The latest round of the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards1 were announced this weekend and this year they’ve given us more data than usual to play with. For the first time, the Guild has released information on what was entered, as opposed to just telling us who won, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m the kind of nerd who watches the Olympics and wants a per-capita column on the medal tally. Raw results are one thing, but I’m curious well you did relative to how hard you tried. And now, after an hour or so of strangely-enjoyable data entry and spreadsheeting,2 I know.
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.
So that was the week that was. The week that was a while ago, now. How time flies when you’re quietly recuperating. Weirdly, given the work I gravitate towards, I’m a natural introvert and crowds of lovely beer nerds are still, you know, crowds. I think exhaustixhilirated just about covers it; sound prediction there, Phil From The Past. You get a strange view of things during festivals when you’re doing too much to do much, but from where I was standing, this is what Beervana — and its satellite events in The Road Thereto — looked like:
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.
“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.
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.
When the list of Beervana-attending breweries came out a little while ago, I stayed up late and made a spreadsheet comparing the attendees over the last few years against the Brewers Guild membership and the list of standholders at this year’s Great Kiwi Beer Festival. Obviously. And while it’s definitely true that there’s a whole pile of interesting stuff on offer this year, it was initially the absences that grabbed me.
It hasn’t been uncommon to hear ― over what we might come to call the Stadium Years ― that Beervana has gone mainstream, or something to that effect, often uttered to explain why individual drinkers feel like “moving on” to other (more niche) festivals. I’m sympathetic, here: I’m all for people doing whatever they like, and hugely fond of smaller-and-more-focussed events, and a big fan of “mainstream” ― or at least stream-spanning, less pejoratively ― ones as well. It’s a rich ecosystem we have,1 and we’re all better off for that. My point here, though, is simply that the data doesn’t bear out diagnosing Beervana with the dreaded mainstreaming ― or at least: to the extent that there was a flare-up, it quickly reversed itself.
Take, for example, The Many Faces Of Asahi,2 who are completely absent: there’s no Boundary Road, no Founders, no Sam Adams, and BrewDog (formerly distributed by them) will only be present via their new importer, Beertique. That’s a fairly stark contrast to 2013, when the company had four separate bars, out of a total of 31. Likewise, D.B. have retreated somewhat: they’ve abandoned the idea of Monteith’s and Old Mout Cider bars and are instead concentrating on their Black Dog brand. Even Lion (longtime suppliers of infrastructure to the festival) have pulled back a little, leaving behind both their nonsense Potemkin brand, Crafty Beggars, and gateway Australian offering, James Squires.
If I had to categorise the breweries who aren’t featured this year ― and from what I’ve told you of how my brain works, you know that I do ― I’d divide them into minnows too new and/or small-scale for an appearance to have much reward,3 regionals who have some special focus on an area that isn’t Wellington,4 and bargains who put most of their attention in the price-sensitive corners of the supermarket trade and for whom marketing budgets are tight and/or the demographic of a wide-appeal festival isn’t their best fit. Awkwardly, in the process of throwing names into those three buckets, I think it’s fairest to say that Stoke / McCashin’s and Moa5 both fit into the latter; they’d protest otherwise, I’m sure, but I suspect they’re only fooling themselves.
So yes, the event is changing. Every non-dead thing does, and it’ll change even more next year when its new owners have more time to properly ponder a course correction. But it’s not a linear watering-down. Drinkers and festival-goers are also themselves forever changing, so what we probably have here is a multi-variate version of the familiar perception threshold shift that sends people chasing more intense versions of a thing (be it hoppy beer, sour beer, spicy chili, gnarly mountain bike tracks, or crunchy sci-fi epics) to recapture the strength of the original thrill ― and also handicaps their ability to judge how much of a perceived change comes from within, and how much is actually attributable to the world.
Anyway, lots of interesting things will be pouring at the stadium this weekend. I’ll be there,6 and will attempt to track down some gems upon which to report back. I’m also going to be loitering in the seminar room (as I’m prone to do at these things) and helping present a Quiz on the Friday and my own User’s Guide To Beer on Saturday. If you’re around, keep an eye out for a nerd with a notebook and an interrobang badge; odds are that’s me.7
(And yes, I am trialling a new footnote system with this post. If it’s a huge improvement, or a giant leap backwards, do let me know. I suspect the answer might depend on your thing-reading-thing, too, so any details as to your experience per device would be appreciated.)
As is probably also true of many or indeed most other long-standing / high-level1 beer enthusiasts, I have unfeasibly-many branded t-shirts. But there always seems to be room for one more, and I’d been meaning for ages to get one from the Craft Queer Project. Born from a particularly-rad present my comrade2 Dylan made for a fellow bartender, it evolved into a generally-purchasable thing and a worthy little fundraiser to boot. I’ve also seen way too much of the homophobic nonsense that he mentions in his post; from trolls fouling up the online beer community to boorish lunkheads in bars acting like they’d tumbled in from a prior decade — and see Melissa Cole’s latest piece if you need and/or can stomach examples from the Antipodes. But still, I share his optimism that things are (as they say) getting better.
It was really heartening, two weekends ago, to spy a few of these t-shirts in the crowd at the Great Kiwi Beer Festival, worn on the persons of total strangers. That was enough to at last jolt me into ordering mine. But as a habitual Overthinker, who coincidentally exists very much to the left of the Kinsey Scale, I vacillated for a while between getting the original ‘Qu
B’ version and the slightly-bowdlerised, ahem, straight-Beer one. But an analogy to all that brewery merch in my drawers eventually occurred to me: I’ll happily wear, for instance, a ParrotDog t-shirt, a Stone & Wood hoodie, and a Dogfish Head hat — perhaps even all at once — despite working at precisely none of those companies.3 I may not be of them, but I like them, and I wish them well in their many endeavours, supporting their good works and deeds where I can. Likewise this, really.4 Simple.
1: I mean this in the Dungeons & Dragons sense — lots of experience and a few perks. ↑
2: Disclaimers ahoy: then, in his day job, he was a customer of my day job (which, in turn, made the beer the artwork references); now, he’s officially my boss, since I’ve reshuffled my working life rather dramatically. ↑
3: So far, at least. I’d let you know. ↑
4: If I seem to be harping on these down-with-grossness and show-of-solidarity angles, I make no apology. I’ve seen two of my other beloved Domains Of Nerdness — namely videogames and speculative fiction — develop disgusting little cancers of reactionary bullshit and I’ll kick against that where I can. Calling out whatever nonsense comes within reach is the least any of us can do, and now we can do it while wearing a snazzy t-shirt. Win-win! ↑
This past weekend, the local — i.e., Wellington, but also New Zealand more generally — beer community exported one of its stalwarts, Stu McKinlay,1 best-known as a founder and large fraction of the Yeastie Boys. I first met him back in my Malthouse bartending days, at the debut of Pot Kettle Black, and it’s been excellent knowing him since. He was an early giver-of-encouraging-nudges to this very Beer Diary project, is officially a Friend Of The Show, and can frequently be found here disproving the old maxim of Don’t Read The Comments. I’m very much on board with his broader philosophies of beer; our disagreements are the quibbling-at-the-margins that happen among comrades. You never worry that he’s an opportunist, an interloping con-man, or anything other than a True Believer — he’s a proper mensch.
After this January’s massively-successful crowdfunding push (no need for a disclaimer, here; I’m not among their new investors), Stu’s off to arrange for the UK-based production and from-there distribution of their beers, starting with Gunnamatta and Pot Kettle Black. Contract brewers from day one — with no pretensions to have or intentions to build a “bricks and mortar” HQ — they’ve found themselves freer to sidestep some of the annoying and complicated business of exporting and simply produce beer closer to its intended market. I find this kind of ‘Distributed Republic’2 model really appealing, not least because it lessens the shipping-around of masses of water and packaging materials. And this is altogether a more-promising example of the phenomenon: morally better than Stone’s recent and rather-disingenuous ‘campaign’3 to build breweries on the far U.S. coast and in Europe, and more loud-and-proud than ParrotDog and Panhead’s current contracting of keg beer in Melbourne for Australian consumption.
So here’s to good people making good money from good beer. And to a homegrown business expanding out into the world in a new, interesting and authentic way — not by resorting to distasteful nonsense,4 nor by subsuming itself within an existing conglomerate.5 I hope locals will raise a glass of beer (or a cup of tea, or a dram of whisky, since they’d all be appropriate)6 to toast their progress and speed Stu on his way. Please do look after him for us, Englishpersons and Other Antipodeans. I’m sure you’ll enjoy his company — in both senses of the word.
1: That’s him in the red pants, above, despite the title of this post, which just occurred to me while I was doing the dishes and wouldn’t get out of my brain until I wrote it down. It seemed vaguely punny and fitting for a celebrated colour-blocker moving to the other side of the world. ↑
2: To borrow a phrase / idea I’m most familiar with via Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Diamond Age — though I’m not madly keen on the association it has with libertarian techbros, to say the least. ↑
3: A story which went down mid-last-year, while I was on De Facto Hiatus and it was too much of a clusterfuck for me to manage to say anything much constructive. Glen Humphries’ trio of posts — the cash grab, the screw-up, and the cover-up — is excellent coverage from the time. ↑
4: By now, surely, you know who I mean. ↑
5: à la Emerson’s, of course, most recently and locally and notoriously. Not that that always goes badly, of course. In the next podcast episode — [SPOILER ALERT] — I have a few things to say about how well the past two years have turned out, for us and for them. ↑
6: Or anything you like. Or not at all. He’s a big advocate of the blessed subjectivity, so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. ↑