. There’s always a certain facile attraction in blanket legislation, but my recent wanderings have reinforced a simple point perhaps too-often overlooked: you are insane if you treat all licensed venues alike.
There is a lot wrong with the prevailing Antipodean drinking culture, and I’m not remotely suggesting that “small bars” are flawless2 or the complete answer to anything. But you have to applaud Sydney for its neat little ecosystem of different-sized places doing different-styled things, giving varied ideas and formats an airing and seeing what works. Treating every venue as if they were heaving, recklessly-discounting, neighbour-nuisancing boozers just because that seems an easier way to tackle genuinely-existing3 problems will wind up causing a tonne of needless collateral cultural damage. A lot of New Zealand’s new rules seem unfortunately destined to make life harder for exactly the kinds of operations that represent (on their good days) a more-enlightened approach to things-with-booze-in.4
From my bartender-training days, I remember “test-tube shots” being specifically called-out and demonised in the materials as if they were somehow inherently a sign of ill-advised drinking. But here one was at Stitch — a supercute basement bar in downtown Sydney, decked-out with a suprisingly-successful sewing machine aesthetic (including dozens of vintage Singer machines, and treadle-equipped tables to sit and drink at) — and it’s hard to imagine that an eighteen-dollar Boilermaker5 of a mini-Old-Fashioned and a dependable American import6 is ultimately implicated in many worrying and/or unhealthy nights out. Instead, it was a thoughtful and delicious little addition to their overall offering, perfectly capable of being Enjoyed Responsibly. If you can’t handle even the small amount of nuance needed to allow for just those kinds of possibilities,7 you need to get out of the policy-making business. All drinks are not created, or served, equally.
1: I’m a Foreigner; forgive me if I get the details and/or the history wrong. And by all means — and as always — corrections, clarifications and continuations are more than welcome. ↑
2: This post’s title, to head off any observant but poorly-read pedants, is an irresistible little English cliché (of weirdly-uncertain origin, apparently) more than anything else. ↑
3: Although almost-always overblown. We do love a good Moral Panic, as a species, it seems. But that’s another post for another time — and will require a lot more references (though Pete Brown does a damn-admirable job in pulling a bunch together for semi-regular and enjoyably-sharp rants thereon). Meanwhile, just have a look at the scaremongering quote from the Hotel Association rep. in the above-linked Time Out article. Battle lines in the policy debate aren’t as simple as regulators versus retailers; the huge operators will happily slag off the small to try and lobby against losing their advantages. ↑
4: Indeed, recalling the spectacular tin ear I complained about the other day in regard to Wellington’s advertising, our Council’s first draft of changes for the local area included the creation of a ghetto — styled as an “entertainment precinct” — which would’ve hugely favoured the City’s obviously-problematic operators and seriously hampered further evolution of the increasingly civilised fringe. I remember being outraged by the incredible wrong-headedness of the idea around podcast-recording time; fortunately, it was abandoned. ↑
5: See also Whisky + Alement, next time you’re in Melbourne, for a really excellent range of deftly-matched [Craft] Beer + Whisk[e]y combinations. ↑
6: Albeit one with a bit of an identity crisis, to be fair; the brewery bleats on nonsensically about how “traditional” and “small” it is while a) committing the classic Big Business sin of trademarking a style term and b) producing 20ML already and planning under c) it’s new mega-corporate owners to d) quadruple capacity. ↑
7: And then, once your imagination’s nice and warmed-up, to contemplate rules, conditions, and fees that differ appropriately in response to the character of the place in question… But again; details another time. ↑
If I go missing one day, if you can’t find me for a while and have no idea where I’ve gone, check the cupboards and crawlspaces at Josie Bones in Melbourne. I’d only been there an hour before I was casing the place, looking for a place to stowaway and secretly live — emerging in the dead of night to drink lovely beer and feast on delicious leftovers.
Like my now-beloved Local Taphouse, Josie Bones was one of those amazing-sounding places that opened shortly after I moved back to Wellington. But despite occasional trips back, I’d never managed a visit until the Saturday afternoon between GABS sessions three and four. Hashigo’s David Wood and I met up with my Melbourne-resident friend Toby, and we seized the chance.
It was freakin’ awesome — as I may have telegraphed by suggesting I might disappear there some day. It’s a cute little place (smaller than I, for some reason, thought it’d be), charming and welcoming, well-presented but completely unpretentious. We took a seat at the bar, and quickly realised we were being served by the two founders — recognisable to those People Who Watch the Teevee Box as former Masterchef Australia contestants.
Josie Bones is a massively uncommon thing; a place that properly ‘gets’ food and beer. The beer menu is a gloriously fat clipboard of helpfulness (backed-up by the knowledge and enthusiasm housed in the brains of the staff), and there’s a healthy range available from the taps and/or the fridge. They’d done a wet-hop beer dinner just a few days prior, and several survivors were still pouring. I opted for Bright’s ‘Harvest 150’, since I couldn’t stop yammering about their Fainter’s Dubbel at a mini-beer-fest in Fed Square a few weeks previous. It, too, was exactly what I wanted — fat, rich red malt and plenty of fresh-hop zing and zip around the palate; full-on, but self-assured, rather than desperately clamouring for attention. I (a currently-unemployed person who’s lately been earning meager bartender-money, as I said before) splashed out on some stupidly-delicious food, and the combination of sensory delights nearly crippled me with joy. (And left me, not to belabour the point, idly planning how to move in.)
The overwhelming sensation — of the people, the place and the beer — was of welcome. Which is remarkably rare, in the “hospitality” (quote-unquote) business, but gleefully and glaringly obvious when done right. It’s a (deservedly) famously “meaty” place, with back-bar art and even door handles that seem to scream “Vegetarians: Fuck Off”. But that’s not it at all. I have it on very good authority from a non-omnivorous friend that, if you stand your ground and ask for things other-than-flesh, they have plenty and it’s just as mind-meltingly delicious. So the trotter-handles and the carcass-painting aren’t a prohibition; they’re just a friendly warning. Ditto the broad beer spectrum. It’s there if you want it, and if you’re remotely curious or just vaguely open-minded, you’ll be helped towards finding something you’ll cherish without scorn or harangue. They’re proud of their ability to match beer to people and people-and-beers to food expertly derived from former animals; they present it forthrightly and with justifiable pride. But it’s not all they do — though if they do bring you into their fold, you’ll become a tally-mark on their wall. I’m told they started keeping track of people they made recant their former “I don’t drink beer” self-identification — and that the smaller tally represented de-converted vegetarians.
Original Diary entry: Josie Bones 12/5/12, inbetween sessions. Finally made it here, and I already want to secretly live in one of their cupboards. Smaller than I thought, nicely kitted out, friendly and welcoming. I’ve got a Bright Brewery ‘Harvest 150’ (7%, $10, 330ml), which is stunning. Gorgeously red, smooth tan head, big fresh hop presence. Like what Garage Project were going for (and mostly got) with ‘Oldham’s Farm’. I splashed out, in hunger and excitement, and got Crackling of the Day (Pork, $4), Fries with Thyme + Prosciutto Salt + Chiptole Aioli ($9) and Crispy Beer-marinated Quail with Pickled Quail Egg ($9). Now, I’m rather satisfied, I must say.