Still enjoying my Sydney sabbatical — especially now the heat has eased somewhat — I’ve been reconfirmed in a small thought about small bars, of which this town has increasingly-many, thanks (apparently)1 to a relatively-recent law change. I had a bit of a ramble recently on the podcast about licensing laws and will need to return to the topic properly now that New Zealand’s “reforms” are in effect, but for present purposes my concern is that our current (and former) rules were applied almost entirely uniformly, whatever they are. There’s always a certain facile attraction in blanket legislation, but my recent wanderings have reinforced a simple point perhaps too-often overlooked: you are insane if you treat all licensed venues alike.
There is a lot wrong with the prevailing Antipodean drinking culture, and I’m not remotely suggesting that “small bars” are flawless2 or the complete answer to anything. But you have to applaud Sydney for its neat little ecosystem of different-sized places doing different-styled things, giving varied ideas and formats an airing and seeing what works. Treating every venue as if they were heaving, recklessly-discounting, neighbour-nuisancing boozers just because that seems an easier way to tackle genuinely-existing3 problems will wind up causing a tonne of needless collateral cultural damage. A lot of New Zealand’s new rules seem unfortunately destined to make life harder for exactly the kinds of operations that represent (on their good days) a more-enlightened approach to things-with-booze-in.4
From my bartender-training days, I remember “test-tube shots” being specifically called-out and demonised in the materials as if they were somehow inherently a sign of ill-advised drinking. But here one was at Stitch — a supercute basement bar in downtown Sydney, decked-out with a suprisingly-successful sewing machine aesthetic (including dozens of vintage Singer machines, and treadle-equipped tables to sit and drink at) — and it’s hard to imagine that an eighteen-dollar Boilermaker5 of a mini-Old-Fashioned and a dependable American import6 is ultimately implicated in many worrying and/or unhealthy nights out. Instead, it was a thoughtful and delicious little addition to their overall offering, perfectly capable of being Enjoyed Responsibly. If you can’t handle even the small amount of nuance needed to allow for just those kinds of possibilities,7 you need to get out of the policy-making business. All drinks are not created, or served, equally.
1: I’m a Foreigner; forgive me if I get the details and/or the history wrong. And by all means — and as always — corrections, clarifications and continuations are more than welcome. ↑ 2: This post’s title, to head off any observant but poorly-read pedants, is an irresistible little English cliché (of weirdly-uncertain origin, apparently) more than anything else. ↑ 3: Although almost-always overblown. We do love a good Moral Panic, as a species, it seems. But that’s another post for another time — and will require a lot more references (though Pete Brown does a damn-admirable job in pulling a bunch together for semi-regular and enjoyably-sharp rants thereon). Meanwhile, just have a look at the scaremongering quote from the Hotel Association rep. in the above-linked Time Out article. Battle lines in the policy debate aren’t as simple as regulators versus retailers; the huge operators will happily slag off the small to try and lobby against losing their advantages. ↑ 4: Indeed, recalling the spectacular tin ear I complained about the other day in regard to Wellington’s advertising, our Council’s first draft of changes for the local area included the creation of a ghetto — styled as an “entertainment precinct” — which would’ve hugely favoured the City’s obviously-problematic operators and seriously hampered further evolution of the increasingly civilised fringe. I remember being outraged by the incredible wrong-headedness of the idea around podcast-recording time; fortunately, it was abandoned. ↑ 5: See also Whisky + Alement, next time you’re in Melbourne, for a really excellent range of deftly-matched [Craft] Beer + Whisk[e]y combinations. ↑ 6: Albeit one with a bit of an identity crisis, to be fair; the brewery bleats on nonsensically about how “traditional” and “small” it is while a) committing the classic Big Business sin of trademarking a style term and b) producing 20ML already and planning under c) it’s new mega-corporate owners to d) quadruple capacity. ↑ 7: And then, once your imagination’s nice and warmed-up, to contemplate rules, conditions, and fees that differ appropriately in response to the character of the place in question… But again; details another time. ↑
This is indeed a great town to live in — in general, and especially in the going out for a drink or a dinner or a mooch or a movie senses. But a few things about Positively Wellington’s recent ads begin to slip into the territory of the boorishly boastful or (worse) looking like they’re covering up for a needless underlying lack of confidence — when it’s taking out full-page ads in the Wellington paper, just who is Wellington marketing itself to?
Anyway, they strayed into beer territory this week, and attracted my attention with the claim that there are “10 craft breweries in Wellington” — a sentence for which you need to simultaneously hold aggravatingly loose defintions of “craft”, “brewery” and “Wellington” all at the same time for “10” and “in” to stand any chance at all of being considered true.
To count them off, in a rough geographical order, the City itself currently has 1) Garage Project,1 2) ParrotDog, 3) Fork & Brewer, and 4) Black Dog — the latter a test for your definition of “craft” since it’s a wholly-owned subsidiary of D.B., local representative of the Global Heineken Behemoth and proud member of the standing duopoly.2 Out a little in the still-definitely-Wellington suburbs, you’ve got tiny little 5) Baylands Brewery, and then in kinda-maybe-not-“Wellington”-anymore Upper Hutt, 6) Panhead and 7) Kererū have recently sprung up. Now, I consider myself a Wellingtonian and would introduce myself as such to foreigners but everyone3 knows I’m really not, because I’m from Lower Hutt, which is still a good deal closer than either of those two new breweries. But onwards anyway, generously, to 8) Tuatara; easily the #1 brewery in the region in terms of production volume and still-standing longevity, but who are really starting to get the definition of “Wellington” to breaking point, since you can’t even phone them for free from here and need to drive through a good deal of intervening farmland to visit them in person.
And that’s it, really. Eight, tops.4 Which is a really good number for a place of our size, especially with the appalling absence, just a few years ago (which somehow goes unmentioned and even un-hinted-toward, in the ad), of any breweries from the above list other than Tuatara. And while 8 out of 10 is nothing to be sneezed at, pretending 8 is 10 amounts to letting a four-foot-nine person claim they’re six feet tall. Which, in this Tolkein-derived-movie-obsessed town, will get you some seriously miss-cast extras. It is indeed boom time for beer-making in Wellington; we’re recovering spectacularly from an embarrassing low point and kicking serious arse, it’s fair to say. But I’ve never spoken to anyone in the business who has highly praised the local bureaucracy for any astonishing helpfulness. It’s a big red-tape tangle. These things always are. That’s a reality, not a gripe. I’m just not sure Wellington (as an ad-buying entity) has done enough to help this development to entitle them to boast of its success and bask in its halo.5
Given the Yeastie Boys logos in the ad, it seems they’re padding their numbers further by also throwing the usual meaning of “brewery” on the fire and extending it to “companies who produce beer under contract at various places around the country, but have at least one director who lives in Wellington”. But then you’ve probably got oodles other than them and Funk Estate. The second statistic under the image claims 10+ coffee roasteries, so why couldn’t it have been “5+” breweries? Easy, unassailable, and still praiseworthy. The reaching for a bigger boast just looks a little sad, and causes the corrosive effect where if one data point looks shady then the rest get a sideways glance, warranted or not — and that’s if you weren’t already wondering about contextless figures on two hundred thousand people eating snacks.6
To top it all off, have another look at those Yeastie Boys logos. You’d be forgiven for finding them unfamiliar, because it looks like they — and the others — have been composited on to packaging those breweries don’t use. “10 craft breweries” in Wellington, and yet the ad features the produce of precisely one. That’s fairly egregious poor form for a town of such diversity, and in which there exists a small wealth of excellent retailers — such as perhaps the one mentioned twice by name in the ad itself — from which further props could’ve easily been sourced.
It’s a great little town, it really is. If it’s “home” — temporarily or not — you should be prouder of it than you are, however proud you already are. And if you’re not semi-permanently one of us, you should visit more often, however often you already do. We are basically the perfect small town; let us not succumb to Small Town Insecurity. Counting tokens of a hard-to-define type7 will always lead to trouble, and you quickly look oddly sad for trying. So just don’t. The numbers do not constitute the scene, and the scene is doing damn well on its own. Boasting doesn’t count as helping.
1: Entirely coincidentally, for present purposes, my current main (but not only) employer. It’s probably always worth repeating that I’m not speaking on their behalf here — nor basically anywhere — and indeed, if anything, they’ll be somewhat miffed (but hopefully forgiving) at my nit-picking an ad which features them in such a positive light. ↑ 2: Although possibly not for long, in both the sense that a) I hear D.B. might be wussing out of their worthy experiment and shuttering Black Dog, which seems a shame [Updated: rumours unfounded, according to their Twitterthing. But that’ll be worth following-up / double-checking for Big Brewery Spin And Evasion soon…], and b) it might not be a “duopoly” much longer, given how well (in the pejorative sense) Boundary Road / “Independent” / Asahi have been doing, lately. ↑ 3: Where “foreigner” equals, e.g., an Albanian, Australian, or Aucklander; anyone from outside the 04 area, basically — and “everyone” is those of us within it. ↑ 4: For the sake of completeness, you could always argue that “the Wellington Region” also includes (at least) Regent 58 and Martinborough Brewery and so, ta da, 10. I think the ad’s pretty-obviously about Wellington-Wellington, though, not the “region”. From a perusal of their website, Positively Wellington focus on the City and its immediate environs, and while you can find them pimping wider-regional things like Toast Martinborough, you’d be just mad or speaking another language entirely if you said the latter event, for example, took place “in Wellington”. ↑ 5: While happy to adopt the “Craft Beer Capital” moniker — and admittedly supporting the website and organisation of the same name — the local bureaucracy seems to miss plenty of chances to help out in tangible ways: my understanding is that Beervana gets little to no Council assistance,a with them proving unable even to alter catering arrangements at the Town Hall to enable non-horrible food to be served when the festival was held there, and throughout the recent revisions to our liquor laws I haven’t seen anything from the local Council which seeks to treat small, civilised bars any different from more-problematic booze barns, or local brewery cellar doors any different from discount retailers. ↑ — a: Despite their weight being thrown behind a recent “Octoberfest” knockoff, though that was perhaps a one-time abberration caused by John Morrison in campaign mode and looking to shore up the boofhead vote. ↑ 6: Is that a lot, on a per-capita basis? I have literally no idea. I do vaguely recall some statistic that suggested us Wellingtonians ate a weirdly-high proportion of our meals outside of our homes, so there’s probably something in this. But who knows? A bamboozling barrage of numbers is a pretty sure-fire sign of a bullshitter, all else being equal. ↑ 7: To note one little point against bothering to define “craft beer” at all — a topic on which I’m still undecided and not going to totally open the valves on, here — just look how strange it is that beer is basically the only noun in the ad that they feel needs an adjective. It’s just “bread, ice cream, pizza”. No need to gild the lily. “Boutique”, as a qualifier for various small industries, seemed to quickly come and go, and “artisanal” pretty-much instantly became synonymous with hipster pretension. Again; get your hand off it. We’ll probably survive if we just call it “beer”. ↑
In this, as in all things, context is king. Perfect circumstances can rescue the naffest of beers — and mismatchings of time and/or place could equally ruin the most otherwise-charming. Today, Wellingtonians were rightly beside themselves with the sheer loveliness of the weather out there, seizing upon this as the first real Saturday of the summer by pootling around in boats, sitting in the warm sunshine, or hurling themselves off a pier and into the still-actually-rather-brisk-now-you-mention-it harbour. Myself, I was gardening.1 My deeply-ingrained nocturnality is slowly and awkwardly (but painlessly enough) giving way and I’m becoming a little more ambitempstrous2 as I slowly discover worthwhile things about the daylight hours the Normals inhabit.
Meanwhile, there was a Crafty Beggars ‘Wheat As’ in my fridge, thanks to its — potentially ironic — inclusion in a little Thank You parcel the Brewers’ Guild gave me after I helped go over the Beer Writer Of The Year nominees earlier this year. Since I was hugely not a fan of it the first time I had it — as an inherently-underwhelming thing as well as because of its annoying halo of brandwank — I resolved to give this “bonus” bottle its best-possible go. A few hours of serious hack-and-slash dig-and-heave garden rehabilitation provided exactly the right opportunity to climb the goat-track to the Thinking Chair in the back corner of the property to take in the view,3 eat some delicious cheese, and have a beer.
And it was, I’ll cheerfully admit, fucking glorious; properly refreshing, flavourful but not distractingly so, it went gangbusters with the cheese (and its surroundings), and had the added benefit of being a sessionable four-point-zero percent. Given the price-point these things seemed to be pitched at — doubtless to serve as a bulwark against Independent / Asahi’s rather-aggressive (and successful!) attempt to carve out some market share — it could prove one of the bargain buys of the summer. If — always a crucial “if”, and always up to the individual — you can bring yourself to hand over your money to its producer.
If you’ll forgive the loose extrapolations from a single (but sublime) moment, this impossible-to-overstate element of context is a good part of the reason why I can never bring myself to push the “ratings” buttons in Untappd, and a strong element of my ongoing leeriness of beer awards. What would I be rating any particular beer against — my assumptions of what it was going to be like, its reputation, its “style” (defined by its marketing department, or someone more “objective”?), or how it fit the particular occasion, no matter how little thought I gave to my selection? And likewise, what hope can any number of potentially-bloody-marvellous beers have of being at their best in a little tasting glass, among scores of broadly-similar relatives, at a table full of weary judges?
I would happily stand up in any beer geek support group and say “Hi, my name is Phil Cook and, just the other day, I acutally bloody loved a Crafty Beggars ‘Wheat As'”. Hopefully, this is part of what separates the enthusiasts from the snobs. I won’t be rushing out to buy more — Lion aren’t in boycott territory,4 but I think there always plenty of more-deserving candidates for a dose of my meagre monies — but, in context, it was great. If you need me, I’ll be up in my Thinking Chair, mulling that over.
1: And then I hurled myself off a pier. ↑ 2: Apparently the actual word is “cathemeral”. ↑ 3: Caveats: 1) it’s a rental, not “mine” (nor even “my bank’s”) in the ownership sense, 2) there’s a seriously perilous goat-track to get to this spot; it’s not even vaguely representative of the rest of the place. I hope my Middle Class credentials are unsullied after you’ve seen my Harbour Views. ↑ 4: Unlike, you know, some people. ↑
The four word version of my answer came to me immediately, but I’m entitled to a somewhat-roomier 250, so I might as well use them. I’m looking forward to seeing what else people come up with today, but for what it’s worth, here’s me:
Be Your Damn Self
It all comes down to that.3 And it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the elevator talking to a consumer, producer, commentator, or — let’s face it — yourself.
Drink what you like, how you like.4 Be open to new things, but an informed and tested preference is unimpeachable — and you should assert it. Don’t be cowed by fashion or peer pressure or the tragic one-way-street of ‘brand loyalty’. Sensory experiences occur privately in the brain; cherish that, and leave others to their weird decisions while you enjoy yours.
Brew what you like, how you like. If you’re worrying about what “leading breweries” are doing, you aren’t one and likely won’t become one. Doing anything well will steadily stoke demand for exactly that thing. Don’t mislead your customers about who you are or how you operate — there’s nothing inherently wrong with any particular scale or business model, but there’s a lot wrong with bullshit.
Say what you believe, with your own slant. Objectivity’s basically unattainable, and little fun anyway. Be up front about your biases, nail your colours, and speak truth — whether brutal, rhapsodic, ramblingly personal, or partisan. Every unique and genuine voice is valuable signal in the ongoing conversation. Inauthenticity is noise pollution.
Know thyself, as our friend5 Socrates (probably) said. A little more honesty — internally and externally — will get us a long way.
1: Including myself. ↑ 2: Seriously, you should see my Feedly. Which is, by the way, proving very handy since the demise of Google Reader. Actually, you probably should see my Feedly. I must do a round-up for Beerpeople I Like To Read, one day. There’s buckets of good stuff out there. ↑ 3: In just 1.6% of the allocated time! ↑ 4: Just be moderate — in moderation.a↑ — a: Which apparently isn’t Oscar Wilde — and he’s also wrongly cited for the “Be yourself, everyone else is taken” which could nicely sum up my (unusually brief) ramble, here. (Though he does have a somewhat-similar “Most people are other people” in De Profundis, apparently.) ↑ 5: He’s in the Bruces’ Philosophers Songtwice; surely he counts as a friend. ↑
Here’s an interesting angle on the “faux-craft” clusterfuck that has besieged the local beer business: BrewDog, plucky young Scottish upstarts equally loved and loathed for their antics and attitude, have finally signed up an official New Zealand distributor — and it’s ‘Boundary Road’. That is to say, it’s the grotesquely-misnamed Independent Liquor, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Asahi, operating under the guise of their contrived and not-really-existent “brewery… nestle[d] in the foothills of the Hunua ranges”. As a conglomerate, B.R.B. / I.L. / Asahi are peddlers of all kinds of bullshit and nonsense, and really know how to put the f-word in “faux-craft”, so to speak.
Independent work the fakery at both ends and very fond of the “origin-fudging” I tipped as the unfortunate theme of 2012. With Boundary Road, they’ve set up a Potemkin1 craft brewery which they pretend isn’t the hugely industrial facility that also manufactures three-litre casks of vodka RTDs and which pumps out licensed knock-offs of green bottle Continental lagers that try very hard indeed to look imported. Leveraging the mega-bucks of the alco-pop business,2 they seem keen to take up a seat alongside our existing local beer duopoly, and to carve out a greater slice of the market. Already armed with big, mainstream international brands — both counterfeit and genuinely imported — they recently embarked on a campaign to shore up some “craft” cred. It began in earnest with their ‘Resident’ project, which brought in (with some wankery and double-dealing) an American brewer whose image still adorns several beers,3 continued with their distribution of the Sam Adams / Boston Beer Company range from the U.S., and now — or at least very soon, judging by the Beervana exhibitors list— includes distributing BrewDog. The effort to co-opt some goodwill by associating with those brands is transparent in the way they’re labelled as imported by “Boundary Road” while they avoid using that name on their decidedly low-brow volume-game products like Ranfurly.4
BrewDog are expanding at an impressively dizzying pace, but signing up with Boundary Road / Independent / Asahi is complete nonsense and makes a mockery of all the occasions on which they’ve (rightly!) been invoked5 as aggressive and elaborate marketers who remain genuine rather than resorting to peddling offensive and insufferable brandwank. There’s tremendous worldwide demand for their stuff — including here on the other side of the world, and including by me. Some of my favourite beer-related moments have been BrewDog ones, one way or another, and I’d love to have them more readily-available around here. But seriously, guys, there are (approximately) eleventy-bajillion companies involved in the import-export of booze and most of them aren’t producers of exactly the kind of industrialised garbage you specifically rail against. It’s no surprise that a company like Independent will happily clip the ticket, take their markup, enjoy some collateral credibility, and not particularly mind being ridiculed by a member of “their portfolio” — but it’s fucking depressing that the “punks” at BrewDog would go into business with alco-pop-peddling bullshit-artists like these.
Because I really do mean “specifically rail against”, above: Carlsberg is one of Independent’s flagship faux-imports,6 and also regularly appears alongside Stella and Becks in BrewDog’s marketing material, being obliterated with golf clubs or sent to the gallows. They even once had a memorable campaign — BeerLeaks.org, now retired, but cached in the Wayback Machine — which quite-rightly decried the origin-fudging practices of brand-first companies and called out Carlsberg by name. With its maximally-deceptive combination of subsidiary, parent, and licensors, Independent is exactly the kind of “faceless cartoon monstrosity” with a “destiny dictated by accountants” that was supposed to be first against the wall. With the aforementioned eleventy-bajillion alternatives, I just can’t believe BrewDog couldn’t find anyone better to deal with7 — and, really, if you can’t find a distributor worth doing business with in a given territory, don’t do business there; craft beer drinkers, the impassioned people you’re supposedly brewing for, will understand. Likewise, there’s a horrible irony in the joyful way BrewDog have been joining in the healthy skepticism about the U.K.’s new ‘Let There Be Beer’ campaign while shipping beer to those very-same “fakes and phonies”. Hypocrisy’s an interesting sin, one that’s basically immune to evasion and retreats to relativism,8 and one which undermines BrewDog’s authenticity. This isn’t ‘Equity for Punks’ anymore; it’s descending into Equity for Avril Lavigne.
That said — and even while keeping a few well-worth-reading cautious words about their partial-public-ownership model very firmly in mind — I’d still rather have a slice of BrewDog than of, say, Moa. The apparently spineless hypocrisy of the former doesn’t remotely rise to the level of the latter’s misogyny and clueless backwardness — which earned them an enduring personal boycott (not that they’ll ever care). But, much like my reaction to Emerson’s after the Lion buy-out, if this rubbish deal stands, I’ll just be less excited about BrewDog than I used to be. Handing my money over to their habitually-bullshitting distributor will happen less readily, and feel a little bit gross. Getting in bed with ‘Boundary Road’ takes the shine off the Scots and sits there as another depressing little data point that “success” always involves selling out at some point — which I sure as hell hope isn’t the case. Martin, James — BrewDogs, of all levels — I implore you;9 be the freakin’ Batman again, don’t be Harvey goddamn-Two-Face Dent.
You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
1:Matt Kirkegaard and I are resolved to use this term more often. It comes from the maybe-never-actual (but-still-perfectly-symbolic) façades apparently thrown together to once fool a visiting Empress. I first used it for the way D.B. kept the corpse of Monteith’s around to pretend they still brewed on the West Coast (a practice they’ve actually since resumed, but for a long time the place was mothballed), but it fits these foundationless “brewery brands” so perfectly as well. This kind of shallow origin-fudging for the purpose of creating illusory scale and/or origin and/or character is — if you ask me — “faux craft” in its purest form. ↑ 2: During serial abuse of the meaning of the word “independent”, they note that they’re #1 in RTDs and that their “key brands” are “Woodstock, Cody’s, [and] Vodka Cruiser”. ↑ 3: Meanwhile, that whole production was a year ago, now. Has anyone seen them advertising for a new “resident”, or are they going to keep producing Spike’s beers in perpetuity? And if so, does he know that? I’d love to see the contract he worked under… ↑ 4: Itself a very long-standing piece of origin-fudging, I suppose, given that the town the beer is named after almost couldn’t be further from where it’s brewed. ↑ 5: Including quite-frequently by me. They were, if I recall correctly — always a big “if” — my go-to example for non-aggravating beer marketing in our podcast thereon. ↑ 6: Along with preposterous claims to “Uncompromising Quality” and “Exclusive Aromatic Hops”, Boundary Road’s version of the Carlsberg carton bears a quote from Jacob Jacobsen, the brewery’s founder: “In working the brewery it should be a constant purpose, regardless of immediate gain, to develop the art of making beer to the greatest possible degree of perfection so that this brewery as well as its products may ever stand out as a model and, through their example, assist in keeping beer brewing in this country at a high and honourable level”. I submit that, given the context in which his beer now finds itself, if you attached magnets to his corpse and wrapped his coffin in copper coil, he’d be spinning in his grave so hard he could power the whole of Denmark. ↑ 7: For completeness’ sake, I suppose there is an outside chance that BrewDog don’t actually know the nature of Boundary Road / Independent. But the companies register and the Googlemachine aren’t exactly rocket wizardry, and so this alternative (if anything) makes me even further depressed. Meanwhile, I once worked for a bar — the Malthouse here in Wellington — which imported a whole bunch of BrewDog itself, way back in 2009, without a need for a distributor at all, and one of the aforementioned “favourite beer moments” of mine was personally lifting an actual metric tonne’s worth of cases into cool storage in the ceiling.↑ 8: Unless you take your “punk” to the absolute extreme and turn into some kind of full-on morality-denying anarcho-capitalist. In which case you should say so, because no one likes a fucking nihilist. ↑ 9: In the spirit of full disclosure, it’s worth pointing out that while drafting this piece I learned that Jos Ruffell (a director of Garage Project, site of my day job, and himself a BrewDog shareholder) posed a similar (though presumably less sweary) question in the Equity For Punks forums. I have no idea whether Martin and James have read that, or replied, and I hope it’s obvious that I’m speaking just for myself here, as always. ↑
So, it looks like Lion — one half of the local brewing duopoly, and ultimately a subsidiary of Kirin* — is taking out a series of infomercials on TVNZ. Product placement so thick it amounts to entire blocks of ‘programming’ was probably the invention of home improvement shows and hardware stores, and maybe brewery marketing departments just got jealous and wanted in on the action.
Al Brown, one of those forever-wandering-with-a-film-crew TV chefs, will host ‘Made to Match’: a series about beer and food matching, apparently including the range of beers available, some background on their styles, and what goes well with what. I couldn’t be more behind the idea of normalising beer in this way — the near-constant conjunction of “and wine” whenever the topic turns to good food is grindingly sad — but there’s a lot to lament in the pitch of this show / ad campaign / thing. I’m honestly not sure what category of production it belongs in, from what I’ve seen so far; whether it’s a series of daytime advertorials, online-only webisodes, or an actual ‘show’ that’ll be broadcast on to the physical teevee box. But then, “television”, much like “phone”, is one of those increasingly-abstracted gadget-concepts, anyway.1 It all has the same effect, in the end, especially when the programming-advertising boundary is blurred this hard.
It takes ‘origin-fudging’ — the increasingly common practice of being, shall we say, less than entirely truthful about the history and production of various beers — to a depressingly deep new low. Here, every brand is presented in a maximally-distorted way, just as the marketing department would like. The mere fact that all of these beers are produced and/or distributed by one company is entirely elided, and Lion itself only rates a mention in the beer-descriptions department during the (hilariously straight-faced) write-up for Lion Red. Even Steinlager is treated almost as if it were a from different company, and Lion / Kirin* are entirely absent from the website’s WHOIS information; there, it’s all TVNZ. I’m sure it’s all well within the rules about product placement — tellingly, Lion’s own corporate policy seems only to care about when other people use their products as props, and doesn’t commit to being open about when it does so — or at least that someone on a healthy retainer stands poised to so argue, but it does stink a bit.
The beers that Lion brew here in New Zealand under license are hyped as long-heritaged international imports as hard as possible: Beck’s is “the No. 1 German beer in the world” and “…brewed according to Reinheitsgebot”;2 Guinness is “known worldwide as the beer of Ireland, and the gold standard for stouts”;3 Oranjeboom dates “back to 1528” and is a “popular European beer [which] originates from Breda in Holland”; Stella Artois’ story “dates back to 1366” and its “the best selling Belgian beer brand in the world”.4 On the more-local front, gdmfing Crafty Beggars make an appearance with Lion still not feeling proud enough of their brewers and their beer to admit that the ‘rogue brewers’ are their employees, while Speight’s ‘Distinction Ale’ happily crows about winning several awards despite the categories they were in being directly contradictory to how the brand is marketed. And just look at how the ‘James Squires’ beers are steeped in their Colonial Australian history and bursting with references to the country’s first commercial brewer, deftly skating past the uncomfortable fact that the beers are merely namedafter him; there’s no history here, just brandwank.
The blurbs always fall just short of outright lies — their lawyers are too good for that — but, taken together, form a teetering pile of half-truths and non-sequiturs that looks very-carefully-crafted indeed to achieve maximum bullshit without opening up liability, and to maintain the illusion that this is a diverse range of beers picked for their inherent qualities and suitability to the task, rather than a (presumably) bought-and-paid-for exclusive placement which locks out all other local and international candidates. All that said, if you delve into the “Terms & Conditions”, Lion do finally front up and say ‘Hello! We’re in charge of this thing, by the way.’ — and the statistics are predictably grim on what miniscule fraction of humanity actually clicks through to pages labelled that. But it’s mostly there to completely disclaim, in the usual spineless boilerplate, any promises of accuracy — their marketing code of practice, equally tellingly, contains no particular commitments about being truthful and forthcoming with the facts — and to (weirdly) suggest that I’m not allowed to link to them without their express permission, in an apparent complete misunderstanding of how the internet works.
Big breweries (and Lion, in particular) have a habit of playing their brands — and thereby their consumers — off against each other, in a way that’ll easily leave the impression that ‘Made to Match’ is better-rounded than it is. For everyone who makes beer who isn’t Lion, it’ll do a tremendous disservice-by-omission, and so it damn well better have an enormously prominent “this program brought to you by Lion” kind of disclaimer front and center — especially (but not only) since it’s airing on, and seemingly produced in substantial cooperation with, the national broadcaster. Little buried disclosures (like what they have so far) are only ever the absolute minimum, they’re not automatically exculpatory.
It’s going to be worth watching to see how they play that kind of thing — and to find out more about TVNZ’s involvement — but I’m not optimistic enough to think it’ll be anything other than a sin-counting exercise in seeing how shameless they are, rather than waiting to see if they front up decently. Which is a real shame, because there’s a huge need for mass-media beer education of an engaged and entertaining sort, but you just can’t trust the Big Breweries to handle this stuff in any kind of fair and honest and genuinely informative way.5 Their structure, their contrived “brand stories”, their peculiar kind of cowardice when it comes to the realities of their history and how they operate, and their ingrained shitty haibts just won’t let them, it seems — their approach to selling their products is entirely at odds with providinginformation.
*: This post originally phrased Lion’s ultimate parentage as “Kirin / Mitsubishi” which I’ve since learned isn’t correct. Kirin is a member of the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, but that’s not the same thing as being a subsidiary of the car maker, which was the impression I initially had, and passed on, here. Thanks to Danny at Lion for the correction (July 2018). 1: I don’t own a television set, but I watch a fair amount of ‘TV’ — though not like it was traditionally broadcast, an episode at a time, once a week. And my phone spends a tiny fraction of its time as a “phone” — most of the time it’s a really little computer with sensory capabilities that more resemble a goddamn Trek-esque tricorder. Welcome to the future. (Now where’s my flying car?) ↑ 2: Even though it’s not, for several reasons; the claim to follow a German law is just one of many ways they insinuate a German origin. ↑ 3: It’s definitely not that, though it is for Irish Dry Stout, a corner of the black-beer spectrum that it basically invented. Speaking as a long-suffering bartender, way too many people see black beer and think “Guinness” and — if they happen not to like Guinness — shut themselves off from a wonderful range of options. ↑ 4: Glengarry / Hancock’s hilariously inept promotional video has been ridiculed plenty — but still not enough. For present purposes, it’s worth re-watching as the least-subtle-ever use of that slippage between “beer” and “beer brand”. ↑ 5: It’s an utterly trivial example, really, but the contradiction between the inclusion of a pretty-good ‘Why you should always pour your beer into a glass’ section and the classic “everyone at a barbeque drinking from the bottle, with the label carefully-but-casually held facing outwards” montage of the introductory video speaks volumes right out of the gate. ↑
It is, apparently, Brandwank Monsoon Season. At least I won’t suffer for material.1 As was spotted by the eagle eye of Dominic (from Hashigo Zake) some months ago in the Trademark Registry, “Crafty Beggars” is a new brand / imprint / stealth-fake-brewery2 from one half of the local duopoly, Lion. And these days, if you’re talking about them, you’re probably talking about Emerson’s,3 not this shit. I haven’t had my say about that bit of news, yet, it’s honestly been too vexing; I’m firmly in the middle on the issue, finding much of the positive and negative feedback to be Missing The Point. But more about that another time, inevitably. Suffice to say — for now — that if you, my dear hypothetical reader, still harboured hopes that Lion’s acquisition of Emerson’s was a sincere and honest investment in craft beer, this should give you pause.
“Someone should make a craft beer you can actually drink”, the bottle’s text declares as the raison d’être of this new range. Nine un-named brewers, going “rogue” from a parent company which also goes un-named, apparently felt that way and set out to make these “crafty, but not too crafty” beers. It’s an act of staggering dickishness and pointless absurdity, a petty swipe at a corner of the industry that Lion a) pretend to also occupy, already, and b) just acquired two large chunks of. The necessary implication is that Mac’s, Little Creatures and Emerson’s are either “not craft” or “not drinkable”. I phoned Lion, to ask which of those two options was now their official stance, and was handed around a little bit but eventually put in touch with their “Brand Manager, Craft” — though I still haven’t been given an answer… If you were a new operation, that tagline would token near-pathological arrogance, but here it’s weirdly worse.
Brandwank is one thing — a vile and detestable thing — but this kind of internally-incoherent brandwank is more annoying by an order of magnitude. How the fuck does no one in the company feel sufficient shame, when one business unit contradicts another, to pull the plug on a campaign like this? As I mentioned when deconstructing some nonsense from the other giant ultra-conglom in the local market, D.B., my favourite example was when Jim Beam was marketed with the slogan “If it ain’t Beam, it ain’t bourbon” and Maker’s Mark was touted by the same company as “the World’s finest bourbon”.4 It just seems so pathetic a trick, such a lazy failure of imagination, and it says nothing good about what they must think of their customers; that kind of half-assed deception seems to require believing them to be stupid or (against all evidence) completely disinterested in where things actually come from.
Last time I had some unkind things to say about a mega-brewery’s fake “little guy” offerings, I drew some criticism for not trying the beer first. Which baffled the hell out of me, since I was explicitly commenting on the marketing. Which is, you know, a separately-existing thing. But in the investigative spirit — which is very close, it turns out, to the morbid curiosity that causes humans to rubberneck on traffic accidents — I grabbed one of each, and I’ve had them here at home tonight.5 And they’re meh — which is me being as unjustifiably generous as it is me being abnormally monosyllabic.
(Meanwhile — in the later spirit of “fuck it, I should empty the Naughty Corner of my fridge while I’m at this” — while I’m writing, I’m polishing off my remaining bottles of those “Resident” beers from Boundary Road / Independent. And I haven’t changed my mind. They are, just as they were, technically competent — vastly moreso than most of the “Boundary” beers — and a recognisable echo of something that might’ve been a good idea before the cost-compromises involved in up-scaling a pilot batch bit hard, and before the beers were filtered to within an inch of their lives and probably robbed of much character. But they sure aren’t good, they sure aren’t special, and they sure as fuck weren’t worth the fuss, the wank and the insults to the local industry that they brought with them.)
Skepticism is just mandatory when three styles of beer appear in a range at precisely the same ABV, especially when that’s an usually-low number. All three “Crafty” beers are 4.0%, which should — given the vagaries of local excise tax rules — raise the suspicion that they’re aiming at a price point, rather than a flavour. I love sessionable beer with an inappropriate passion, but I do ask that the lower strength exist for reasons more to do with the brewer’s designs and the drinker’s plans for their evening, rather than it being dictated by a formula in some arcane spreadsheet. And so, speaking (as I parenthetically was) of the “Resident” beers, these seem to be targeting those, given that Boundary Road placed theirs at a looks-like-a-loss-leader price and proceeded to carve themselves out a sizable chunk of the sales statistics. It looks like Lion have conjured something to claw that back, perhaps after seeing sales of their Mac’s range take a hit. But then why make a drive-by implication that their other “craft” offerings are “undrinkable”? Who the fuck knows? (Also — as an addendum to the “Meanwhile”, above — I’m changing my mind. For their relative lack of flavour and character, these “Resident” beers are camped out on the border of being intolerably bitter.)
The “Crafty” pilsner, ‘Good as Gold’, was worryingly pale and anemic-looking; close to that Budweiser-esque piss-yellow you’d only call “straw gold” if you were being paid wodges of cash to do so. It put me in mind of my ‘Chosen One’ tasting session — but, mercifully, of the non-candidate dummy options like NZ Pure. And if that memory comes as a relief, we’re in dark times indeed. It didn’t stink of faults, sure — none of these beers did — but it just had a limp tinned-apple-flavoured-baby-food nose that definitely wasn’t appealing and sure as hell didn’t convey “pilsner”. ‘Wheat As’ was reassuringly hazy, given how often macro brewers wimp out and apply their ultra-fine nano-scale filters to seemingly everything, and did present some appropriate spice-and-citrus-peel notes. But Belgian-derived witbier-ish stuff hasn’t ever been my thing, so I don’t feel entirely qualified to rule it in or out. Given the two-and-some-bucks-a-bottle price point these seem to be landing at, it’s at least possible that this one represents a bargain — a deal with the inveterate shitbags in the Devil’s marketing division, perhaps, but all the same a bargain. And then the disappointingly un-punny / seemingly un-referential ‘Pale and Interesting’6 commits a devastating act of metaphor shear by pouring like Speight’s and making you realise that these are Speight’s 330ml bottles.7 It’s billed as a “smoother take” on a pale ale, which is always a worrying thing to hear from a mega-brewery, and presents as so watered- and dumbed-down that it — just like its inexcusably-bland cousin from the duopoly’s other half, Monteith’s IPA8 — smells like an empty glass that used to have beer in it, rather than a vessel which currently does. The “tinned fruit” aspect of the nose from the pilsner returned, only this time it was reminiscent of peaches — and even then only if they’d been unceremoniously disposed-of into a cardboard box.
In summary, these aren’t good. They aren’t fuck-awful, hurl-them-at-your-enemies bad, either — but that’s hardly worth praising, is it? Given the pitch, this horrible “craft but drinkable” bullshit they’re swaddled in, they’re an abject failure. They are neither recognisably craft, nor particularly drinkable. Basically every single member of the already-extant Mac’s range — with the possible exception of the new Shady Pale Ale, about which I hear plenty of terrible things — is head-and-shoulders better than these, and well worth the extra dollar.
But wait, what? Back to the pilsner, “Good as Gold”. That’s the name of a beer from the Coromandel Brewing Company, isn’t it? Here we go again, it seems, with the brandwank-engines of the Big Two churning in the absence of a connection to the Almighty Google. I called the design agency responsible for the “Crafty Beggars” work,9 and their Director told me that the beer names were their creation — but Lion obviously have final sign-off on these things, and someone should’ve known / should’ve checked / should’ve given five seconds’ thought to the possibility that someone might’ve found the same reference fitting. But no, here’s one of the Big Boys, charging around making bullshit claims left and right with no consideration of how it affects a) their other products, or b) anyone else’s.
This is why I can’t be optimistic about something like Lion’s acquisition of Emerson’s. These huge, sprawling, many-branded companies — like D.B., Lion and Independent — are shot-through with the wrong thinking, the wrong incentives, too many bad-habit-ed Suits, perverse internal competition, and are the kind of hydra-headed monsters with which it constantly proves impossible to reason. They, at the meta / corporate level, are the “rogues” in this business, and not in the lovable-and-rakish sense; these are proper loose cannons, capable of any damn wreckage, accidental or otherwise.
Verbatim: Crafty Beggars Range — ‘Good as Gold’, ‘Wheat As’, + ‘Pale and Interesting’ 20/11/12 @ home. This is Lion, pulling an epic dick move. Design blogs are all over it, but I just don’t get it. Naff as. All 4%, 330ml — in a Speight’s bottle, in fact. 1) Shockingly pale and clear — and the name was taken, guys… Reminds me of the Chosen One tasting. A can of tinned apple baby food. 2) Actually hazy! Proper adjunct flavours. Not my style, so hard to judge. 3) Looks like Speight’s. Same non-aroma as Monteith’s. Cardboard box, into which tinned pears were dumped.
1: Not that I ever do, of course, grotesquely-far behind in my notes as I am. But after we’re done here, we’re going to have to have words with the newly-appeared “Hancock & Co.” brand. Sheesh. 2: They’re not proud enough to say “a new beer from Lion” or “brewed by Lion”, but also not subtle enough to give the brand its own street address or 0800 number. That middle ground makes no sense. 3: Note for aliens / cave-dwellers / normal people: Lion recently purchased local craft beer legends Emerson’s. The jury is well-and-truly out on whether or not this is a Good Thing. 4: Funnily enough, they also didn’t get back to me when I contacted the parent company and asked them to pick which (if either) was true. 5: As often happens, I’m behind in the Diary in the additional sense of having lots of scraps of paper lying around with notes as-yet-untranscribed into the actual physical book itself. Tonight’s notes were therefore written up, as is common, on the back of a coaster (and photographed for ‘proof’, rather than scanned). Now I almost feel I owe the boys from ParrotDog an apology for soiling their merchandise so. 6: ‘Pale to the Chief’? ‘Pale and Hearty’? Surely there was scope for something. It’s just a bit of a drop off a thematic cliff after the other two. 7: Maybe they have a whole bunch spare now they’ve started selling Speight’s in “Imperial Pint” bottles, which are inadvisably labelled as such. Local laws which prohibit the use of non-metric measurements might be obsolete and stupid — and indeed they are — but they are still on the books. 8: Just look at the blurb on the tap badge. That should win an award for unjustified overstatement. 9: A very early Alarm Stage on the Brandwank Detector is triggered if, as here, a Google search for a new beer / brewery / brand returns oodles of write-ups of the design work before you can find anyone talking about the actual product. And I know this is largely a matter of unimpeachable aesthetics, but I just don’t see what the praise is about. This design is hugely boring. It’s the spending-money-to-look-poor nonsense of a thousand intolerable Trustafarian fuckheads. Yawn. The same agency’s work on Steinlager Purea is, I’d say, vastly superior in every way. — a: Though that product’s pitch also falls foul of this same “Crafty Beggars” problem, in that it implies worrying things about the other products from the company, just like Monteith’s Single Source did.
Desert Island Discs is one of those inelimably British British cultural institutions.2 It’s been going since WWII, and is likely responsible for all those brilliant scenes in High Fidelity3 wherein the record shop staff assemble their Top Fives for various (increasingly random) scenarios. The idea is simple: imagine yourself cast-away on a remote but pleasantly habitable island. What records would you wish were there with you? What would you summon to keep you company, if you could? Pausing to take stock of enduring favourites is a genuinely worthy meditative experience — especially with a memory like mine.
Anyway, Desert Island Beers is an ongoing project run in collaboration between the All Gates Brewery’s blog and Real Ale Reviews. Recently, they embarked on a bit of an Australasian Excursion, inviting a bunch of Antipodeans to participate and ponder what they’d want to have with them on their hypothetical island. I was chuffed4 to be asked to join in, and spent an enjoyable evening at the Malthouse, perched on the bar with laptop and beer(s), flicking through my Diary and contemplating my options.
In no particular order — by which I mean to say this isn’t a ranking or a table of medals, this is just the sequence in which I put them on the list — my Desert Island Beers were:
My full write-up went up on the All Gates Brewery website over the weekend — my phone beeped and notified me as I arrived at Gunnamatta beach, as featured in the above photo, fittingly enough — and includes elaborated reasons for picking each of the above, as well as my attempts to choose books, an album, a meal, and a luxury item to take in addition to all that lovely beer. It was heaps of fun to participate, and reading around the other entries is a great little window into the personalities of other ‘beer people’ that you might not otherwise hear a lot from; I wholeheartedly recommend you have a wander through their collection and keep and eye out for new local castaways over the next few weeks.
1: Which is the wrong Gunnamatta — it’s named for a song which is, in turn, named for a surf beach a thousand kilometers away in Victoria — but the beer-and-beach-matching was gloriously nerdy enough to justify a minor diversion to end my recent (i.e., it finished yesterday) little roadtrip around the NSW South Coast. To compound the matching (and to atone for being in the wrong state, perhaps), we were listening to the song, at least. 2: The Beeb’s website isn’t massively helpful — for slaves-to-copyright reasons — to those of us in further-flung parts of the world. But there’s a rumour, you know, that, apparently, I hear, you can download these things through, um, unofficial channels. 3: In both the book and the film; H.F. is a very-rare instance of a page-to-screen adaptation that works brilliantly well, if you ask me — especially considering that the latter translated the story forward in time and to another continent. The Wikipedia page for the novel — in true fantastically-geeky style — includes the lists, if you’re impatiently curious. 4: Which felt suitably British. 5:Not, I hasten to emphasise, my Fall Out Boy. The story goes that the band were nameless and called for audience help, whereupon someone suggested the name of Radioactive Man’s sidekick. The band fucked up the spelling / typography, evidently having missed the reference — which, to me, amounts to proof of a deprived upbringing and a possible cause of their relentless crapness.
This was one of the least surprising developments in the local beer industry. Moa started out cloaked in faux-exclusivity, long before they leapt into bed with arch-brandwanker Geoff Ross (of 42 Below vodka fame). He, and much of his old team, integrated pretty seamlessly with the company’s image-first approach, gave it a polish-and-makeover, and have set about making their money. Though not by selling beer, as such.1 These guys — and they are guys — don’t lower themselves to anything so unfashionable as that. They’re in the business of selling businesses and of building brands rather than inherently-worthy products.
So here they are launching their IPO. If it all goes as planned, they’ll raise ~$15M, while retaining control for everyone who’s already involved in ownership and management. Which is unremarkable, of course, but the really predictable part — depressingly so, in fact — is the tone of the document itself. It is needlessly, aggressively, and pointlessly gendered and bursting with wank. You wonder how they didn’t have second thoughts at some point before sending it off to the printers, but they’ve got such an ‘impressive’ record of homophobia, misogyny and tired marketing blather that they must just mutter this shit in their sleep, these days.
The IPO document is explicitly aimed at men, and Geoff Ross also can’t seem to manage to speak in gender-neutral terms to the press. They seem to entirely dismiss half the population, and completely discount the idea that women might a) drink their beer, b) want to invest in their company, or c) exist as anything other than ornament for shallow motherfuckers in expensive suits.
The subtitle of the whole document is “Your Guide to Owning a Brewery and Other Tips for Modern Manhood”, and the gendered references flow freely: “The relationship men form with beer is staunch” and their “aspiring drinkers” are “those in the super-premium end of modern manhood” (p48). The cut-away sections on angling, tailoring and pistol duels (of all things), are all targeted solely at “gentlemen”, and the one giving ‘advice’ on opening doors for other people is pitched entirely at men and the subject of the door-opening is always female, but for one throwaway homophobic jab. The only mention of women as consumers of their products is in the section on cider (p91), which — for anyone actually involved in the industry, or who bothers to attend a beer festival or go to a beer bar — is so ludiciously laughable and out of date that it begins to explain why they retreated to an aesthetic from decades ago.
Geoff Ross explicitly notes the connection to Mad Men as a reference that informed the ‘look’ of the document. But it’s all so hopelessly contrived and fake. Surely, if you are trying to be Don Draper, you are necessarily failing to be Don Draper.2 And if you missed the dark undertones of the actual series — that a life of form over substance is hollow and bleak, and that basically all the promises of the vaunted ‘Golden Age of Advertising’ were always complete bullshit — then you really should pay some fucking attention. Like so many others, they completely fail to understand the basic difference between sexy and sexist. And it’s so desperately artificial that they don’t come across with any confidence or swagger; the Suits just look like a tragically insecure bunch.
All they can brag about is that their IPO document has ads in it, and might be the first to do so — as if anyone could be fucked raising their hands for a single clap to that milestone, if it indeed is one.3 The advertisers they’ve chosen ring as hollow as the rest of it: Aston Martin, Working Style, Ecoya — precisely the same brand-first, style-over-substance conspicuous consumption horseshit that Moa are transforming otherwise-often-worthy beer into. It’s all just part of the con, but I can never tell if the Moa executives are just trying to trick their potential customers and investors or if they’ve fallen into the sad trap of fooling themselves.
The incessant drone is that they make “super-premium” beer, a term they invented for themselves and invoke nauseatingly often.4 But they never even commit to their points of difference. The interestingly unique beer once universally-known as Moa ‘Original’ was moved off the front line and a blander, more mainstream-friendly pale lager was re-named ‘Original’ in its place — to better hoodwink the Heineken Drinker, one assumes. Bottle-conditioning, which they misleadingly associate with wine-making and falsely portray as ‘unique’, isn’t used on as many bottle sizes or varieties as it initially was. Their hefty 375ml bottles were once touted as a unique feature, but Moa recently took them out of circulation for another whole ‘tier’ of their range to save a fraction of cash per unit. And there’s something dreadfully uncomfortable about presenting a ‘super-premium’ beer being drunk from the bottle by their executives (and one of the models)5 in the IPO. These guys are the very definition of being ‘all hat, no cattle’ — and it’s not even a very nice hat, on closer inspection; it’s a gaudy, blinged-up knockoff.
The figures and discussions of money are at least stale enough to not stink of the wank that pervades the rest of the document, and feature some interesting data. Right now, Moa owe one million dollars cash to the BNZ (p110). That’s basically their overdraft, they’ve maxed it out, and they plan to use a chunk of the IPO just to pay it back — so one out of every fifteen average new investors can feel the glow of pride of merely being used to service existing debt. Another one from each hypothetical fifteen are being used purely to pay the damn-near-innumerable fees and bits of gravy-taking that launching something like this entails. The financials are a little opaque, to me, but were the subject of heaping quantities of derision and scorn from people I know who know better. They’re not pretty, certainly; Moa are running a stonking great big seven-figure loss, and have no real plan to do otherwise for a long while yet.
And for all they like to crow about having a small, nimble team with the ability to leverage low-cost high-result marketing (and all that guff), they’re looking to plow more than a million bucks a year into that department (p109), and plan to ape the boring old strategy of handing over dirty-great wodges of cash to bars to just buy branding and pouring rights outright.6 But worse than that, they’re utterly fucking shameless about their history of ginning up (pseudo-)controversy, duping the media into giving them free coverage7 — and seem happy to signal that such nonsense, even of the blatantly race-baiting or pathetically-bigoted kinds, will continue. Sunil Unka, the Marketing Manager, is quoted (p81) as having a “What’s the worst that can happen?” mantra when justifying his tactics.
For the last day or so, certainly, Moa have been unusually quiet on channels where they’re usually chatty and boastful.9 Indeed, the only communication I’ve seen from anyone at all related to their camp was intemperate criticism of my writing style by someone personally connected to the Moa executive (but not professionally involved with the company).10 They are, it’s fair to say, hardly being their defiant and proud selves. Maybe, just goddamn maybe, there are conversations going on about whether they’ve fucked up this time. Honestly, though, I doubt it. These guys seem committed to this bullshit; it is, in Geoff Ross’ wank-tastic phrase11 “their vernacular, their mentality”.
I just can’t join in the (heartwarmingly relatively faint) chorus of “it’s not to my taste, but more power to them”. To employ the obvious metaphor — rather than, you know, spending thousands of dollars on suits, cigars, and a photoshoot only to have the attempted aesthetic misfire and make me look like a complete poser — I’m looking forward to this Moa going as extinct as its namesake. Go read about them, instead. They’re vastly more worthy of your time.
Postscript, 14 October, 9:05pm: This piece has just attracted a rather vile and hateful comment. I’m in two minds about whether to leave it up or delete it (for its tone and bigoted language, not for merely ‘disagreeing’ with me) but am leaving it up for now. The advice often given on the internet is “don’t read the comments”, lest you see the level to which some people sink to and how far civilisation has yet to go. Reader discretion is therefore strongly advised, but I think the comment is illustrative of an attitude that still exists in greater frequency than we might hope.
1:Absolutely mandatory caveat: the guy who actually does make the beer — Dave Nicholls; no matter how much their ‘brand story’ relies on Josh Scott being cast as the ‘executive brewer’ (whatever that might even be), Dave’s the actual brewer — is talented and a genuinely awesome dude. He makes some great beers (and plenty that aren’t to my personal tastes, not that that matters a damn), and has had more than a few sensible things to say about the problem of excessive marketing. He’s not the rat-pack type that the IPO document has him dressed up as — unlike every other Moa staffer I’ve met. 2: Thanks to George for the pop-culture consult on this one. I’m told that the sharper reference is to point out that the Moa Suits have just made themselves all into Pete Campbell. 3: And it’s hardly inkeeping with the rules on IPO documents being concise and limited into their use of brand imagery and irrelevancies, as the NBR noted. 4: At least twenty times in the IPO document, and jarringly often in the “business description” section. 5: Of all the images from the IPO photoshoot, just one of the Moa beers appears in a glass — with the model from the Ashtray Photo, as she perches on the edge of a table (p46). She swigs from the bottle in another shot, however (p16). 6: Ignoring their own Tip No. 10: “You can’t become a leader by following someone else. Most businesses are convinced this is not true.” Instead, they’re copying tactics from the Mainstream Big Two, and marketing themselves just like 42 Below did. Yawn. Where’s that much-vaunted ‘creativity’? 7: The write-up on Moa ‘Breakfast’ (p48) naturally fails to mention that their ‘trailblazing’ product was just a re-naming of an existing beer, ‘Harvest’. The “launch” was transparently a scam, and way too many people fell for it. 8: The setup turns out to be, presumably intentionally, a reference to a cigar ad of the Mad Men / Golden Age era. Which, of course, amounts to no kind of excuse. And that’s not some runaway photoshoot director’s inappropriate imagery; the General Manager himself posed for that. 9: Maybe they — finally — took the advice of their epically-smug Tips, No. 6 of which advises that you close your social media accounts and pre-emptively shut the fuck up (p15). 10:This section — and the original contents of this footnote — have been provisionally edited, after a discussion with the person involved. A barb about the idiosyncratic overuse of italics in my ‘Hello again’ post was published on Twitter, but during the writing of this piece (which was, after all, foreshadowed in the previous), its author silently deleted it. The text of this section initially named them and explained their close (but undeclared) connection to the Moa executive. Soon after the publication of this post, that person contacted me directly, asking that I delete the reference. Since the post was already ‘out there’, I offered instead to include their explanation in this footnote, but they pleaded extenuating circumstances, and (against my usual stickler nature on matters editorial) I’ve anonymised the reference. It feels weird to be magnanimous toward the Moa camp, broadly defined, but these things happen; never be afraid to try new things. 11: He seems unaware of how dated the reference to Shed 5 sounds; it’s hardly the prestigious or fashionable venue it once was (not that I give a fuck about that, but he clearly does). Also, they don’t serve Moa. Indeed, 85% of their beer list is just mass-market lager.
I had the good fortune, this year, to be invited to present a little seminar at Beervana. Given the title Get More From Your Beer, the idea was to help wrap up the final (Saturday evening) session with a bit of a ramble on making the most of your beer-drinking experience with a few notes on commonly-confusing topics like “proper” glassware and temperature. There’s a lot of beer-drinking advice out in the wild, so I wanted to distill some of the best of it down, and simplify things a little, trying to empower people to resist some of the worst bits of snobbery and taking things way too seriously. For me, it amounts to this: drink beer with your brain engaged.
I made a few simple slides, and thought I should put a version of the seminar (which really is far too formal a word for drinking a few beers and rambling for a while) up here. It’s a little lengthy — I apparently speak at a fair rate of words-per-minute — but I offer it in the hopes it’ll help.
— The Fundamentals
Embrace subjectivity: Beer, like all matters of taste, is a subjective experience and you should absolutely embrace it as one of life’s rare opportunities where you are guaranteed to not be wrong. If you like it, you like it; if you don’t, you don’t. No one can peer into the inner workings of your noggin and tell you otherwise.
Understand its limits: But there’s a world of difference between you liking something and it being good — in fact it’s hard to find a genuine sense in which the latter can be objectively true in a domain such as this. So don’t browbeat people with tastes unlike your own, and don’t ever put up with a disdainful look shot in your direction over a mere difference in subjective experience.
Arm yourself with a little knowledge: Beer’s a richly varied and fractally interesting thing, but it’s always struck me (as against, say, wine or literature or technological gadgetry) as a subject which disproportionately rewards even a little knowledge. A good-enough familiarity with the canonical styles will let you decide whether you think the beer “does what it says on the tin” — as close to a criteria for objective goodness as we’ll ever get — and some idea of their usual intended timings and pairings will help you judge a beer on its best form.1Some thought given to glassware and temperature will also be surprisingly effective at improving the experience (but we’ll get to that in a second) and it’s always worth having a quick look at the brewers’ own suggestions or what your fellow drinkers have to say — as long as you don’t let their words become Commandments.
Experiment, and pay attention: If, in the end, you enjoy something ‘abnormally’ and against the usual recommendations, that’s fine. You still bought the damn beer; it’s yours, and the brewery benefits from the sale no matter what the hell you do with their product.2 You just have to keep track of what you like, and how you like it. That’s possibly easy for people with memories that function within the bounds of Human Normal, but I had to resort to taking notes — and I can’t be the only one, and it’s a task made massively easier by the ubiquity of smartphones and websites like RateBeer and Untappd, if you think pen-and-paper just way too passé. (And if all other memory-aids fail, start a blog. I’ve had heaps of fun with this one.)
Rule Number One:Use a glass. It really is that simple. In my bartending days, the frequency and smugness with which all-too-many people would turn down a glass for their bottled beer with the worn-out joke “it’s already in a glass” was deeply depressing. This is a basic confusion of adjectives for nouns,3 and anyone making it should be sentenced to spend a week back in primary school, trying to bend themselves into fitting those teeny little desks and chairs. Giving up on a glass is giving up on seeing your beer basically at all, and on getting its aroma in anything but the weakest hint of a waft. You have more than one sense, and it’d be a shame to not put them to use.
Rule #2 & #3 to Rule #∞: From here, things threaten to get massively complicated. There’s a dizzying array of glassware varieties available and no danger of a global shortage on advice of what “must” go in what. But I don’t have the memory to keep them all straight, nor do I have the money to make sure I own a few of each. And it really needn’t be that difficult:
Tall-ish glasses for beers which are: lighter (pale colours shine brighter), livelier (carbonation will be emphasised and you’ll get better head retention), simpler and more focused on being thirst-quenching — like pilsners and other pale lagers, most wheat beers and pale ales at the easier end of the spectrum.
Wide-ish glasses for beer which are: heavier (the beer will be able to warm a bit…), more complex (swirling in a nicely bulbed glass will really bring out aroma), slower and more of a sit-and-sip affair — like bigger pale ales, porter / stout, darker Belgians, etc..
That’ll serve you really well for starters, and won’t amount to a cause of stress on mind or wallet. There’s also lot of specialty and/or branded glassware around, and it’s nice to slowly assemble a collection, but they’re mostly just for fun. Some of them probably aren’t even “right” for their own beers: a chunky hexagonal Hoegaarden tumbler is rather striking but rubbish at preserving the beer’s soft bubbly head and the classic heavy beer-hall mass doesn’t do pale German lager any real favours — the size of them is more about ease of serving seven million litres of beer to as many people over Oktoberfest; their heft and handle are meagre concessions against having your beer go warm and gross as you drink.
As a Test Beer, we had a Three Boys Golden; a thing of pure marvellousness and an illustrative borderline case. Golden ales could go either way, depending on your mood and where they land on the spectrum — you could have one as a “lawnmower beer”4or in a more contemplative mood. The one in the photo is also in a “Boston glass”, which is pretty standard in bars around here (and descends from half of a cocktail shaker, weirdly). They — like most beer festival glassware — are just exercises in compromise, really; usually both tall-ish enough and sufficiently wide-ish for most purposes. Finally, I think it’s a great case of how you should listen to — but not uncritically accept — the brewers’ suggestions: the label is bang on with its advice about how to store your bottles and with its plea that you drink like a grown-up, but I think that 8-11°C is way too warm for this beer…5
There’s no crucially important Rule Number One, here, comparable to the one there was with glassware. Once you’ve been convinced to pour your beer into a glass, and hopefully a vaguely suitable — and clean — one at that, you’re way ahead of the game and temperature will only be a secondary consideration. That said, there are two crappy suggestions worth dynamiting for good:
Very, very cold indeed: Mainstream beers (and pale lagers especially) will often imply or outright declare that their beer is best damn near freezing point. Embarrassingly-many beer brands offer an elaborately-dispensed “Extra Cold” variant, but you just can’t physiologically taste much of anything down around zero degrees.6 Which is, of course, mostly the (unspoken) point; these are brands, not beers — they’ve given up on competing on flavour, concentrating instead on nonsense like product x being for Proper Southern Men and product y being for Urban Sophisticates.
Surprisingly warm: You can’t tend bar in the Antipodes for long without being lectured at length by a Briton who is adamant that the beer’s too cold and that proper beer (particularly “real ale”) should be dispensed at “room temperature”. This was never the case and overlooks the historical reality of beer being stored at cellartemperature — i.e., closer to 12° than the 22°-ish usually considered ideal ambient room temperature. If you or your friends live at cellar temperature, you are probably considered “in poverty” and eligible for government assistance, and perhaps shouldn’t be wittering your money away on luxuries like real ale.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and could generously be signposted as 4°-14° ish, broadly with lower temperatures for refreshing lighter beers and warmer ones for darker and more brooding sippers — quite nicely analogous and aligned, in a helpful coincidence, to the split outlined above for glassware. In general, thanks to various bits of physics you might remember from school, warmer temperatures will bring out more aroma and allow more carbonation to escape (i.e., the beer will feel flatter to drink) and will enhance (or just reveal) more flavour/s. Human sensitivity to sweetness and bitterness, particularly, increases with temperature and it’s not completely mad to say that beer is about the interplay of those two main basic tastes — so beers with depth and complexity will benefit enormously from a few more degrees Celsius. But more of everything will come out, including the fumey volatility that some higher-strength beers possess and the various faults the brewing process can kick up, so it’s very much a try-it-and-see situation.
For our Test Beer, here, we had Moa’s bloody-terrific Imperial Stout. It’s a brilliant behemoth of a thing, at 10+% and aged in Pinot Noir barrels. I think they’re going too far to suggest it be served “just below room temperature”, but it’s true that it has masses more character when served warmer, but so much so that some people preferred it cold. As with everything else: to each their own. And the beer’s a nice reminder that you should keep experimenting, and keep an open mind; Moa do a lot, marketing-wise, to enrage me — but they can still make a beer of real genius, one worthy of setting aside your anti-brandwank principles and not letting them turn into a complete boycott.
Again, the point is to keep the basic spectrum in mind, but not to stress out too much. Much-mourned beer-writing legend Michael Jackson (i.e., not one of the other ones) wrote about a five-category range of ideal serving temperatures, but the first three steps were separated by only a single degree Celsius each. Which is madness. I have plenty of gadgets, but a thermometer isn’t among them, and hardly anyone knows the precise temperature of their fridge — and if you’re drinking remotely-normal quantities in even-only-vaguely-normal conditions, your beer will slip between brackets on that scale as you drink. In my experience, taking a beer out of the fridge for a few minutes before opening it makes it nicely ‘cool’ but not too cold — and putting a beer in the fridge for a few minutes after storing it in a dark cupboard nicely approximates “cellar temperature”.7 Again; muck about, pay attention, and see how you go.
— Back to Fundamentals
Embrace subjectivity, within its proper limits. Arm yourself with a little knowledge — about styles, timing, glassware and temperature, but especially about what you yourself happen to enjoy. And if you’re in a bar and your desired way of doing things isn’t their usual way of doing things — if you want your beer warmer, cooler, or in a different glass than the bartender is reaching for — then you should damn-well feel entitled to say so. If they’re snobbish or uncooperative in response, find yourself another, better bar.
1: If you happen to not like a certain barleywine, for example, and you were tasting it at nine in the morning or while eating and explosively-hot curry (or, heaven forbid, both) then that’s probably more your fault than its, for dragging it so far from its ecological niche. (But, equally, if that’s how you like your barleywine… then by all means go nuts. Weirdo.) 2: Since there’s some considerable crossover among the fans of malted-barley-based beverages, I’ll happily say the same heretical thing about whisky. If you like yours with ice, or with Coke — or served in a Man’s hat, in which floats a single plum — I really don’t care. I usually take mine with a touch of water, or maybe a little ice cube, and I’d probably say that a subtle single malt is just money wasted if you’re mixing yours with sugary soda. But a sale is a sale, and brewing and distilling are precarious businesses which can use your cash to survive and keep snobbier drinkers supplied with booze. 3: It’s in a bottle made of glass. Similarly, I don’t live in “a wood”; I live in a house made of wood. 4: The usual nickname for the style is “Thinking Man’s Lager”, which is a) horribly snobbish, b) needlessly gendered, but still c) fairly close to the truth. 5: But again; if you like yours that warm, or warmer — go nuts. 6: The evidence also seems to be that if you’re actually exhausted — rather than just the sort of person to whom the “brand story” appeals — then drinks under around 4° are less refreshing. So the brandwank isn’t just lame, it’s unusually counterproductive. 7: Only use the freezer in emergencies and if you have excellent task memory / a timer of some kind handy; frozen beer is basically irretrievably fucked and won’t thaw back to normal.