With my beer photos, I vacillate wildly between 1) painstakingly setting something up, mucking about with lighting and re-arranging things far in the background (even when they aren’t mine and when doing so is a nuisance to someone else, I’ll admit), and 2) just getting it done-in-one, cinéma vérité style (if you’re feeling generous; just go with slapdash, if you’re not). My Little Creatures Stout is a nice recent example of the former, this is a classic case of the latter.1
Firstly, I was just too busy having fun. I was at Weta Digital, hosting a beer tasting at which ‘Rex’ was the Not-Very-Surprising-Actually Special Guest Surprise Seventh Beer — its highly-anticipated official launch was the next morning, so I couldn’t really say I had a “surprise” without it being a rather-obvious one. Secondly, if I did re-shoot this, it wouldn’t be at Weta Fucking Digital, would it? The beer geek population overlaps surprisingly-much with the computer geeks — I’m a professional one of the former, and an amateur of the latter kind, and here I was hanging out with people who were the vice versa, essentially.2 One great thing about unashamed geeks is how well we get along with other geeks, whatever their particular domain; we just love that combination of over-enthusiasm and scarily-specialist knowledge, wherever we find it and no matter what it’s about.
‘Rex’ is a seemingly-mad proposition for a beer: a 7% golden ale, with the entirety of its malt heavily peat-smoked in the manner of that which would usually go into a fiesty Islay whisky. Smoked malt is hardly commonplace in beer, but local things like Invercargill’s ‘Smokin’ Bishop’ and 8 Wired’s ‘Big Smoke’ make for nice introductions. Peat smoked malt is something else again, though, with its sharper and simply smokier smoke — and the Received Wisdom is that you shouldn’t use more than a fraction of it in a brew. And how better to test the Usual Line than by crashing right through to 100% and seeing what happens? This is your swift-kick-in-the-pants sort of science — in the fine tradition of Newton sticking a needle in his own damn eye-socket to figure if he was on the right track about the optics of human sight, or of Joseph Kittinger jumping back to Earth from the edge of space to test whether a parachute system for jet pilots was feasible.
It is, I mean to say, ballsy. It was pretty-much impossible not to have an extreme reaction to it; our favourite part of bartending for a while after its release was to watch people have their first taste. In my handwritten notes, I mention hoping that Jed would get some good reaction shots, since I knew he’d be at the launch the next morning. And damn, did he ever. If anything, Stu seemed slightly disappointed that more people at the launch weren’t disgusted by it. I’m not sure how much of that was politeness, knowing he was around, or whether it was down to the self-selectingly beer-geek-heavy crowd we had — or bits of both, of course. But I do like it when something doesn’t mind going out on a limb in the knowledge it’ll be hated in some quarters; that’s basically how the world avoids descending into an amorphous grey goo, after all.
The nose is what gets you, and generates those now-famous reactions. This unassuming little pale golden beer has an aroma that just hurtles out of the glass and charges up your nose, like a crowd of demented pixies wearing golf shoes and in a vengeful hurry to headbutt you directly in the brain. An intense smokiness, to be sure, but one that apparently changed quite a lot over time,3 and one which (to me, at least) lacked the scarier chemical notes from the wilder South Coast Islays — those memorable “burning wetsuit” and “broken bottle of iodine” notes of a Laphroaig, for example. It’s still confronting, because you just easily can’t prepare your mind for it, but the smoke is somehow still light and delicious once you take a few sips; it swiftly becomes good smoke, not scary smoke, a softer version of the “righteous smoke” in BrewDog’s Islay ‘Paradox’, not the sort that might wake you up in terror at night.
The golden ale body is genius, perhaps the masterstroke of it. Other smokey beers I’ve enjoyed have tended to big gloriously big heavy-footed things with a delicious sideline of smoke — 8 Wired’s ‘Big Smoke’, to me, is like having the best porter of your life while you just happen to be relaxing near a campfire. Here, because you’re way up at 100% peated malt, you just clear the stage and let that one element do its thing, with everyone else providing only minimal backup and balance.
It’s a great lesson in the blessed subjectivity: even people who hated it could attest to it being well-made — it is a thing that is perfectly doing what it sets out to do, and that fact changes not a damn depending on who likes it and who doesn’t. And if you didn’t like it, fair enough. I can totally see where you’re coming from, won’t at all try to convince you otherwise and am happy to just have all the more for myself. It is utterly different, and — from my experience on the dispensing-side of a bar — whether or not you’ll like it correlates not at all with any obvious thing about you, your opinion on beer, your opinion on whisky, on peculiar old-school French techno, or on the proper colour for pants.
Verbatim: Yeastie Boys ‘Rex Attitude’ 29/4/11 330ml x 4 ÷ with the Weta crowd, as a Mysterious Something Special for our tasting. Since it was an ‘obvious’ “surprise”, I had to lie. But it was heaps of fun, before + during. Reaction shots are hilarious; I hope Jed gets some goodies. It’s all peat, but without the scary chemistry-set-on-fire side of a South-coaster. The golden ale body is the master-stroke, for sure. So much fun.
1: Or, compare the photos for the also-Yeastie ‘Rapture’ and the just-after-it Emerson’s ‘1812’. I was, in that instance, flustered by the abundance of people around me. For someone who works late nights in a frequently-busy bar, I’m remarkably crap with crowds.
2: We also had a few relative-neophytes to the wonderful world of Good Beer who just jumped in in the spirit of trying something new and hanging out after work. One of them, a self-described “I’m not really a beer person” person, wound up absolutely loving the Twisted Hop’s bloody-great-big Imperial Stout, ‘Nokabollokov’. I love it when that happens; you really never can tell what will work as some particular someone’s Gateway Beer — that’s why you just keep trying.
3: Kick-in-the-pants science, remember? The chemistry of these things is untested; this is it being tested, right there in these bottles.