It’s Indie Beer Day1 here in Australia, which seems like a weirdly appropriate time to reflect on why I can’t really bring myself to care about “independence” itself. Living in a country where that word is (now) the go-to organising principle for a lot of lobbying, events, and branding — certainly much more than it is back home in New Zealand — I’ve realised how it leaves me cold. Sure, “independence” loosely correlates with some things I do care about, but the link is so flimsy that it just doesn’t make for a good guide to follow or banner to wave. As it happens, most of my favourite beers are from independent breweries, and, all else being equal, I’ll probably pick one over a non-indie alternative — but all else is very rarely equal.
This piece first appeared in the August 2017 edition of SOBA’s magazine, The Pursuit of Hoppiness ― a thing which has evolved a lot recently and spawned a nicely-maintained online incarnation, among other improvements. I’ve seen that version of this post handed around a bit already, but I wanted to also share it here (as I have done with other pieces). Overtly hazy beers remain a hot-button topic (as you may already have noticed), but I think the whole thing is most useful as a microcosm for how we think about history and fashion and matters of taste overall…
As I sit down to write this, I’m finishing off a glass of some newfangled hazy beer from an “independent” brewery not far from here. It’s distinctly murky, which blunts its otherwise-lovely golden colour but it’s got a nice amount of flavour without too much bitterness. I could see myself getting used to it. “Sparkling Ale”, they call it. From a Coopers Brewery in Adelaide, founded as recently as 1862! That’s basically just yesterday, given that we humans have been making beer for some 7,0001 years…
More information always seems like a worthy idea. But the truth is a complicated thing and some people are very skilled bullshitters — able to spin a rare species of lie from saying something entirely accurate, which carefully exploits ambiguities in someone’s question or levers off errors in their background understanding. ‘Beer the Beautiful Truth’, a new campaign launched by the Brewers Assocation,1 is sadly just this kind of bullshit. It’s the opposite of what beer needs right now.
This piece originally appeared in the summer edition of SOBA’s magazine, The Pursuit of Hoppiness. A few recent discussions1 of whether (and how) we should more-openly mix our politics and our pitching or purchasing have reminded me to belatedly post it here.
Introducing himself and his mission, Michael Jackson (the drinks writer, not the other one — as the inevitable caveat goes) often said “I want you to think about every beer you put to your lips”. He definitely didn’t just mean taste; he always talked about history, and context, and companionship. But my suspicion is that he wouldn’t have stopped there, and I submit we should add ethics to the list: sometimes, the behaviour of the people who make or sell a beer is reason enough to avoid it entirely. I’m even fairly agnostic about the details. I just want to see more people drawing a line somewhere.
One of the two real constants in my Philosophy Of Beer is that drinking is drug-taking.1 You can say this without being puerile or Prohibitionist; it is, after all, just the plain and literal truth. A lot of things are drug-taking ― from my morning coffee and daily antihistamines to things like morphine and amphetamines ― and there’s no point pretending otherwise or ignoring the wider context, variable as it is. The “drug” concept is (like everything) fuzzy at the margins, but I’m most interested in the ways it entails the need for some kind of moderation in your personal life (which I’ll return to later) and some kind of regulation in society.2 Needless to say, the details vary wildly with the character of the particular drug, and it’s entirely possible to strike the balances very badly indeed. For now, as a warmup to tackling trickier issues later, let’s address one specific rule ― age3 ― and how compliance with it is tested.
The Police regularly conduct “controlled purchase operations”, where an underage person is recruited to attempt to purchase alcohol from, say, a supermarket or a bar. That person can lie when asked their age, but they don’t carry fake ID. Recently, Dominic Kelly ― proprietor of beer bar Hashigo Zake and its importing arm Beer Without Borders ― criticised the practice, labelling it entrapment, and describing it as ‘seedy’, ‘inherently unfair’ and ‘appalling’. Now, I like Dominic. I count him a friend and consider him one of the country’s unsung beer writers; through his editorials in B.W.B.’s entertaining newsletters and his occasional blog, he’s a strong and valuable voice on its regulatory and business aspects. But here, he’s almost completely wrong.
Here’s my contribution to the teetering pile of Reinheitsgebot-related reckons that are surfacing around the thing’s putative 500th birthday ― which is being celebrated despite the old law no longer being in force, the new law not being so old (obviously) nor so simple, and the whole thing being colossally pointless in the first place. I wrote the below for the most-recent edition of SOBA’s Pursuit Of Hoppiness magazine but have added back in a few asides that had to be cut from the print version for space and/or tone. Think of this as the Extended Edition. If I had the coding skills to better-emulate the famous footnotes for David Foster Wallace’s The Host, I’d do that. This’ll have to suffice. If you need more Bonus Material, I’ve ranted down these lines before. For the record, the original text was written entirely under the influence of Kraftwerk and Reinheitsgebot-compliant beers. The latter was a complete coincidence, only realised in hindsight. To compensate, the annotation and uploading was undertaken while drinking beers that firmly had their thumb in the Purity Law’s eye.
This year marks the five-hundredth anniversary1 of a surprisingly-short text2 that came to be known as Reinheitsgebot, the (‘Bavarian’ or ‘German’) Purity Law. It mandated that “the only ingredients for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water”3 and its mythology has proven so strong that it’s still not uncommon4 to see breweries in New Zealand namedropping it in marketing material and referring to it as part of their mission or philosophy — half a world and half a millennium away.
I say “mythology” because the law is vastly overhyped, misunderstood and of basically no relevance to a properly broad view of beer. Almost all of the original 1516 decree concerns the price of the product,5 not its process, and its list of only three permissible ingredients renders brewing impossible since it predates the discovery of, and therefore omits, yeast. That may seem pedantic, but it’s a healthy reminder that old laws and not necessarily good laws. Few of us would be keen to visit a hospital that followed Sixteenth Century standards of hygiene.
A hopefully-exhaustive summary for the apparently-perplexed:
Q — When should I use gender tropes in pitching my product and in the targeting or tailoring of my marketing?
A — Never.1
1: That should do it for this topic. It isn’t complicated. We shouldn’t need to keep having this conversation. Seemingly inevitably, though, it came around again just recently and doubtless it will do so once more soon enough. I’ve been in the beer-selling business for a decade now and I’m still not sure things are improving. So fine. I’ll elaborate, if I must.
Last week, for example, New World (a local supermarket chain) started pushing Facebook ads introducing the winners of various categories in their recent beer and cider awards. One beer was pitched “for your mate”, another was “for your boss”, while the only cider featured was suggested as “for the missus” — falling into the boring old stereotype that cider is for women while beer is for men. To their credit, the PR team yanked the ad very quickly and sent the marketing people back to do it over — and they avoided resorting to the usual ‘nonpology’ formula of “sorry if you were offended”. But in a conversation with their representative they ran the line that there’s a long debate to be had on a role of gender in advertising, on which many points of view can be held — which is understandable and even predictable for a PR firm, but still a little depressing and worth addressing, because there really is nothing to this. Relegating my reasoning to a footnote is my little protest.
A version of this post originally appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of SOBA’s quarterly magazine Pursuit of Hoppiness. The idea came to me during a guest spot on the Ale Of A Time podcast — though I didn’t realise at the time that I could just reuse and rework the standard acronym — and I was recently reminded of the point while Em was on holiday last week and managed to visit the Wheatsheaf (in Adelaide) before me and without me.
The Fear Of Missing Out is an ancient impulse made ever-sharper and more problematic by modern communications technology bringing news of happenings that are too far-flung or ill-timed, or both, to personally enjoy. It crops up often in the beer world, often rendered as “FOMO”1 — both for brevity’s sake and to encompass the wider emotions of anxiety, sadness, and jealousy that also so-naturally accompany missing out. But let’s recalibrate our f-word, so to speak.
So last week, Asahi bought Mountain Goat. And earlier this month Heineken bought half of Lagunitas, then the company which makes Budweiser acquired something called Golden Road, and just under three years prior to that Emerson’s was subsumed within Lion.1 Meanwhile: Russia re-annexed Crimea, Pixar has so far spent a decade in the belly of Disney, India smack-merged with the Eurasian Plate fifty-million-or-so years back and (geologically speaking) threw up the Himalayas, and in four billion years our galaxy will non-violently combine with Andromeda and send countless millions of worlds swirling into new orbits until something else supermassive comes along ― plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.
There are few things more banal and trite, in this strange world of unpaid keyboard-rattling, than the ‘Apology For Not Posting More Often’ post. So let’s not have one of those. In any case, I’m not really sorry; the time off was more than called-for, in the circumstances, and oddly enjoyable, in its own way. Besides, I was hardly on another planet and out of the loop entirely; shorter-form stuff on Twitter and Facebook kept me entertained and let me vent when necessary. But the combination of the extended sabbatical and a recurring pattern of responses — that I both observed and (apparently) provoked — that left me wanting to plant a flag, of sorts, on my way back home; to point at something that’d been murmuring unpleasantly in the background a while and say down with this sort of thing. As I vented once, late last year, in lieu of a proper table-flip:
The idea that "beer people" shouldn't criticise other beer people or breweries and instead present a united front can fuck right off.
— Phil Cook (@phil_cook) December 1, 2014
We are not, in any criticism-immunising sense, "all in this together". A rising tide lifts all boats, sure. But some boats are just shitty.
— Phil Cook (@phil_cook) December 1, 2014
— Phil Cook (@phil_cook) December 1, 2014
As a way to deflect negative attention, I’ve been seeing this (and its close relatives) quite a lot — i.e., way too much. To me personally, it happened most bewilderingly when I pointed out some pretty bloody basic grossness by the guys at WilliamsWarn; and a version of the same popped up, perhaps more inevitably, a few times when I’d given Moa a gentle prod for whatever was their nonsense de jour. Geoff Ross, their CEO, eventually retreated to some bizarre form of economic patriotism rather than listening to people who would perhaps quite like to buy his company’s beer but can no longer bring themselves to reward him with their money. The impulse to see criticism as an attack is apparently strong one in us humans,1 poor bewildered monkeys that we are.
Really, though, it’s your closest friends who’ll tell you when you have schmutz stuck in your teeth. Acquaintances and strangers probably couldn’t give enough of a fuck to bother, and usually can’t be relied upon to point out when you’re behaving like a bit of a dick. In a more-perfect world, your friends wouldn’t hesitate. In any particular domain, it is entirely possible — likely, even — that the infamously grumpy curmudgeon or recidivist ranty bastard is, at heart, a disappointed optimist, pissed off that some frustratingly tenacious crapness is marring something wonderful. The beer business / community / scene / whatever is an excellent place; there’s a reason I’m still here after a decade-and-change — I just can’t fathom why the fuck we’re still dragging along boring old sexism and other miscellaneous bullshit.
The world — the “beer world”, sure, but also, you know, the world-world — is a delightfully morally complex place. This bites in two interesting ways, for present purposes: 1) carping on about one action or aspect of a company while praising another is perfectly possible — I’ve raved about Yeastie Boys’ beers and business model for almost exactly as long as I’ve kept poking them in the ribs about better-labeling where everything comes from2 — and 2) you don’t have to back any particular dog in a fight to comment on the dust-up as it happens. Hell, you don’t even need to cheer for “your” dog, to the extent that you have one; in my time at Garage Project, I had my disagreements with decisions of theirs both minor and major and voiced them as best I could.3
More generally, there just isn’t always a side worth cheering for. To take two recent examples from — who else?4 — Moa, their clashes with Air New Zealand and Cloudy Bay are perfect illustrations. When Moa’s contract to supply the national carrier’s flights was terminated early, their detractors had predictable Schadenfreude and could be seen engaging in few celebrations, but the airline’s decision wouldn’t have had anything to do with rejecting Moa’s longrunning grossness and instead everything to do with a dumptruck full of money from Lion and a sadly backwards way of thinking about how to put together a beer list; nothing praiseworthy, there. Likewise, it was impossible to have any sympathy for Moa in their struggle to get resource consent for their brewery expansion; they wailed about how key its location was to their identity (while happily contract-brewing their flagship beers elsewhere), aggressively pissed-away the money from their IPO that was earmarked for the project, constantly fudged the truth about its scope and made obviously-bogus comparisons to the winery up the road. But Cloudy Bay / Veuve Cliquot, in turn, acted a bit the bully and were also bullshitting pretty hard themselves about their operation and its neighbourhood — they’re hardly a quaint little Château in an unspoilt valley: this was two large-scale corporate booze-producers trying hard to play the underdog. Why pick sides?
There’s plenty of room left for more criticism and more optimism. They make a great pair, and together can do some real good. This is, like I said, an excellent little corner of the world — in terms of geography and market share — but pretending it’s perfect, that every actor has the best of intentions, and that we’re “all in this together” to an extent that people feel obligated to speak only in niceties just won’t help anyone. If you see something5 — good or bad — say something.
1: Us New Zealanders in particular, perhaps. It’s certainly a trait you hear speculated-upon quite often, and the Eleanor Catton Fiasco earlier this year would probably count as evidence. But I’m honestly too much of a Mongrel Cosmopolitan to much notice or comment on border-by-border variations among us. ↑
2: Serendipitously, I noticed yesterday that the new labels now wear their provenance proudly. I claim precisely zero credit for this. ↑
3: Although not well enough, I think, on reflection. At least not well enough in public. The incredible awkwardness of saying things against the people who sign your paycheck (even in the wider context of obviously being a fan) is my only real excuse, here, and I guess my meta-point is that awkwardness shouldn’t exist. ↑
4: Wait. Am I their nemesis, or are they mine? (Neither, of course, really; they’re just a seemingly never-ending source of Useful Lessons and Examples.) ↑
5: A phrase with unfortunate ties to an MTA / Homeland Security campaign that sits way too close to useless scaremongering and which carries an utterly insane trademark symbol everywhere, but still; is catchy. ↑