Category Archives: Rambles and rants

Posts in which I get carried-away about something

Get More From Your Beer

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

Another catch-up session for 'Diary' entries stuck on coasters
Transcribing notes from random coasters into the Diary itself

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.1 Some 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.)

— Glassware

Boston glasses all stacked up at Hashigo
Boston glasses all stacked up at Hashigo

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.

Three Boys Golden Ale
Three Boys Golden Ale, one of many I’ve had
Three Boys Golden Ale, serving suggestions
Three Boys Golden Ale, serving suggestions

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”4 or 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

— Temperature

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:

  • Boundary Road 'Celsius'
    Boundary Road ‘Celsius’

    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 cellar temperature — 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.
Moa Imperial Stout
Moa Imperial Stout

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.

‘Porter Noir’

Monteith's 'Single Source'
Monteith’s ‘Single Source’; the only one of their beers in my Diary

So Monteith’s — i.e., D.B. (i.e., Asia Pacific Breweries) — has re-commissioned the Greymouth brewery that they, in a near-unprecedented display of tin-eared-ness, originally decided to close back in 2001. It was essentially a museum for several years, but they’ve decided to spark it up again, to produce a range of (self-described) craft beers throughout the year. The first out the doors were, apparently an unfiltered apricot wheat beer and an IPA, which I really will have to try because a) the apricot wheat thing from their rival Speight’s (i.e., Lion) still reigns as the worst beer I’ve ever tasted (and I don’t imagine for a moment the problem was merely that it, unlike this new one, was filtered), and b) a quote-unquote “IPA” from the company who make Tui could frankly be anything. They freely use those initials on a New Zealand Draught / Amber Lager, after all, so who knows whatever-the-fuck they’ve just made in Greymouth. A company so apparently-unafraid of the Consumer Guarantees and Fair Trading Acts could’ve put anything in a bottle with that on the label; a saison, an actual radler — or apple juice, or 330ml of rainbows. I am, I’ll admit, morbidly curious.

But most interesting to the local craft beer community — the real one — is the news that they’ll be releasing a “porter noir”. A few seconds with The Google will confirm that basically no-one has used that phrase in regards beer other than the much-loved Hallertau brewpub outside Auckland. And there’s very good reason for that: “noir” (i.e., “black”) is ordinarily redundant if you’re talking porter — they’re already black (or at least very-dark-brown). Hallertau’s offering is aged in Pinot Noir barrels, so for them, it’s an instance of the longstanding pun / portmanteau tradition in beer naming. For the record, I freakin’ adore Hallertau’s “Porter Noir”; you should try it, if you haven’t, and I’m frankly rather embarrassed it’s not in my Diary. Since the barrels retain plenty of wine flavours and are dosed with / already home to Brettanomyces, the beer acquires a gorgeously tart-and-funky character. I recently had a sample from a two-year-old bottle, and it ages stupendously well.

Hallertau Saison
Hallertau Saison (from sufficiently long-ago that the photo was taken with my old camera — my new one would’ve managed the focus considerably better than this; sorry)

What, though, could the name mean to Monteith’s / D.B.? Like I said, noir is redundant. Unless, perhaps, you’re intentionally tweaking Hallertau.4 Despite the beer being produced for several years now, the phrase was never registered as a trademark — and I’d be up for arguing that a good sign of the health of a real craft brewery lies in the paucity of their trademark portfolio — although it seems they’ve applied today.During what is surely by now known as The Radler Fiasco, one of the often-overlooked little titbits was that D.B. also held the trademark on “Saison”, a word which is just as straightforwardly an unregistrable style term as “radler” ever was.2 Surprisingly sensibly, they quietly abandoned the mark and entirely neglected to take a swipe at Hallertau for producing a saison — and calling it such — while D.B. “owned” the word.3 Maybe they’ve held a grudge all this time, and this is their petty little way of having the last word years later, like some insufficiently-witty sap who thinks of the perfect sharp-tongued comeback in the car on the way home. This should be fascinating to watch play out. Pass the popcorn — and the Porter Noir.

Finally, on a Small World / Personal History note, I recently discovered that the current brand manager for Monteith’s is a former colleague of mine from way back in my first-ever bar job, a decade and a half ago. We haven’t spoken since, but I do like the weirdness of both of us winding up — via long and circuitous arcs — in different (and, let’s face it, opposed) corners of the the beer business. Perhaps it’s time for a catch-up.

Epilogue, 31 July: Hallertau put up a message on Twitter today, saying D.B. have claimed that they didn’t realise the name “Porter Noir” was in use and were undertaking to take the N-word (so to speak) off the label — after Beervana.

D.B.’s undertaking as to timing is, for a start, a dick move. The beer hasn’t been released yet, so the good-form thing to do upon discovering an innocent mistake like this (taking them, provisionally, at their word) is to re-do the labels anyway. That’s precisely what the Yeastie Boys did when it was brought to their attention that the planned logo for a new company, Hops Valley, was coincidentally rather-similar to the one they’d had designed for Gunnamatta. This case is even plainer, because Porter Noir has existed for ages.

Which, if you think about it, is the bigger problem for D.B.. Their claim of innocence in the matter of standing all over an existing product is equivalent to an admission of complete cluelessness in the business of craft beer — Porter Noir has existed for ages. There really isn’t a middle path, no way for D.B. / Monteith’s to chart a course between Badness and Dumbness without touching the sides. Since Badness tends to be more legally actionable, it’s not surprising which bank they veered towards, but it’s a revealing ‘resolution’ to the #porternoirsaga all the same.

It’s a sprawling enough organisation that they’ll always be able to piece together plausible deniability, but — given their history of brandwank, distortion and the potential relevance of the old “Saison” trademark — I remain unconvinced.

Post-epilogue, 1 August: There’s a really good write-up of the whole affair in today’s paper. Beer-related stories are still all-too-often abysmally written and under-researched, but that piece is fair, goes into enough background, and doesn’t shy away from pointing out how embarrassing this is / should be for D.B..

But I just can’t agree that the answer to this kind of drama is more trademarks. It’d be unrealistic and would amount to a nagging disincentive if breweries large and small were expected to pay IPONZ (and probably a lawyer) each time they came up with a new beer — and if everything was filed that way, we’d quickly amass a back-catalogue of untouchable but rusting and unused names pointlessly locked away or worse, we’d encourage speculative registration-squatting and name hoarding.

It is absolutely not Steve Plowman’s fault that D.B. were poised to steal his beer’s name, inadvertently or not; he’s way too generous in saying that, to the point where I hope he doesn’t believe it and is just exercising restraint and being political — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in moderation. The Google isn’t hard to use, and someone at D.B. / Monteith’s should’ve exercised the merest possible give-a-damn and checked. And if they did find Hallertau’s beer, or did already know about it, the fact it was unregistered shouldn’t matter. Civil behaviour, even in business, isn’t complicated: don’t be a dick.

1: The website for IPONZ (the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand) is fatally and inexcusably stupid in the way it ‘times out’ your session and doesn’t allow the bookmarking or linking of individual reports. But if you go and search “Porter Noir”, you’ll find a submission dated 26 July 2012 (i.e., today) from “Pacific Brew Limited”, which seems to be the official company name for Hallertau.
2: In the main run, spirit and original intent of trademark law, at least. And, you know, in my own honest opinion. Ahem.
3: IPONZ, in their history of the mark, note that it was cancelled per an email of 7 September 2009. That photo, above, is of a Hallertau Saison I was drinking in July of that year.
4: It belatedly occurs to me — he says, writing on the 27th, hence the out-of-sequence footnote — that I should explicitly allow for the possibility that Monteith’s are also planning to Pinot-up their porter. I discounted that in my initial run of writing, assuming (perhaps too generously) that a) the newspaper write-up would’ve leapt all over / at least mentioned a detail like that and b) there just hasn’t been time to barrel something out of the new brewery — but then: this company might be willing to simply dose the beer with Barrel Essence and a goon-bag of Dollar-store Pinot Flavoured Wine Substitute (he says, firmly in the spirit of satire, if the lawyers are still reading). Then it just becomes a question of whether they’re intentionally tweaking Hallertau by lifting the name, whether they’re sufficiently-removed from the real craft beer scene that they’d never heard of it (Dux de Lux, for example, Pinot’ed a porter and called it “Pinot Porter”; other names are possible), or whether it really was an honest mistake and they’ll now — Hallertau have written to them to arrange a meeting next week — back down. Given D.B.’s history, they’ll have to just excuse me if I can’t be so generous as to assume the latter is the case.

Boundary Road’s ‘The Resident’

Spike's portrait on
Spike's portrait on

First, let’s just go ahead and stipulate that Brian — ‘Spike’ — Buckowski is a totally stand-up dude and a talented brewer. I’ve heard absolutely nothing to the contrary and it was pretty clear from the blog of his travels that he was an open-minded and enthusiastic traveler to our little country at the bottom of the World and I’ve had Terrapin (his home brewery) recommended to me rather highly. I genuinely wish I’d bumped into him and been able to share a beer. Second, I’ll emphasise that I haven’t — yet — tried the beers that resulted from his ‘residency’ at “Boundary Road Brewery” / Independent Liquor. Maybe they’re great. I sure hope they are, because my curiosity simply won’t let me not try them.

For now, the brewer and his beers aren’t the point. I’ll even readily concede that the ‘residency’ itself was a good idea. Boundary Road’s beers are pants; on their best day they’re bland and uninteresting mega-scale buckets of cheap swill — and at their worst, they’re weapons-grade vileness of the sort you’d hurl at the footsoldiers of an oppressive regime. Maybe the whole project started in the mind of someone with sincere and genuine intent. But it doesn’t look that way anymore, after the marketing department had their way with it. The problem here — say it with me now — is brandwank.

The Brewery blurb
The "Brewery" blurb on

It’s not even a real brewery, for fuck’s sake. The “Boundary Road Brewery” is a recently-developed imprint of Independent Liquor, an outfit for whom I think the phrase Industrial Alcoholic Beverages Manufacturer is a far better fit than “brewery”, given that they also make a bewildering array of RTDs and will sell you some in a three litre box — among other reasons I chronicled in my ‘Chosen One’ write-up not so very long ago. They’ve also got some pretty-amazing gall if they can straight-face the claim that “here the great tradition of independent New Zealand brewing continues…”, given that they’re now a subsidiary of Asahi — a buy-out which is the only reason they’ve got the scratch to fund this kind of stunt in the first place. They’re on a well-resourced mission to take up a seat beside Lion and D.B. in the local market (in more ways than one), but they’re trying to pretend they’re just another humble-and-battling little guy. Hell, there’s even a small suggestion that Spike didn’t realise the real nature of the “brewery” until he walked in the door.

And then it’s all introduced with a surprising degree of wank and implied insult to the already-existing and honestly-independent parts of the local scene with a slickly-produced video that’s well worth a close viewing:

  • The halo around the gate is partly to obscure the reality of “Independent” as a sprawling industrial site, not some cutesy little place “nestled in the foothills of the Hunua Ranges”.
  • “A brewer the likes of which this country had never seen” is pretty fucking outrageously insulting to the talents of the locals, frankly. And if you just want to be pedantic and claim they didn’t mean a slight on the quality of local brewers — just on their mere local-ness — then I can point to Sam Caligione, anyway. Another renowned American brewer,1 he came here a few years ago for an honest-to-goodness collaboration with Epic.
  • Athens, Georgia is the home of REM. Which is a fine and worthy thing to be. I’ve never — until now — heard anyone call it the home of craft brewing.
  • Other than a few give-away shots, the editor really does deserve credit for keeping up the illusion of “Boundary Road” as a little self-existing thing, rather than a column in the balance sheet of something humongous.
  • The pilot-batch recipe for Resident IPA does seem to have a decent whack (what, 5g/L?) of New Zealand hops — particularly Sauvin and NZ Cascade — and so could be good fun. Depending on the faults / recipe changes the big-batch brings, of course…
Garage Project 'L'il Red Rye' tap badge
Garage Project ‘L’il Red Rye’ tap badge

That, and despite their enthusiastic claims, red rye beers aren’t “new to this market”. Granted, the only one that springs immediately to my mind is Garage Project’s short-run ‘L’il Red Rye’,2 but if Independent are going to go to all this effort to lecture the local craft beer industry, we’re probably entitled to have them pay attention. Given that their stated “project” is “to introduce new ideas and recipes into the NZ craft beer world” and their other two ‘resident’ beers are a pilsner and an IPA, they did kind-of oblige themselves to hype it up, but The Google isn’t exactly difficult to use, is it? The worst bit of that, though, is how — when their error was brought to their attention after a few people pointed it out today, myself included — they just cheerfully threw Spike under the bus and blamed him for not knowing, rather than apologising for not checking. It’s all just a bit sad.

And aggravating. Because there’s a lot of money behind this, and going by what I hear from the front lines of retail, they’re reaching a lot of people. More than a few voices in the beer community are just glad to see someone other than the Big Two doing well, and are optimistic that this’ll expand the reach of the craft sector. The Lion / D.B. duopoly justifiably draws a lot of ire, but “Boundary Road” / Independent aren’t trying to kick that over in any laudable way; they’re just here to take their slice. Their price point makes it clear that they’re aggressively pursuing people who aren’t ordinarily “craft beer” consumers, and they’re targeting them with a) massive distortions riddled with cynical bullshit and b) beer that’s often just fault-riven and dire. Neither horn of that dilemma should be any comfort to anyone fond of good beer and interested in the long-run growth of the sector. And the people who push this stuff are so practiced at it — and our media so lazy / overworked (depending on your sympathies) — that the odds of any kind of reality-check in the inevitable, free, and uncritical coverage these stunts get is essentially nil.

Again: the “Resident” range might be worthy, as beer. I’m looking forward to finding out, and will do my level best to try it fairly. But the project remains a con. This is one of the real problems with relentless brandwank; even when the product itself is praiseworthy, it can perpetuate a whole bunch of truly depressing trends. Try as you might, you can’t attach an explanatory note to the money you hand over when you buy this stuff and there doesn’t exist a line-item veto over which aspects of the company budget your money supports. If you’re in, you’re in — as much as you’d perhaps prefer to side-step the marketing department and just pay the brewer directly.

1: Moreso, if anything — no offence meant to Spike, but Sam and Dogfish Head are legendary on a whole ’nother scale. And you’d think the ad-men might’ve known about that, given that Dogfish Head brewery was one of the dummy answers for their multiple-choice quiz’s question on where Spike came from.
2: Which I had back in January of this year, while I was still a Malthouse employee, sitting at Hashigo Zake on my night off. Now, I’m an employee of the people who made it and the place I drank it. Things change. But I suppose it’s worth noting that I’m not on the clock (for anyone) right now, and wasn’t when all this came to my notice.

Hofbräu Maibock (and the gdmfing Reinheitsgebot)

Hofbrau Maibock
Hofbräu Maibock

Beer first, rant second. It was a favourite rant, back when I was bartending, but for once I should go beer first. And despite the seemingly-faint praise in my notes, I really did quite like this one. That garish and comical HB tap has been at the Malthouse (at least) since the bar moved to Courtenay Place, and I just couldn’t ever really see the attraction of the Hofbräu ‘Original’ that usually poured from it.1 This, their Maibock, was a pleasant exception, in two senses: it was much more palatable (to me) than anything else to come from that font, and it was just pleasant. Nothing earth-shattering (though, like its Octoberfest sibling, armed with surprisingly-formidable strength), soft and lightly flavourful, with a nice texture and a gorgeous appearance. That latter factor deserves an apology, since my lovely camera should let me at least convey the appearance of a beer properly and sidestep all the usual problems of subjective experience, but I hadn’t yet had white balance lessons and I short-changed it rather tragically. You’ll have to take my word that it’s an incredibly-appealing glowing reddish-amber; it somehow made those big and cartoonishly-German handled glasses look good.

Not that I had a full-on half-litre (or larger) mug, though, as you can perhaps discern from the scale of things in the photo — or from skipping to the end and reading my original notes, wherein I also mention the “N.S.R.”; the New Staffie Regime. The Powers That Be at work had decided that we should economise on after-shift drinks, of all things. Years previous, the hard-won rule became a nice-and-simple “one pint of anything you like on tap”, but the N.S.R. put in a ten dollar retail price ceiling, for fuck’s sake.2 Thinking about that, and then about the God Damn Motherfucking Reinheitsgebot was enough to put me in an enjoyably and full-flightedly ranty mode.

Hofbrau Maibock's Reinheitsgebotty tap badge
Hofbräu Maibock’s Reinheitsgebotty tap badge

The (G.D.M.F-ing) Reinheitsgebot really does piss me off, with its perfect storm of brandwank and pseudo-history and dim-witted jurisprudence. The short version is this: anyone who recommends a beer (their own, or not) by reference to the German (or, for a bonus mark, “Bavarian”) Purity Law is either a) an idiot, b) assuming you are an idiot, or c) just blindly going along with a marketing trend without caring whether the reference is accurate or not.3 Basically, there just is no Reinheitsgebot in existence that’s anything like the usual versions of the myth — or worth crowing about at all.

People like boasting about heritage, a seemingly-ancient date, and a tradition that’s stood since time immemorial. So “1516” appears a lot, but refers to a time when there didn’t exist a Germany and when what was then called Bavaria was rather-different to what now bears the name. And it’s quite a bit before microbiology was a science (or even a hobby), so the original Three Permitted Ingredients entirely fail to include yeast, and good luck to you if you’re making beer without that; do let us know if you succeed.

But nevermind yeast, if you feel that’s mere sophistry or too technical a complaint. The 1516 rules mandate barley as the only allowable grain, despite just about every famous German Hefeweizen — i.e., wheat beer / not-just-barley-beer — that makes it to this part of the world proudly proclaiming their adherence to the “Law” anyway.4 So you should pause before cheering for this tradition if you also happen to be fond of fruit beer, or oatmeal (nevermind oyster) stout, or sugared-up high-strength Trappist ales, or any one of a metric fuck-tonne of styles which cheerfully disregard this nonsense and get on with being fantastic.

Worse still, there’s absolutely nothing in the text about “purity” at all, in any normal sense; no demand for clean water, fresh barley, or this season’s hops. Likewise, there’s no mention of cleaning your brewery, properly sealing your bottles, or just washing your damn hands. Contrary to reputation, there’s nothing in this which has the character of “consumer protection” — other than the elaborate price-fixing mandates which take up five out of the six proclamations; the famous and apparently ground-breaking part of the law is casually tossed off in a single sentence plonked awkwardly in the middle of the text and looking for all the world like it was left there by accident.

The whole history of the thing owes much more to provincialism and protectionism than it has anything do with genuine concerns for “purity” in any laudable sense — and there are damn few laudable senses of purity anyway. Almost everything ever said about it by a brewery’s marketing department is complete and blatant pants and its psychological hold on a whole nation has really stifled their brewing scene, which is a tragic waste of energy and misallocation of people’s passions. To quote the gleeful shouts of multiple brewers I’ve witnessed doing something, in pursuit of a delicious result, which would’ve caused heavily-accented tutting and tisking half a millennium ago: fuck the Reinheitsgebot — it’s not what it says it is, and it’s just a bad idea. Let it die.

Diary II entry #123, Hofbrau Maibock
Diary II entry #123, Hofbräu Maibock

Original Diary entry: Hofbräu Maibock. 7/7/11 7.2% on tap @ MH. A half, given the N.S.R.. And I think this is my first nakedly-tactical entry, to give me an excuse / mandate to rant about the gdmfing Reinheitsgebot nonsense online later… Its colour is gorgeous; clear reddy amber, very appealing. There’s something odd / [illegible]5 / vegetal in the nose, but not ruinously. Pleasantly malty, hides its booze disturbingly well. Quite full feel, but still nicely clean.

— A (Preliminary) Reinheitsgebot Hall of Shame:

Locally-brewed Beck's Reinheitsgebot label
Locally-brewed Beck’s Reinheitsgebot label
Kostritzer's non-Reinheitsgebot ingredients
Köstritzer’s non-heitsgebot ingredients list
Tuatara's unique "Rheinheisgebot"
Tuatara’s unique “Rheinheisgebot”

Beck’s is, at first glance, the worst example here; they’re using the specific “brewed under” terminology (rather than more-usual “according-to” language) to bolster the I’d-happily-argue-actionable lie that it’s German beer, not a locally-brewed clone. The label is full of non-English text and details that are clearly aimed to give the impression of an imported beer — a fact only belied by teeny-tiny text on the back sticker. The fact they engage in Reinheitsgewank and get the 1516 law wrong (by smuggling in yeast) is almost the least of its problems. The genuinely-German beer Köstritzer tries to pretend it’s Purity-Law Compliant even while openly including an unapproved ingredient, namely hop extract, on the label. But then Tuatara, in a promotional booklet, took the cake: they doubly-typo’ed “Reinheitsgebot”, trumpeted their adherence with it while also (rightly) celebrating the medal wins earned by their Hefe and ‘Ardennes’ — at least one of which (if not both) is in plain violation — and skated perilously close to violating Godwin’s Law with the unsubtle reference to ‘Bavarian regimes’ at the end, there.

1: Nor the Octoberfest version that came on annually, though with an Oompah band in attendance and everyone in costume, it was impossible to resist — but for occasion-based reasons, only; it was inherently pretty bland and samey, with a weirdly pointless higher ABV, since it didn’t seem to effect the flavour much at all. 
2: In the best-case scenario (from the point of a cost-cutting Power That Were), using unrealisticially optimistic values for the cost and staff choice variables, you could maybe save seventy bucks per week. Pretty much a rounding error on Courtenay Place rent. As far as I could figure, the real number was likely in the $20-30 range given that very few beers were much (if anything) over the $10-retail mark and very few of us drank the ‘cheap’ $8-retail stuff anyhow. I’m sure that sounds bitter (and nerdy, since I stopped just inches short of showing the actual maths of my working-out), but the N.S.R. really did come across as a needless smack in the face to the staff. 
3: This third option is what the philosophersa call bullshit. The first chap, in a), is just wrong.b b) is a liar and would easily find work in any number of marketing departments. But c), the bullshitter, is the most dangerous of all: at least liars are in some sense concerned and engaged with the truth. Bullshitters, advancing their own agendas without any regard for a the real state of things are bigger enemies of truth and progress than liars will ever be — and will therefore probably be found forming their own marketing agencies. (Or in politics.) 
— a: Or at least one of them, namely the incomparable Harry Frankfurt.
— b: And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with being wrong, as such. It’s what you do with your wrong-ness that counts; ignorance is where everyone starts about everything, but it’s just pointless and basically immoral to be incurious.
4: Later amendments do allow for wheat. But they do so by arbitrarily splitting the rules for top- and bottom-fermenting yeasts. And for the latter (i.e., for ales) it’s not just wheat that’s allowed; you can pour in sugar if you like, too, even though that unaccountably usually goes unmentioned. And the later revisions also entirely fail to regulate any kind of maturing time for lagers, despite that being kind of the point of those styles, historically. 
5: This happens sometimes, with my particular combination of scratchy handwriting and patchy recall. I thought it’d happen more often, in fact. But on this occasion, I’ve got no freakin’ idea. Fighty? Firey? Ah. No; maybe I’ve got it: feety. My friend K.T. used to occasionally describe some beers (particularly old-school English ales) as feety or footsy. I think that’s what this is. 

DB ‘Export Beer’

DB 'Export Beer'
DB 'Export Beer'

To re-cap, almost cretainly unnecessarily: beer has alcohol in it, alcohol is massively regulated and subject to substantial taxes, and the vast bulk of beer on the market is made by a few giant companies (themselves usually part of sprawling industry mega-conglomerations) and produced at a rather striking profit. The inevitable tensions ensue, and are knotted into a sticky tangle by politicians’ divided loyalties, a rather surprising level of ignorance about the relevant statistics and the strange ease with which humans can apparently be whipped into a moral panic about this stuff.

Towards the end of 2010, a review of the local liquor licensing laws has in full swing and this beer emerged as a relatively subtle incarnation of the recurring to-and-fro between the regulator and the regulated. The whole thing was still swinging this time last year, when I eventually decided I really should try the beer and stick it in The Book — and the debate hasn’t stopped yet, as these things usually possess a fair amount of inertia. The beer’s release wasn’t presented as anything topical, of course, but the veneer of bullshit that it was wrapped in was fairly transparent, to sufficiently-cynical eyes — in my own honest opinion, at least.

The official story — complete with websites, full-page newspaper ads, and a big-money TV / cinema advertising campaign — was that this was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of an iconic beer developed by Morton Coutts, who D.B. have taken to parading-around like some kind of inventor folk-hero.1 Apparently, Arnold Nordmeyer’s 1958 “Black Budget” jacked up taxes (on imported beers) and Export Beer came to the rescue of the working man. Except that’s exactly the sort of tax change that local breweries (before they were absorbed into international conglomerations) would’ve lobbied for and the factory-blokes in the ad were unlikely to’ve been drinking imported beer in the first place.

DB Export Beer ad, 'How To Lose An Election'
DB Export Beer ad, 'How To Lose An Election'

So desperate were they to ‘land’ the story, they drenched it in typically-depressing ultra-gendered language and resorted to using clips of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout as if they were footage of popular uprisings against the alleged beer-and-fun tax. For the latter, they were given a tentative little smack by the Advertising Standards Authority — the former (i.e., the sexism) is still just business-as-usual, sadly — and forced to withdraw the ads a few weeks early. But I doubt they cared; this was never about the Export Beer: you just don’t celebrate a beer this hard when you’ve already given up on it, in favour of a watered-down version, nearly a quarter-century ago.2 If you were so fucking proud of this thing that you’d fanfare its 50th anniversary, wouldn’t you have let the product survive to see its thirtieth birthday? The brandwank drones on about the quote Export Family unquote, but carefully avoids mentioning how that family’s eldest member was quietly taken out to the woodshed, unmourned, in the late eighties.

The anti-government / anti-regulation tone of the whole campaign was laid on incredibly thick, with the narrator also getting in a “never trust a man who doesn’t drink” barb (Nordmeyer apparently didn’t) — and whole thing has a clankingly-awkward tension between its pro-working-class pretensions, the reality of it as a series of ads made by suits for hundreds of thousands of dollars,3 and its coming out of a company who also produce beers which pretend to be imported and are branded as “premium” this-or-that in an effort to spin them so they appeal to just the “toffs” who are so casually derided in this campaign.4 And all of that — the overblown manner, the nastiness, and the fundamental lack of any kind of logical coherence once you look too closely — tell you what this really was: politics. Parliamentary committees and commissions start to review liquor regulations, and someone who makes a metric butt-tonne of money selling booze engages in a little sabre-rattling and murmuring that they brought down a government once, and so could do it again. Predictable, almost boring, and faintly depressing — although, strangely mercifully, a bit of an ineffectual damp squib.

So just like the beer itself, I suppose.

Verbatim: DB ‘Export Beer’ 6/7/11 745ml Quart bottle 2pk ÷ 2 w/ Peter. 5.35%, amusingly. [Transcribed later, since I couldn’t find a black pen…] All sorts of ad-man nonsense, again. And since they actually missed the 50th they cite,5 I think Martin’s right. Incredibly pale yellow; between Bud & Molson. Likewise in taste. No faults, some trace of nice fruit in the middle. But very nothing-much.

DB 'Export Beer', box blurb
DB 'Export Beer', box blurb
DB 'Export Beer', bottlecap
DB 'Export Beer', bottlecap
DB 'Export Beer'
Diary II entry #122, DB 'Export Beer'

1: Morton is no relation, it should be stressed, to local craft beer luminary Steph Coutts — she does seem occasionally nervous that people might assume a connection. And on D.B.’s recent heavy-handed use of the Coutts name, it’s worth pointing out that there’s something distinctly uncomfortable in the way that it’s all really ramped up in recent years since Morton died in 2004 and is no longer around to have his own say. I’ve heard enough conflicting second- and third-hand reports of things said by the man that it doesn’t seem straightforwardly obvious he’d be keen to see these recent uses of his name and likeness.
2: ‘Export Beer’ was replaced, in 1987, by ‘Export Gold’ and ‘Export Dry’. Both are lower in ABV than their predecessor — and the more-popular Export Gold significantly so at just 4%. Given the way excise tax on alcohol works in New Zealand (where stronger beers attract proportionally more of a levy), it’s hard not to see the downsizing of the beer as precisely the kind of number-crunching tax-policy-first decision making that they so gleefully pilloried Nordmeyer for.
3: Case in point: the ads are narrated from the point of view of Morton Coutts’ barber, a humble working-class dude who sympathises with the pub-going factory-worker chaps across the road. He’s about as folksy as he could possibly be without becoming literally nauseating — but (according to a write-up in the NBR) he’s voiced by Roger McDonnell, founding partner of Colenso BBDO, member of the TVNZ Board, and presumably a dweller in the toppest of top tax brackets.
4: This sort of tension is inevitable in giant conglomerated producers of the sort who talk about their products primarily as “brands”, and it never ceases to amuse my peculiar brain. I think my favourite was when Jim Beam was marketed with the “if it ain’t Beam, it ain’t bourbon” line and Maker’s Mark was bandied-about as “the World’s finest bourbon”. Since both are produced by the same people, I wrote to them and ask how exactly the fuck both statements could be true — and if one was just brandwank, would they at least tell me which? Unaccountably, I received no reply.
5: I initially thought they missed the anniversary, but it seems I was wrong about that — though they did cut things mighty fine, releasing this beer right at the end of 2000. As you can see from my Diary, I drank this around-about this time last year; stocks evidently lasted several months (hell, it might still be around; I’m not sure), and someone from D.B. had rather-misguidedly dropped off samples at the Malthouse. My bottle was one of those, since no one else was remotely likely to reach for it, and I’m capable of deriving different kinds of enjoyment from bland-but-brandwanky beer.

The ‘Chosen One’ Choosing

Choosing the 'Chosen One', blind
Choosing the 'Chosen One', blind(ish)

‘Boundary Road Brewery’ needs scare-quotes around it, because it’s not properly a thing. It’s a sub-brand of Independent Liquor, who were recently acquired by Japanese supergiant Asahi, and they’re trying to position themselves as a “craft brewer” alongside the pseudo-craft imprints of D.B. and Lion (i.e., Monteith’s and Mac’s)1 and elbow their way into New Zealand’s long-standing mainstream duopoly. Part of their launch campaign was to open one of their beers up for a bit of a public beta. The ‘Chosen One’ would exist in three possible variants, which they’d maybe send you (and 998 others) if you answered a quiz correctly, then you could vote and the favourite would go into full production. Not, I have to say, an inherently terrible idea — think of it, generously, as an idiot’s version of the Garage Project ‘24/24’ phase.

My friend Martin Craig — of the lamentably-now-parked NZ Beer Blog — somehow became taster #999+, side-stepping the quiz and just getting an ‘Official Beer Tasters’ Pack’ in the post, unrequested, and he hit upon the idea of a blind-ish tasting. We’d try the three candidates, with two other Independent-brewed mainstream pale lagers, and throw in a control: Mussel Inn ‘Golden Goose’, something of a darling of the local scene, sentimental favourite and — let’s say — the Thinking Drinker’s golden lager.

'The Chosen One', tasting pack
'The Chosen One', tasting pack

I’ve done a few rather-official blind beer tastings2 over the last year and I’ve had a bucket of fun and learnt a whole pile of learnable things, but I just can’t shake the oddness of them. Time and again, I’d be sitting there, attempting to fairly judge something on a several-point scale, and stuck wanting to know what the beer said about itself before really feeling I could say much about it.3 It’s probably down to my history as a bartender, that ‘consumer’-ish focus, and it’s difficult for me to shake. (And I suppose I don’t think it should be shaken.)

Blind tastings are good for many things, and they excel at one thing in particular: fault detection — the technical merits (or lack thereof) can leap out of a sampling glass, when you don’t know what you’re getting and your loyalties and sympathies are all quieted. But this? This was an ordeal. It wasn’t entirely blind — we knew what our six beers would be, but they were shuffled and properly anonymised, at least — but it was a cavalcade of awfulness. Perhaps this was karmic payback for my All-the-Trappists tasting last year; this was The Crappest Dance Card, if you like.

Mercifully, Golden Goose stuck out like a sore thumb. Or rather, it stuck out like the only non-injured digit on an otherwise horrificially-mangled and apparently-diseased hand. I was briefly worried that it wouldn’t, that my fondness for it would prove more imagined and circumstantial than real or deserved. But no. All five Independent beers were awful, stuck in that truly tragic territory were more flavourlessness would be an asset, so highly did they stink of faults. On balance, the potential ‘Chosens’ were worse than their existing stable-mates, which didn’t bode well for Independent’s ‘craft’ excursion — and nothing I’ve tried of theirs, since, gives me reason to hope otherwise — and absolutely nothing about them gave the impression of a genuine attempt to market-test three different ideas.

Boundary Road 'interview' (DrinksBiz, Feb-Mar 2012)
Interview with Ben Shaw, Boundary Road's marketing manager

It’s brandwank all over again, I’m afraid. There’s nothing sincere about any of this, it seems. “Craft” here is a cloak, a gimmick, and potentially an unfortunate thing for those of us with a love of actual craft beer — if Joe Public is finally moved to see what “this craft beer stuff” is all about and he picks up some Boundary Road, I couldn’t blame him for being scared off (or at best just underwhelmed). Independent Liquor make under-license local clones of famous foreign names like Carlsberg and Kingfisher, an act of brand-first wankery of the highest order, and they make a dizzying variety of RTDs, some of which come in a three-litre box, for fuck’s sake. If your portfolio includes both of those things, then I submit you are an Industrial Alcoholic Beverages Manufacturer. You just aren’t within shouting distance of being a “craft brewer”.4

It’s all so boringly predictable, too. Geography, for example, seems to be a weak point (or at least a strange obsession) when the brandwankers attempt to dress up mass-market industrial lager as ‘craft’. While Monteith’s (or their ad agency) couldn’t quite figure out how to work their GPS, and Boundary Road / Independent seem to have trouble looking at a map — or out their window. The bumf keeps insisting that they’re “nestled in the foothills of the Hunua Ranges”, but no; they’re in an industrial park no more than two kilometres from State Highway One, in the Southern outskirts of Auckland. Google Maps is hardly a secret spycraft gizmo, so that sort of myth-making is just insulting and pointless. But they just can’t help themselves.

With Asahi-money behind them, ‘Boundary Road’ are going to make a real run at the New Zealand market — and are doing fairly well, sales-wise, from what I can gather. But it’s just so cynical and fundamentally crap that I just can’t cheer them on even when they give the Current Big Two a fright or a poke in the ribs; they’re not on “our side”, and they’ll be perfectly happy as one member of a Future Big Three if they can swing it. They’re demonstrating more of the same zero-sum thinking as the mainstream guys always do, rather than the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats market-growing outlook that is so characteristic of the actually-craft sector — on a good day.

Original Diary entry: ‘Chosen One’ Choosing 28/6/11 with Martin @ MH. #1: Slightly hazy. All others clear. Colours all damn close. Straw nose. Big feel. Bitterness evident. #2 Brings grimness to the nose. Much thinner. More metal? Coarse bubbles. #3 Less grim, but not pleasantly straw like 1. More metal in the nose. Tinned fruit. Middling body. More to it than 2, but not all in good ways. #4 Stinks. Fumes, eggs. Sour in the face. Thin. Cardboard. Hoping it’s the older one… #5 Half the nose of 4. Something wrong in the flavour. Thin, too. #6 Head retention strikingly ok. Sugary sweet. Oddly unnatural. Sweet apple.

Unblinding: #1: Golden Goose, #2: ‘A’, #3: NZ Pure, #4: ‘C’, #5: Frontier, #6: ‘B’.

'The Chosen One', instructions
'The Chosen One', instructions
The Chosen One Choosing
Diary II entry #117.1, The Chosen One Choosing
The Chosen One Choosing
Diary II entry #117.2, The Chosen One Choosing

1: I almost feel bad, lumping Mac’s and Monteith’s so closely. They are near-identical efforts, branding-wise, but I think it does have to be admitted that many of the Mac’s beers are reliably non-horrible and the sorts of things that a “beer drinker” can console themselves with in a mainstream-tied venue. I don’t think I can say the same of the Monteith’s beers.
2: I was on the panel of one for Consumer magazine, and the most-recent annual Capital Times one.
3: To elaborate, but not derail things completely: I don’t feel like I can rate a beer without knowing how it positions itself, because that’s how people ‘judge’ beer in their daily lives — against its claims. Something that “does what it says on the tin” is a laudable thing in itself, when you’re handing over money. Beers are judged in classes, but outside of formal competitions these are usually pretty loose, so it’s hard to critically evaluate something that is “pale ale” without knowing if it’s trying to be, say, rambunctious or sedate. Huge hoppy flavour would be a bad thing in a beer that said it was mild.
4: Admit it, the odds were slim that a post with a ‘brandwank’ tag wouldn’t include a mention of Moa — but in this case they truly brought it upon themselves. In January 2012, they put up a post on ‘Craftwashing’ — which is indeed exactly what this is — but couldn’t save themselves from pissing a lot of people off with a needless swipe at contract brewers and a hefty dose of irony in that they themselves come damn close to breaching the spirit of their own Third Commandment given how strenuously they distort the role of their “figurehead”, Josh Scott. If you are as drenched in disingenuous marketing as Moa are, you simply don’t get to lecture the likes of ‘Boundary Road’; people in glass houses should perhaps reconsider their projectile-throwing hobbies.

Beer 121: The Audiobook

Beer 121 tasting session lineup
Beer 121 tasting session lineup

I’m not sure if any / many of you are sufficiently curious about this to actually push play — whether to eavesdrop on a tasting session, or just to have a sample of my peculiar untraceable accent (and occasionally-substantial lisp) — but we had buckets of fun doing this ‘Beer 121: New Zealand Beer for Americans’ thing, and so I’ll share it regardless.

Two of the attendees proved themselves deviously useful: Jessie (a Californian friend and the catalyst for the event) surreptitiously recorded the proceedings on her fancypantsphone, and George (who was learning to use Audacity for an upcoming beer-related podcast project we’re working on — about which more very soon indeed) edited the thing into beer-sized chunks, and pruned out the more extreme you-had-to-be-there tangents and irrelevances.1

The original post probably makes for something ranging between helpful and compulsory companion reading, since I used the space there to explain what was going on in my brain when I chose the lineup. I’ve also added ‘show notes’ to each beer here, to provide references / ramblings / corrections as required.

Hopefully-temporary note, 31 May 2011: Apologies for the absence of an in-post player. The whatsit that was generating those turns out to be conflicting with the whatsit that handles the gorgeous pop-up display doodads for my photos and Diary scans. As you can tell by the handwavey substitute-words, there, I’m not quite geeky enough to sort that out on my own, just yet. And since every post has pop-up images, but only this one had audio files in this format, something had to give. They should still work as downloads or as in-browser plays, though…

— #1: Tui “East India Pale Ale”

  • Solid data is hard to come by — questionable brewery press releases or absurdly expensive market reports don’t really count — but us New Zealanders do drink masses of this stuff and its barely-discernibly-different siblings. I’ve never heard anyone outside of a state of enthusiasm-induced delirium suggest that craft beer accounts for more than 10% of sales.
  • The ‘Six o’clock swill’ lasted longer than I thought: Pre-WWI to post-WWII. How unforgiveably dim that it spanned a whole generation.
  • Tui is conspicuously sweeter than its otherwise-samey brethren (from my memory, at least), so I always believed the story that it was literally coloured-up with caramel. Hopefully they just use some sweeter, darker malt, but I doubt it — D.B. have conspicuously skirted the ‘sugar question’ on their website.
  • Likewise, D.B. aren’t massively forthcoming on which beers continue to use continuous fermentation. Their ‘How Beer is Made’ flowchart just silently splits in half and doesn’t bother to say which beers take which route.
  • The confused and depressing Tui ratings I mention can be easily found on and
  • And seriously, Penny-farthings are as fascinating as they are stupid.

— #2: Emerson’s Pilsner

  • There was a “Germany” when Pilsner was developed (in 18-42, not 18-seventy-mumble), but it’s not the “Germany” we have now. European history is complicated and seemingly nowhere more so than Deutschland — but I’m told that Bavarians are basically still Bavarian first, German second, anyway.
  • My ‘history and context of pilsner’ is roughly cribbed from Pete Brown.
  • And I don’t mean to short-change this bloody-marvellous beer; we did talk a lot more about it (I feel guilty that its chapter is shorter than Tui’s, I admit), but it was peppered with frequent sidetrackings as we tried to find a suitable North American substitute — still with no success, by the way; suggestions welcome.

— #3: Tuatara APA

  • Jessie had previously described herself as hailing from “within crawling distance” of the Sierra Nevada Brewery.
  • The hops used (at launch) were described in an official blog post. I believe they’ve recently (i.e., after this tasting) joined in several other breweries in switching (largely? partially?) to the new Falconer’s Flight hop blend. The flavour certainly changed around a bit rather suddenly — not for the worst, necessarily, but I still think it’s rather poor form to not, you know, say so.
  • As I finally write this up, Tuatara APA is two weeks shy of its First Birthday, and is still branded “Limited Release”.
  • Synethesia is both inherently interesting and very useful for describing beers — at least in this near-metaphorical, non-pathological form. Flavour seems somehow more subjective than the feel / mood / overall thingness you can sometimes convey if you employ peculiar and emotive similies instead.

— #4: 8 Wired ‘Hopwired’ IPA

  • Number 8 wire isn’t named for a metric or imperial sizing; it was just a more-or-less abritrarily-numbered step on the British Standard Wire Gauge. As the son of an engineer, I can’t tell you how horrified I am to hear myself saying (even for a brief, uncertain and recanted second) that it was 8mm — it’s around half that, sheesh.
  • I’ve gotten the Søren-and-Monique story a little mangled; I blame the fact that for ages, Søren was too busy making good beer to have time to get a website built, so I had to rely on third-hand biographical snippets passed around the Beer Nerd community.
  • Plant & Food Research is the current name of the government-owned entity responsible for hop research and development. NZ Hops is someone you can actually buy these things from, and provides very handy / very nerdy data sheets for the different cultivars.

— #5: Epic / Dogfish Head ‘Portamarillo’

  • My original post has this as Beer #6, but it’s just occurred to me (listening to myself refer to PKB as the one we’ll “finish off with”) that that’s wrong. It was the plan (as you can see from the lineup photo), but we decided to step away from hoppy things so we could step back, fresher.
  • From what I can tell, the Beer Nerd Biography Whisper Mill let me down a little here, too. Sam wasn’t a Levi’s model as a pre-brewing job, he did a Levi’s shoot as a brewer. I think. Google is still letting me down a little, here. The point remains, though, that you have to admit he’s a good-looking man.
  • There is a ‘Brew Masters’ TV show website — and, you know, ahem, torrents.
  • Three Boys ‘Pineapple Lump’ Porter got deservedly-good write-ups online.
  • I had both the Epic / Dogfish Head & Dogfish Head / Epic versions together when ‘Portamarillo’ first appeared in my Diary.

— #6: Yeastie Boys ‘PKB 2010 U.S. Remix’

  • I finally had a bigger dose of this stuff just a few days before writing this up. The ‘New Guy’ at work, Jono, brought in a bottle which he generously halved. Its entry should hopefully be up shortlyish, and it was still tasting marvellous.
  • ‘Pot Kettle Black’ is indeed a Wilco song; so there you go.
  • Stout-versus-porter is a fun topic on its own, but the Usual Story does work well enough for PKB versus PKB Stout Remix.
  • My Diary entry for Deschutes ‘Hop in the Dark’ has my thoughts on the vexed question of just what the hell to name this style.
  • This is the end of the notes.

1: I don’t remotely mean to imply that I don’t endorse the sidetrackings — random table-talk and distractions can be a good chunk of the fun at a beer tasting. Beer is a social drink, after all. But particularly in a crowd where most of us knew each other fairly well, we perhaps got a bit in-jokey and peculiar for a wider audience.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and its tragically-unused tap handle

I’m not going to get properly into the whole “grey market” (or “gray market”, if you’re American) debate here. I’m sure I will do so more fully at a later time, when it inevitably flares up again. I’m actually pretty sympathetic to both sides — which is rare.

My own particular concerns are these:

  • “Grey market” strikes me as an unfair term, which loads the dice against the “unofficial” importers, since it carries its connotations of being kinda black market — but grey market imports are legal.1 It certainly doesn’t seem like a neutral term that both sides would use, so it’s probably not a good phrase for commentators to go on using as a label for the debate.
  • The quality concern should be paramount, but I often get the suspicion that it’s used as window-dressing for a more knee-jerkish desire for good old-fashioned control.2 The opposition to parallel importing often seems oddly dogmatic — I just can’t imagine some of the most-vocal opponents actually changing their tune and make an exception were some perfect, quality-guaranteeing dream importer to emerge.
  • And finally, I’m just not invested enough in this debate to become someone’s martyr. I don’t see the “anti-grey” side as being so obviously right that I’d be willing to join a boycott and deprive myself the change to try something I might never otherwise be able to sample. Yes, yes, I know there may be quality issues — but I’m accustomed to navigating them with everything else as well and can accomodate those possibilities as part of the tasting experience.

Anyway: Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, on tap in the Little Country. This is a “grey market” import, in case you were wondering why I went for a spin along that particular tangent — it was basically a “test keg”, actually, to see if kegs of Sierra Nevada would start heading this way just like bottles have been for a good few months now.

I thought it travelled very well, though some local Beer Folk seemed to bubble towards the opinion that it’d been beaten up a bit — I suspect an element of that was the somewhat regrettable pack mentality that sets in when someone “noteworthy” makes an early pronouncement (negative or positive), with maybe also a touch of that phenomenon where it becomes moderately fashionable to knock something once it reaches a certain level of success. In the main, it went down a treat; we blammed through that pilot keg in very short order (possibly helped too much by me, on one particular night).

The only let-down was that we didn’t make enough of a fuss about it, and I don’t even really know why we didn’t. It turned out that we actually tapped our keg — the very first in the country — on the actual goddamn thirtieth birthday of the beer. How neat is that? And it was totally accidental, weirdly. I tried to lobby for the awesomely-ostentatious oversized tap handle to be installed, too. The reasoning was that one big silly handle would look out of place among all the normals — but surely that’s precisely why you do it. Sigh. That said, Peter’s note on the blackboard — written “in Californian” — was awesome.

Verbatim: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale! 15/11/10 apparently the first keg to make it to the Little Country. A bit of a travel test, after which it may become a fixture on tap here @ work. Some of the Beer Snobs have already yeah-yeah-ed themselves into agreeing that it hasn’t travelled well. I say nonsense; is lovely. Maybe, maybe slightly muted. But still its delicious self. I suspect people are confusing it with its gruntier relatives.

— and then a lot / too many more the next night. I discovered that the 15th is the brewdate Birthday; so we tapped ours on its 30th! Worth celebrating, so we did.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale announcement
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale announcement
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on tap
Diary II entry #35.1, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on tap
Diary II entry #35.2, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

1: Greg Koch, one of the founders of the Stone brewery, made a spectacularly arse-faced appearance on the forum in which he characterised a parallel import of his beer as “black market” and “illegal” several times in a short span. That lost him a lot of my sympathy, and it was very hard not to read his comments without uncharitably starting to think they were decidedly sour grapes, given that they were spurred by a negative comment about his beer. Illegality is a serious accusation to fling at someone so casually — even if there’s a question of whether one of the middlemen had broken a no-exporting deal, that’d just be an issue of breach of contract, not the proper breach of statute that his terminology and outrage imply.
2: To return to Greg Koch (from footnote 1), he quite-casually throws around the phrase “fresh-and-as-intended, or not at all”, which does set me wondering just where he wants to get off that train; what else gets smuggled into “as intended”? I really hope he took Stu’s quoted song lyrics to heart, and calmed down a bit.

Emerson’s Brewers’ Reserve: ‘Grace Jones’ Porter

Emerson's 'Grace Jones'
Diary II entry #34, Emerson's 'Grace Jones'

The Emerson’s brewers are here doing their own version of the Barry White joke I made in reference to their Oatmeal Stout. Not that I’m claiming credit, of course. But it’s nice to have a “thinking alike” moment now and then.

Much like the recent Southern Clam Stout, ‘Grace’ does make for another worthy successor to ‘Barry’ — especially given the texture-smoothifying oats they’ve used here (which were obviously also in the Oatmeal Stout, hence the name). They cite the Anchor Porter as an inspiriation, implying higher-than-usual levels of hops which showed up, to me, as a nicely ‘zingy’ edge around all that delicious chocolate flavour.

I do like Emerson’s London Porter a lot, but also wish they’d put something like this into permanent production — it’d be nice to have a bigger, ‘stoutier’ option on the roster, too. Which does of course bring up the question of stout versus porter, since here’s me saying that this is ‘stouty’. I’d just been reading Martyn Cornell’s masterful mythbusting post on the topic, so it was on my mind and lead to an oddly-heated discussion with some of the Beer Nerds. Myself, I’m perfectly happy with the realisation that a lot of what we Nerds have in our heads about the ‘classic styles’ is alarmingly-modern, actually, and pretty much entirely non-historical. That’s not a big deal; the terms are still useful enough — and this happens to our entire language anyway, all the time. I don’t really see why some people get bent out of shape and spend their time so passionately reifying descriptions that were always pretty loose and negotiable.

You can still be grumpy — and believe me, I am — about egregiously silly unilateral attempts to lock up or modify bits of the beer-related lexicon — he says, looking at you, D.B., and your nonsense-faced defence of the ‘Radler’ trademark you know damn well you should never have applied for, nor been granted — without turning into a total anorak who fights for hard-and-fast distinctions where there needn’t be any.

Verbatim: Emerson’s Brewers’ Reserve: Grace Jones 10/11/10 guest @ MH 6% The Beer Club folks had this, and I scandalised them with the thought (from Zythophile) that there just isn’t a principled stout / porter distinction. They got oddly mad + defensive. Anyhow, I’d had this at Nerding one night a few weeks ago; we all liked it then, but I didn’t diarise it. Is lovely. Very dark, with ruby highlights. Apparently inspired by Fullers & Anchor porters. Pretty worthy, really. Massively chocolatey, smooth (oats!), but with a nice zingy edge.

My entry for the People’s Blog

The weekly blog on the Malthouse’s website has a semi-regular feature called ‘The People’s Blog’, where regulars and hangers-on and (occasionally) staff are invited to / dragooned into writing a little blab about their “two favourite Malthouse beers”. I was one of the “volunteers” for the second edition of that, and so this probably rates as my earliest, most-official piece of Rambling About Beer:

It’s chronically unfair to ask me for my “two favourite” Malthouse beers since I’m a fairly fickle and promiscuous drinker with tastes that vary pretty wildly depending on the weather, the plan for the evening (or morning…), what my previous beer was and general whims.  But okay. Let’s play along and pick two enduring favourites, at least.

Emerson’s Bookbinder (Dunedin, 3.7%). Absurdly flavourful for its moderate weight, Booky serves brilliantly as an after-work restorative (and actual book-binding is damn hard work, I can assure you) or as a sessionable fuel for long hours of talking nonsense with friends and generally laughing asses off – which won’t leave you too blurry in the small hours, or too hungover the day after.  It’s a reminder that, if you’re clever enough, you don’t have to climb to boozy heights to make a tasty beer, and that often there’s merit to be had for finding that perfect balance between your malts and your hops.  Both factors run nicely contrary to some frequently-silly fashions, and are worth celebrating.  So raise a glass.  Then another.

Cooper’s Sparkling Ale (Adelaide, 5.8%).  My first good Australian beer, upon which I luckily stumbled while beer-shopping for an Australia Day while off at university in a forty-degree Canberra summer. Hardly “sessionable” at 5.8% (not that that stopped me…) but a truly gorgeous golden ale with a wonderfully easy, fruity, lively and lingering taste that can be a great way to ease lagerheads into other styles, or to bring those who don’t consider themselves “beer drinkers” (maybe because lagerheads just offer them lager…) into the fold.

With its optional ritual of rolling the bottle to kick up the sediment, it’s also a great introduction to the joys of natural, unfiltered, bottle-conditioned (and so, arguably, “real”) beer.  It’s effortlessly delicious.

Continue reading My entry for the People’s Blog