Wellington bars, from inside and out

Malthouse as "Ma house" (13 September 2013)
My former workplace, after serendipitous signage failure or inspired minor vandalism

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.

'Wellington — the home of craft beer' by Donna-Lee Biddle (Stuff.co.nz, 11 July 2015)
An article in the Waikato Times, featuring my new workplace

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?

Emerson's 'Southern Clam' stout, plus whisky and oysters (LBQ, 20 July 2014)
Beer with superfancy lunch. And whisky. Admittedly my beer-and-food photo collection is relatively rather lacking.

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. 

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