2016: That was the year that was

'Overlooked Middle Child', from the Beer Diary Brewing Department, shortly before its abandonment. (Wellington, 8 January 2017)
How very metaphorical: a nice vantage point, a weird climate, and a neglected personal project

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.

The Broken Social Media Scene Award

  • Winner: Twitter
  • Simultaneous runners-up: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and (ha!) Google+
Twitter's sadly-retired but never-more-apt Fail Whale
Twitter’s sadly-retired but never-more-apt Fail Whale

Masses of beer commentary and community happens on Twitter — and social media more broadly. They’re great tools for sharing (of both the among-friends “I found this” and the to-the-public “I made this” kinds), and a nicely democratising force. As a blogger-from-way-back, it’s a little frustrating to see ‘Tweetstorms’ take off when they’d often be more useful as full posts somewhere and it’s easy to lament the decline of comments as they’re taken over by replies on social media — which are great at facilitating discussion, but also ephemeral and undiscoverable from the post that prompted them. I’ve got little time for the usual complaints about these things, though: every gripe about the perils of “groupthink” or “pile-ons” overlooks the fact they can be synonyms for “subculture” and “calling out bullshit”, respectively. Beer isn’t politics; we don’t need to worry about a bubble of fans talking among themselves. And there’s real power in seeing people add their +1 when someone makes a cogent swipe against a bit of sexism or other nonsense.

The real problem is that every damn one of these networks survive by selling my activity and attention to advertisers, and it leads them into a murk of mangled timelines, antifeatures, spambots, marketing-in-drag “influencers”, and worse. Twitter are busy making changes no-one seems to want while dragging their feet on their infestation of actual Nazis; Facebook seems to show me more ads than posts from people I specifically asked to see posts from (so they’ll pay for ads, one assumes); Instagram is interesting but mysteriously sealed away from any ‘social’ functions like sharing or linking-out; Snapchat barely makes any damn sense; and Google+ started out looking like a good idea and quickly ended up a wasteland. It gets harder and harder to find the good stuff. But there’s an easy solution, and it’s embarrassingly old-fashioned: sell me the service. Look at Untappd — free to use with no hassles, but businesses and ultra-nerds can pay for extra features and data. Let me do that. Or y’all are gonna go broke, disappear, and I don’t know I can feel confident you’ll be replaced with anything better. Boo.

The Homework-Flubbing Money-Grubbing Award

  • Winner: ANZ Bank
  • Co-conspirators: Various media and banking organisations

Pretty much every news article about the New Zealand beer industry for the last three years has cited the “Craft Beer Industry Insights” report from ANZ Bank. It’s an upbeat little thing with a smattering of graphs and pull-quotes, full of good news about growth and easily-overcome hurdles to more of the same. And it is, to be frank, hot liquid garbage. It’s so flawed as to be anti-information; if you aren’t very careful indeed, you come out of it knowing less about the state of the local beer business than you did going in. Dominic Kelly gave it a good thrashing, and I’d be inclined to be even less kind to it than he is.2 To put the problem shortly and clearly, it’s a report on “craft breweries” which doesn’t say what it means by “craft” and plays fast and loose with the meaning of “brewery” — and which doesn’t even keep its sense of either consistent from report to report. It’s an ad, a way to inject the name of a bank into the news for free publicity, and so a silver-medal pox on the head of every lazy journalist or penny-pinching editor who enabled them to do it so easily.

To make matters worse, ANZ are the loudest peddler of PayWave / Apple Pay / contactless payment gizmos, which are increasingly doing my head in, as a bartender. They’re no real improvement over the EFTPOS cards that New Zealanders already overwhelmingly use and come at the cost of a 1% commission, for no justifiable reason at all. Bars are narrow-margin operations as it is, and we’d all rather spend a percent of our takings on anything else — like a few hours’ wages — than on cutting a couple seconds off transaction time. That the bank quietly pings the bar and not the customer for the privilege is a good sign that very few people would actually pay for the convenience of not having to remember four digits and makes this a particularly odious kind of pickpocketing from a company who’d have you believe they were here to help. Boo.

The Clumsy Stumble Onto The Nearest Passing Bandwagon Award

  • Archetype: Birkenhead Brewing Company
A perfectly fine beer; an even better standard-bearer
A perfectly fine beer; an even better standard-bearer

Note, first, that Birkenhead are just the “archetype”, here. I’m not saying they’re the worst, merely that they embody something annoying a little too well — and well enough that I kept thinking of them in thinking back on the year. And let me also say that I’ve had precisely one of their beers (pictured, above), and it was fine. And finally let me applaud them for acknowledging (imperfectly, but better than most) their contract brewery status and their beer’s actual origin (Steam, so no surprises on the technical merits). But.

I don’t believe for a minute that we have “too many breweries” — but I often suspect we do have too many companies with a shortage of anything-much interesting to offer and an oversupply of confident opportunism that leads them to gracelessly try to run before they know how to walk. Birkenhead started out by shamelessly lifting the logotype of the more-familiar-BBC and awkwardly dressed their beers in Māori imagery before equally-awkwardly removing it. The labels are full of clunky historical and geographical irrelevancies that talk up a heritage they don’t have and only mention the beer itself in agonisingly shallow terms. The whole business model seems to hinge hugely on leveraging “brand NZ” and flogging beer in China, so when bottle-manufacturer O-I came up with its cringe-inducingly pandering “Provider” model — 888ml! Because 8 is lucky in China!3 As if they were naming a goddamn poker website — of course Birkenhead were the first (and I believe still the only) company to go for it. And again: it was a nice beer. But that doesn’t make up for a year of eyerolling so hard I damn near sprained my face. Boo.

The Commentariat Has Nothing To Lose But Its Chains Award

  • Winners: Matt Curtis, Luke Robertson, Martin Craig
  • Evergreen honorable mentions: Boak & Bailey, Matt Kirkegaard
A throwback to when keyboard warriors had actual steel
A throwback to when keyboard warriors had actual steel (Photo by Andrew Dean)

Beer writing is a weird business. Especially when it’s not a business. It’s usually a meta-hobby; a sub-subculture of people with a sideline in talking about their pastime. We’ve often got ambitions to proper journalism and history, but that reach is usually undone by the fact that so much semi-professional work is just marketing in disguise. But still some people stick at it, and try to be transparent, and tell their stories, while also doing enough work to stave off starvation. Much of my reading last year came from three people who recently left their day jobs to do this thing full-time. And that impresses and inspires me, as much as it makes me envious and slightly nauseous in that way you might get while standing next to someone doing something skilful and dangerous, like shucking oysters or juggling chainsaws.

Matt Curtis in the U.K. (Total Ales and Good Beer Hunting), Luke Robertson over in Australia (Ale Of A Time, and its similarly-named podcast) and Martin Craig here in Wellington (Beertown.NZ) are all doing in it in their own ways and on their own terms. I wouldn’t trade places with any individual one of them, and ― if you absolutely pushed me ― I could have my quibbles with each of them, but I’m utterly bloody delighted that they’re out there doing what they do and glad it can be their actual job — proudly and openly — rather than something they have to fit around their job. More professionalism, more actual professionals, and maybe we’ll keep on the right track. This is a good time to be reading about beer. Hurrah.

The Trans-Tasman Rising Tide Of Closer Economic Relations Award

  • Winners: Steve Jeffares & Guy Greenstone
  • Crowding the podium: Their many volunteers and employees at GABS, etc.
Apologies if this causes a vintage-Simpsons earworm
Apologies if this causes a vintage-Simpsons earworm

One of the biggest boosters of the New Zealand beer scene is actually an Australian outfit: the little tangle of companies headed-up by Steve and Guy of The Local Taphouse(s) and their spun-off festival GABS ― The Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular.4 They took that word “Australasian” seriously from the get-go and welcomed a host of NZ breweries to their festivals in Melbourne, and later Sydney. In 2016, they expanded to include Auckland, filling the gap created by the demise of another event, and giving back a suitably big beer show to our biggest city. I went along, and it was a highlight of my beery year — even through my unreliable memory. Just recently, too, they expanded their longrunning ‘Hottest 100’ poll to include NZ beer. Not by lumping us in with the Australians and forcing a playoff doomed to be skewed by population differences, but by just replicating the whole damn system for our beer. It’s an excellent idea, and a nice gesture.

Private, profit-making enterprises are literally under no obligation to do good for its own sake. But it’s nice to be reminded that a business can do well by doing good. If you talk to Steve or Guy — or any one of their small army of helpers, paid in money and/or in kind — after a festival, you’ll hear the exhausation in their voice, but still excitement and elation. Hurrah.

The We Really Could Be Heroes (But It’ll Be Fucking Hard Work) Award

  • Winner: Kerry Gray of Choice Bros. / HUSK
  • Lifetime achievement award: The Mussel Inn
Well, this is a good sign
Well, this is a good sign

Kerry nicely encapsulates basically every damn thing worth applauding in this industry at the moment. As a beer-maker he’s inventive, savvy, and scrupulously honest about what he’s doing. Reet Petite (Red IPA with ginger) and Strung Out On Lasers (raspberry and lime gose) were recurring favourites of mine last year, and it pleased me no end to see the production brewery credited on contract-brewed batches. He also gave the most endearingly frank and humble acceptance speech so far to grace the Brewers’ Guild Awards, when the former quite-rightly picked up a trophy. As a venue-owner he’s doing marvellously as well; HUSK opened at the end of 2016 and is fast becoming part of the landscape — once the on-site brewery and coffee roastery are fully operational, it’ll be formidable indeed, but already there’s great food, lovely beer, and a nice vibe to be had. And while busy with all that, he was a regular of ours at Golding’s, and never once let the stress of it all stop him from being a thoroughly decent fellow.

Too many contract brewers enter the market with entirely too much swagger and far too little to offer (see above) and you just couldn’t say either of Choice Bros.. I’m sure the prognosticators are right that 2017 will be the year of (the resurgence of) the brewpub, but never forget the inevitability that many of them will be shit — bland little me-too bandwagoning operations, if not outright fabrications thanks to crap like the WilliamsWarn homebrew-for-pubs and companies that’ll sell you wort you can ferment in your own bar so you look like a real brewery.5 HUSK isn’t one of them. It’s legit, and it’s lovely. Kerry did it the hard way, he kicked its arse, and he retained his humanity while he was at it. Hurrah indeed.

Onwards, then, to the New Year. Let’s see what it’s got, shall we?

  1. Not that anyone in particular is obliged to help the beer industry in general, of course.
  2. I have a draft post I keep returning to whenever another mention of the fucking thing surfaces, but it’s always proven to depressing to actually finish.
  3. They’ve now launched two more-vaguely-standard sizes, but shoe-horned them to 328ml and 518ml, for fuck’s sake.
  4. And, most recently but also least relevantly (for present purposes), Stomping Ground Brewery.
  5. And I do hope some enterprising gang of beer writers make damn sure the people who pull those tricks are paying their proper excise taxes…

3 thoughts on “2016: That was the year that was”

  1. Phil… did you really just write “Beer isn’t politics” with a straight face? If there was an award for turning beer into politics, I think you and Dylan might win it! I’m not judging that, just suggesting that there’s more than a little irony there. 🙂

    I salute the literal intent though. I hope 2017 is well and truly the year of beer being beer – something to be enjoyed, socialised around, and generally celebrated as part of a life well lived.

    Happy new year bro.


    1. Cheers, Greig!

      And yes, there was a little irony loaded in there. In a sense, of course, there’s politics everywhere. And there probably should be. But beer’s certainly quite far removed from the kind of politics that starts wars and gets problematic when people isolate themselves and turn off their empathy— I guess that’s all I meant, really; that here, “bubbles” are fine. So to speak.

      Looks like you’ve got big changes ahead in your 2017. I look forward, and I say this without a hint of the irony that seems fashionable, to my next visit to Hamilton!


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