Late-breaking news that beers from Stone, a legendary but rather isolationist Californian brewery, would be available “legitimately” in this part of the world was greeted with some surprise by local beer geeks. Stone have never exported to New Zealand (nor even to all parts of their own country) and Greg Koch, co-founder and figurehead of the brewery, is famously opposed to “grey market” imports and goes out of his way to encourage that the consumption of beer be “fresh-and-as intended, or not at all”. And indeed, plenty of the incredulous reaction was vindicated; in the end, it transpired that an announcement of impending distribution was a tragic (and strange) miscommunication. But what we Wellingtonians did get — and what Melburnians soon will get — turned out to be a super-sized, double-venue’d, fairly-freakin’-serious tap takeover. There was a subtle lingering awkwardness in that the night’s hosts — Malthouse, and its younger brewpub sibling, Fork & Brewer — have always dealt in the kinds of mainstream offerings and parallel-imported beers1 that Greg so righteously rails against, but still. The result was a shining example of How To Pub:2 the beers I had were only uniform in their excellence, and the mood in both bars was wonderful to partake in.
One of few real criticisms of the night was that each venue’s beer lists weren’t published anywhere and you had to fall back to scouring Untappd / Twitter / Whatever for clues, if ping-ponging between bars seven hundred metres apart seemed inconvenient. But just before leaving work, I spotted (somewhere online) that Stone’s new sessionable ‘Go To’ IPA was on at the F&B, so I headed there first. I did technically already own, waiting for me at Malthouse, a glass of the ‘w00tstout’ Stone brewed in collaboration with Drew Curtis (of Fark.com) and Wil Wheaton (of, well, Plenty Of Awesome Things) having stopped by the bar earlier keen-bordering-on-paranoid not to miss out on it but equally conscious of its over-ten-percent punch and the work I had left to be done — including driving a delivery van. In any case, starting with an Imperial Stout doesn’t often bode well, so thankfully the unexpected prospect of a midstrength hoppy pale was enticing enough to distract me.
After an alarmingly-shaky start a few years ago (in both the brew~ and ~pub departments), the Fork does seem to be finding its feet. Co-hosting events like this — and doing so rather well — can only help to demonstrate that. Meanwhile, ‘Go To’ was delicious and exactly what I felt like: a properly thirst-smacking lush golden body with a massive hop aroma hurtling up the nose to shock a fading brain back into alertness — and also to cut through the worty wafts of a brewpub in mid-brew. The Americans in general have a reputation for their superboozy beers (lacking a ramping-up excise tax regime to discourage them), so it was gratifying to see a sub-five-percenter go against the trend — and then to spy another (the ‘Levitation’: a maltier, smoother and calmer affair, utterly perfect for pint #2) and to have that, too. I then wound up helping a friend work his way through a flight of tasting glasses, having sips of four much-madder beers — white wine barrel-aged ‘Cali-Belgique’; Matt’s Burning Rosids,3 brewed in honour of an employee killed in an accident at the brewery; Perfect Crime; and Vertical Epic 11.11.114 — which were all well put-together, diverse, interesting, storied, and at least a few leagues North of merely “good”; great fuel for sipping and rambling.
But my w00tstout kept calling from down the road, and didn’t disappoint once I retrieved it. I think I spent a full hour with it, a massive thing of madness and deliciousness with plenty going on — the collision of two of my own particular kinds of geekiness in such a lovely beer made for an utterly sublime experience. A few more tasters from the relatively-bonkers end of the spectrum followed — a white-wine barrel aged saison called ‘The Tiger Cub’; and the red wine barrel-aged version of the ‘Cali-Belgique’ I’d previously tried — which both just went nicely with more sipping and rambling with regulars and colleagues from my Malthouse days. I switched back to having pints of the saner stuff, afterwards, and found the everyday Pale Ale and IPA both to be buckets of fun and just as worthy as the weirder ones, in their own ways. The bar was in absolutely fine form, and despite the critical eye that a former staff member would naturally have, it probably still hasn’t been equalled when it really gets a run-up and goes in for full-noise beer events.
The beers were all good. They were stupidly and consistently good, forming a range of genuinely impressive scope with properly skillful execution. But one of the surprising lessons learned from having a cross-section of such legendary things in front of me was that we’re doing pretty damn well, here. It’s one thing to leap at the chance to try them, to let yourself be blown away by them, and to drift blissfully through a fair few glasses — but don’t despair that they’re not more-readily available down here. Even with only a token factoring-in of scope and history, the local (and here I mean “Australasian”) breweries are easily pulling their weight.5 Damn right I’ll be visiting Stone whenever I find myself even vaguely in California’s orbit, but as these beers were running out one by one last week, I wasn’t mourning; I’m not even close to done learning about the things within reach to worry very much. ‘Go To’ was great — but so are Liberty’s ‘C!tra Junior’ and Panhead ‘Quickchange’, just for example; I could go on.
Close to midnight, I went in search of a suitable nightcap, and found it in the form of Stone’s 2010 Imperial Stout; a giant velvet exclamation point to end a lovely evening. Epic Brewing’s Luke Nicholas6 was commandeering the sound system (for better or — occasionally — worse), as he does, and Greg Koch jumped up on the bar for some old-timey-style evangelism, which was kind of adorable and awesome but also put me back in mind of a few misgivings. I’m all for broadening peoples’ notions of what beer can be, but there’s an uneasy inconsistency in Stone’s off-and-on-again absolutism about some things: Greg’s fanatical anti-grey-market stance is awkward standing in front of a fridge featuring more than a few such bottles, and preaching about the unenlightened “on this very street” is a little strange in a bar that will happily — and rightly — sell them a faux-import Heineken right now. The event could’ve been staged in collaboration with (if not at, for reasons of scale) Hashigo Zake, for example, if moral purity was a paramount concern. And against all that reaching-out rhetoric, something like “Fizzy Yellow Beer Is For Wussies” clashes horribly. Not least because of the simple fact that several of the Stone beers on offer that evening were objectively-speaking both a) fizzy and b) yellow — nor the even-better point that, with everything in its right place, even the simplest, blandest, most-unfashionable and “mediocre” beer can be just the thing for the moment. The real problem here is a simple breach of the Ethics of Comedy: the Fizzy Yellow Beer line makes fun of the mainstream drinker, not the often-duplicitous producer, and amounts to the sin of “punching down”. If we’re going to be evangelising — and please, let’s — we’d be better off not trying to snark and smile at the same people simultaneously. Beers as good as these actually do very well at speaking for themselves, anyway.
Original notes:7 City Tap Takeover 13/3/14 @ F&B, to start. 1) ‘Go To’ IPA 4.5% just as Colin, Luke + Greg arrived. The place is jumping — but very worty as Lester is still going. Fucking delicious, hugely hoppy, golden + fabulous. Massive, uppy, but not angry. Gorgeous. Nice to see this place crammed with happy — if starstruck — nerds. 2) ‘Levitation’ 4.4% Another session beer spied, and therefore ordered. Really nice comparison; vastly maliter, less hoppy, less spiky + fizzy in presentation. Glassphemy, too, in a Coopers glass — sure sign of a busy bar. Loads of good people + good vibes. (Helping with Kit’s tasters: Cali-Belgique (White Wine) 8.8% Matt’s Burning Rosids 10.5%, Perfect Crime 6.8%, and Vertical Epic 11.11.11 9.4% Just shows a great breadth. 1) is like unpuckering Funkonnay, says Kit, and he’s on to something. 2) is like a jasmine bonfire, serious but lovely. 3) more forgettable after just a sip, but you quickly get that in a crowd. 4) Holy hell, #freshisnotbest. Big explosion, despite its age. Spicy, which might help it on that front.) 3) @ Malthouse, now. W00tstout! @wilw’s beer, among others. I bought one at 2pm, out of sheer FOMO. Which wasn’t necessary in the end, but totally worth it. The only plausible case for insurance, really. So good. Tonnes of smooth, boozy flavour. Pecans evident but not obnoxious. Just sublime. It took over an hour, and it was marvellous. Then two little tasters: The Tiger Club (White Wine) 8.9% and Cali-Belgique (Red Wine) 8.8% — And, fuck it, a pint of the flagship Pale 5.8% Everyone’s having a grand time. The staff are in their element, and the bar is — as it always did — kicking arse in Beer Event mode. The a Stone IPA because why not. Greg’s on the bar, and Luke’s on the sound system. It’s vintage Malthouse, and it’s bliss. And then, while I was looking for a nightcap, a sour-face-inducing Gueze came out, for the VIPs, I guess. 6) Imperial Stout 2010. There we go. That’ll do.
1: And rightly so I hasten to add, for reasons that flow from their physical locations, market niche, and from the fundamentally-usually-rather-overblown nature of the anti-grey panic in the first place. The scare-quotes are very firmly only “legitimately” in this post’s first sentence because, despite Greg’s fevered use of words like “illegal black market” (see the footnotes of the above-linked entry), the sale of his beer here has always been legal under NZ law whether he likes it or not — and whatever the valid concerns there might be with the practice. (Also, to pre-emptively split hairs, I’m not certain that the F&B stocks / stocked grey beer, but they definitely trade in mass-market stuff.) ↑
2: Without meaning to imply that there’s only One Way, of course; I just had a surpassingly wonderful very quiet-and-civilised night at Golding’s, drinking plural Panhead beers, eating delicious pizza, and watching the Cosmos re-make. ↑
3: It turns out that the Rosids are a group of flowering plants, including — no surprise, in context, once you learn the first half of this sentence — our friend the hop. ↑
4: One of those joyful-and-t00-rare moments when the Americans’ maximally-stupid middle-endian month-first date notation won’t drive me mad. ↑
5: I’m fairly sure it was Luke Robertson who nudged me into keeping this in mind, but I can’t remember if he did so on the Twitters, his blog, or in his podcast. I recommend you follow all three. ↑
6: Who must’ve been a contributing cause to this event happening in these places, friend and collaborator of the manager — and fellow oddball hophead to Greg Koch — as he is. ↑
7: I’m on to my third actual Beer Diary, but the power cord for the scanner has fritzed out, so I’m having to make do with somewhat-difficult-to-stage photos, for now. ↑
8 thoughts on “Stone’s ‘City Tap Takeover’”
Great, balanced piece. I’m partly sad I missed this but I’ve missed even more exciting things this year… there’s an opportunity cost every minute of my life.
I’m totally with your uneasy thoughts on on/off absolutism… but it’s certainly better than always on absolutism! I’m far less easy with that. On/off absolutism probably just means, like you and I, they are still trying to figure out who and what they are. And that ain’t a bad thing at all.
And I am so glad for the existence of Stone, just as I’m glad of Sam Adams and Brew Dog and Little Creatures etc… because they have opened so many people’s minds (and still continue to do so). Someone said it so perfectly to me in Scotland. Without them all we’d probably still exist but we’d be far less noticed.
Excellent post Phil.
I was very amused by the evangelism. I’m not sure if an American audience would have had the same tone of sniggering and nervous laughter.
I’m disappointed I didn’t get to FAB to try the lower strength beers. Should have popped by there earlier on the day.
CaliBelgique (red wine) was great.
Someone has to keep the bastards honest, right?
Then that someone often tries one of their beers and says “oh, it’s actually pretty good”. As one of those somes. I guess it’s all part of the ride.
I still think it’s strange. Even though the takeover sounded incredibly exciting; and I’m going to do my best to try a lot of their beers – It’s not exactly the best way to keep demand for gray imports low.
(oh and thanks for the footnote Phil. I think it’s my first ever)
Good point about stoking demand as a side-effect. I’m sure some enterprising people will be poised for that…
It was nice to try the beers “as intended” and be comforted that the hype isn’t all mere hype. These near-mythical beers always make me wonder how much Emperor’s New Clothes is going on. These were reassuringly tasty; I’d be chuffed if Stone was my local – and then I’d also get more chances to grump at their annoying marketing. But then, I’m chuffed-enough with my current locals!
The raw sex appeal of ‘w00tstout’ merely having been thought of by Will Wheaton was enough to drag us in the doors. Then all the other beers for sampling just happened to get a going over. What terrible lives we lead ;D
Special mention to the gear for purchase. Nabbed me some hot sauce !
Nice piece Philbert.
FYI it’s called ‘The Tiger Cub’. I know this because it was my favourite.
Oops. Thanks; I’ve amended that upstairs.
I guess this is an inherent limitation of relying on notes — if they’re wrong (through bleary-eyed misreading or dodgy-penmanship), then you’ll stay wrong. Until lovely people stop by the blog and help out, of course. Cheers!
Stone is quite the tour de force in SoCal, having a number of outlets, the brewery/bistro (definitely worth the trip) and the largest craft beer distributor in the region. I met Greg when we were there and he seemed like a pretty decent bloke, hooking me up with a discount on gear as I was a brewery worker at the time, as well as suggesting the batch of Crime made with the chillies from his own garden. I think he’s definitely fighting the good fight, even if he’s a bit bombastic for Kiwi tastes.
On another note, I get a perverse kick out of drinking pilsners whilst wearing my “fizzy yellow beer… ” Arrogant Bastard tee.