It’s been a while since I’ve had the usual pint on Saint Patrick’s Day. Aside from a general indifference to tradition and a specific aversion to the way that holiday’s been borrowed and bastardised and bent into an excuse for problematic daydrinking — I’ve also got a particular gripe against Guinness for so completely overshadowing the way so many people think about dark beer or anything on Nitro, let alone both.
You know the usual Holiday Beer story — go to warm and/or sunny location; mooch around; enjoy the local pale lager; (re)discover the fun of blandness-as-a-virtue and enjoy a forceful reminder of the power of context1 — but mine’s a little different. After the frantic Festival Season subsided, Beer Diary HQ relocated for a week to Niue, which isn’t big enough to have its own brewery. So I drank Steinlager, instead.
It’s a lovely day for a beer festival. Admittedly, I say this without bothering to look at the forecast or indeed out the window. Today is the fourth running of Brewday, a festival of wider Wellington’s beer and beer-adjacent communities, held over the hill in Martinborough — a place long thought of as wine country (and quite rightly) but also just generally the City’s sunnier back yard.1 I attended the previous three, and had an excellent time at each — in three very different capacities — but am sitting out this one on account of a looming shift in the bar this evening.2 But I have my own theory of making the most of Missing Out, and so this year I am enjoying the festival nostalgically.
On our roughly spherical planet, yesterday is still today for a good while into tomorrow. Which is convenient, given my topic. But then, whenever you’re late to talk about an annual conjunction of timing, you’re also just really early.1 Anyway, the 30th of August is my birthday,2 and also the anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson — by which I mean the beer and whisky writer, not the other one. Given that it’s also usually the end of beer festival season here, it’s an excellent time to ponder inspirations and go back to the classics. And M.J. so radically overhauled and reinvigorated what became my avocation ― i.e., rambling about beer ― that he might as well count as its inventor. One of our fundamental organising principles, the notion of “beer styles”, was even his (surprisingly-recent) invention. You really can’t overstate the influence. And we’re lucky to have him looming over us, because he was damn good.
My first introduction to him was the Malt Whisky Companion that kept me sane while I was working at a bar with a dismal beer selection but an unexpectedly excellent shelf of five-dozen whiskies. Only later did I discover his work on beer — once I’d relocated to a better bar — but across both subjects he had the same easily readable, gently educational, and enthusiastically cosmopolitan passion for delicious things enjoyed mindfully and in context. Though it’s maybe too anachronistic a term for someone of his generation, he was a proper geek: just obviously keen to share his love of his favourite things with anyone who’d listen. Despite his (deserved) stature as the authoritative expert of his time, he doesn’t give off a whiff of snobbery. Read him on something that was ‘new’ and emerging and maybe much-maligned — like the craft beer movement of the U.S. in the eighties, or Japanese single malt whisky — and you’ll see him strongly rejecting the common and lazy assumption that different is automatically inferior. Instead, he’d pick up much-more-rewarding threads like the broad arc of history, how almost everything old is eventually new again, humanity’s long-running tradition of mucking with long-running traditions, and how fashion (for Islay whisky, or IPA) is just fashion and will one day be replaced.
I have my quibbles at the margins, naturally. He’s said some frankly-bananas things about glassware and serving temperatures, which I’ve reluctantly torn apart in User’s Guide-style seminars.3 And a lot of his work was in the Big Compendium Of Tasting Notes genre which has unfortunately spawned a generation of imitators4 who (to my mind) don’t do nearly as good a job of tempering that approach with the necessary context and quirky evocativeness which he excelled in.5 But he remains a subculture superhero, and a classic forever worth revisiting.
Speaking of which: this glorious thing. My friend and former bartending comrade6 Peter gave me a bottle of Chimay Grande Réserve7 for my birthday yesterday. It’s long been a favourite — since I plucked it out of a menu on a whim at an excellent little birthday dinner a decade or so ago, if memory serves — and this bottle happened to be from the 2007 vintage, so brewed the year we lost M.J.. No better way to mark the moment, salute your superhero, and end the evening, then, than to open it and pair it with a little of the Highland Park that the Companion made me fall in love with equally-many years ago.8 And it was simply sublime. Delicate and luxurious, rich but not overblown, full of perfectly nightcappy flavours like dark chocolate and deeply fruity port. We’d all be lucky if we were aging half as well.
So here’s to M.J., and to making the most of however-many orbits of the Sun you’re eventually allotted. As you go along, imagine his avuncular voice in your head — like Obi-Wan gently nudging Luke — as he says:9
I want you to think about every beer you put to your lips.
Original Diary entry: Chimay Grande Réserve 2007 — 30/08/15 Almost wrote 79 by sheer form-filling habit. @ home, after an excellent birthday. Watching the still-charming Beer Hunter series — he’s just such a natural, if a total dork — and pairing it also with a Highland Park. Seemed fitting all round, since it’s the anniversary of MJ’s death, which was in 2007. This bottle a present from Pete. So utterly lovely. Suprisingly light palate, so portish + with lots of chocolate flavour later on. Ages so well. The beer. Can’t speak for myself, obviously. But I did alright today. Very lucky chap. Pancakes + bubbles + beer + books + mooching + wandering and just generally having a top notch Sunday. Wouldn’t dare ask for more than that. What would be the need?
— Appendix: The Other M.J.
Meanwhile, an excellent coincidence of timing and timezones bundles the other Michael Jackson into all this: the 29th was his birthday and — as I said, given our roughly spherical planet — a good chunk of that day for an American just is the 30th for me (or the M.J., for that matter). To tie it all back to beer and other things of which I’m more-properly a fan, here he is drinking a Bud (remember: to each their own, and everything in its right place) while sitting next to Bruce Freakin’ Springsteen:
Feminism, as they say, is1 the radical idea that women are people too. By very simple extension, women can be beer enthusiasts, bar owners, beer writers, and brewers. There’s a lot more to say on the subject, obviously, but it’s not really my gig to hold forth given my obvious lack of lived experience — a Very Special Podcast Episode was recorded this weekend which will probably elaborate thereon, instead, and that reminded me about this tasty beer and its somewhat-unusual context.
LBQ — that is to say, Little Beer Quarter; a well-established bar here in town which happens to be owned by women — was hosting a mini-tap-takeover by Moa, a company with something of a well-deserved reputation of boorish, sexist and otherwise-bigoted marketing. The high-water mark, such as it is,2 was perhaps their relentlessly shitty IPO document, but their offenses — both stunningly major and perplexingly minor — would probably be just too depressingly exhausting to fully catalogue. Their outright dismissal of women as potential consumers (nevermind investors or just non-ornaments) sees them fail at the earliest possible moral hurdle and earned Moa a spot on my own personal (and mercifully short) Boycott List.
The tension here — that between the character of the bar and of the brewery3 — was noted a fair amount online, with many surprised that LBQ would give Moa the oxygen, after freely taking (gentle) jabs before. Personally, it was admittedly gratifying to be reminded that I wasn’t alone in holding a grudge. A lot of people will independently bring up their history of appalling marketing and cite it as a reason for not buying their beer, skipping their offering at a festival, or not going to an event of theirs. We are, after all, enjoying a preposterous embarrassment of riches in our options in the beer world, so it’s relatively easy to boycott something for over a year and not really feel like you’re missing out at all. Consumer choice wide enough allows consumer judgement on any criteria they feel like applying — which is precisely how things should be. Moa, it has to be said, had been keeping their heads relatively low, lately;4 it looks like they thought they could just slink away from their prior bullshit and have everyone quietly forget about it — and it looks like they were wrong. Re-starting with a sincere “we screwed up — we acted gross, and we’re not going to do it again; we’re actually mostly going to get out of the way and let the beer speak for itself” could do a lot.5 They’ve conspicuously failed to make any kind of attempt in that direction, and that’s unfortunate for all concerned.
And maybe LBQ were still giving them a nudge in the ribs even as they hosted this perhaps-premature event, because on the afternoon of the takeover, they announced that they’d tapped a keg of the Beer Baroness-brewed edition of ‘Unite’ Pale Ale, the International Women’s Day collaboration beer. So I had that, for my own point-making circumstantial reasons, but I’ll eagerly have it again for its inherent deliciousness because it was just splendid. Nice how that works out, sometimes. A zippy little sessionable pale ale, it was very much My Thing — and a fresh batch is reputedly On The Way. The titular Baroness is Ava Wilson, who is also the manager of the ridiculously wonderful Pomeroy’s Pub, convenor for the NZ chapter of the Pink Boots Society (soon to have its inaugural meeting, and the mothership of which organised the global brewday), seminar-wrangler for the Great Kiwi Beer Festival, and an all-round superawesome individual. If you, like Moa’s marketing suits, live in the same country as Ava and you still don’t think women could be “beer people” then I submit that you are an ignorant retrograde.
I would at least hope — in a rare fit of optimism — that the craft beer ‘community’ was on the whole a welcoming, safe, and enjoyable place for women to be. Better than ‘the average’ (non-beer bars and festivals, the public at large..?), maybe, somehow. But it’s a long way from perfect, and every awful bit of sexist branding,† all the tired old stereotypes and presumptions that never quite die (see, e.g., how often people think “girly beer” might actually be a category, and what it’d consist in, and why), and every crappy bit of treatment women still endure in bars — they’re all worth calling out and resisting. So yes, among my self-chosen descriptors, I’ll wear “feminist”6 as happily as I do “beer geek”.
Original notes: Beer Baronness ‘Unite’ Pale Ale 17/7/14 @ LBQ, amid a Moa tap takeover, so at least partially for irony + point-making. But the thing itself hardly needs an excuse; really nicely zippy + zesty hoppy little 4% thing. Not hugely weather-appropriate, but the bar is super cozy anyway. Lots of interesting reactions to this event, but my take is just that it’s premature. Apologetic fronting-up, then the charm offensive and re-focus on the beer.
1: If I felt like quibbling — and, let’s face it, I basically always do — I’d say “begins with” rather than “is”. But it’s a damn fine slogan, and at least damn close to the mark. ↑
2: With “water” in a decidedly euphemistic sense, let’s say. ↑
3: “…or at least its marketing department”, as the usual caveat goes — including from me (e.g., footnote 1 in my post on the IPO itself). And while it is true that the beers range from fine to great and the brewer himself is indeed a lovely chap, there comes a point where something goes on long enough and everyone involved really is at least a little bit culpable by association. ↑
4: Well, other than hiring Shane Warne to front their product in Australia. Which makes little goddamn sense for several reasons, not least of which the boofhead reputation he’s transparently struggling to shake. Against their otherwise softly-softly tactics of late, I’m pretty much at a loss to explain that one. Perhaps it’s a mistake to try to attribute a rationality behind it at all; it might just show their instincts. ↑
5: Just because someone will always come along and set a worse example, I suppose it’s at least a relief they aren’t just trying to obliviate their past misdeeds and erase them from the record (except for one example that we’ll get to later…) — unlike WilliamsWarn, whose foray into #everydaysexism was made all the sadder for their reaction to criticism. ↑
6: Simplicter. I was in the habit of saying “~ ally”, but I’ve lately been convinced otherwise. ↑
†: Coincidentally, in the inadvertent extra delay in getting this online, the guys at the Ale Of A Time podcast uploaded an episode wherein they also address the sexist branding / beer-naming problem. So at least it’s getting a little more air and pushback — though I take a stronger line than both of them. ↑
Over the decade I’ve been taking handwritten notes of my beer-drinking experiences, I have inevitably developed an idiosyncratic Style Guide.1 Broadly — though there are exceptions early on as the pattern developed, and sporadically throughout as I either forgot my own practice or thought of some now-lost rationalisation for a variance in some particular case — it’s like this: beer names are all capitals in the pen-and-paper form for easier cross-referencing, but otherwise just regular Title Case, with single-quote marks around a beer’s name when it’s a name, in the proper noun sense rather than a style descriptor. So Epic Pale Ale, but Epic ‘Mayhem’, if you follow. But this one, the latest in Monteith’s white label Brewer’s Series,2 necessitated I reach for the double-barreled scarequotes instead.
Objectivity is hard to find — and usually not worth looking for — in the beer world (or any other sensory pursuit), but I think I can comfortably say that this is no American Pale Ale in any sane sense of those words. Beer writer Neil Miller got a freebie in the post3 and Tweeted that it’d come with a package of Citra hops. The obvious jab — “Hey Monteith’s, the hops go in the beer…” — swiftly ensued, but turned out truer than anyone could’ve known: the beer has damn-near zero aroma or hop flavour, and certainly none remotely in the ballpark that “A.P.A.” would entail and require. I was instantly put in mind of the pale ale in Lion’s ridiculous ‘Crafty Beggars’ range4 — both smelled more like an empty glass that had previously held beer than one which currently did. It was insipid, incredibly boring, and what extra flavour did manifest itself as it warmed up a little and I grudgingly proceeded down the glass was not the kind that was welcome. The 40 I.B.U. — “International Bitterness Units”, a doomed-but-useful way of trying to measure the palate-punch of hops — on the label implies a relatively easy-going pale ale, sure, but this was so insubstantial as to amount to a cruel joke.
Because the problem here is that this kind of massive mislabeling cuts both ways. It’s not just that beer nerds and brewers should feel affronted to see a venerable and popular style being so poorly aped, it’s that anyone who likes this could well be horribly surprised if ever they buy a true-to-style American Pale Ale. Everyone would be better served if this was marketed as Heineken Trading As Monteith’s Brand Fermented Product Number Sixteen, instead; as it is, no matter how much you know about the words on the label, you know nothing about the beer inside — and vice versa . That it comes from the same sprawling conglomerate who’ve long abused the term “India Pale Ale”5 on a sweet and caramelly brown lager, as well as selling a “Radler” that isn’t a Radler, should put them firmly On Notice. It could always be pure incompetence and ignorance — and we are supposed to presume cock-up before conspiracy — but it’s so consistent that it looks more like deliberate piss-taking and deception. It’s as if Tony Mercer, the putative head brewer, is channeling Tony Soprano, running around the style spectrum and trying to ruin people’s idea of what each variety of beer can really be — much like the latter drove all over Jersey to meet with all the best divorce attorneys just so his wife couldn’t hire them later. A company of this scale could be a properly-wonderful provider of accessible ‘gateway’ beer and fridge-friendly stuff for the masses however nerdy or not, but sadly they seem to prefer wallowing in nonsense and pretending to be all kinds of things they aren’t.
Original notes: Monteith’s “American Pale ” 18/3/14 @ home. 5.7% “40 IBU”, freebie from a retailer perhaps best left unnamed. I really want them to join the real world and start playing ball. They could be such great gateway providers. But no. They’re either taking the piss, or are just totally incompetent — or, I suppose, marketing is one and brewing is the other, each doing their share. This is damn near free of aroma. It’s like that Crafty Beggars Pale was. An empty glass. Bland, slightly buttery. Utterly boring, until it warms and worsens. Just horrible. That this is labeled “APA” is a problem for everyone. Are they Tony Soprano-ing all the beer styles?
1: “Decade”? Crap. I missed my own note-taking anniversary. Probably because I have the kind of memory issues that necessitate note-taking in the first place. “Inevitably” because the Diary started just after (my first round of) University finished. ↑
2: Paging Dr. Freud, meanwhile. A “Brewer’s Series” does seem like a strangely-blunt admission that the main range is dictated more by the marketing and accounting departments, doesn’t it? ↑
3: Almost certainly both because I am a notoriously grumpy bugger, and I am not a proper professional writer, I tend not to get sent samples. Indeed, a stickler in my own weird ways, I would (and have, on occasion) usually turn them down. Notable exceptions, though, are the bottle of Epic’s ‘One Trick Pony’ IPA that Luke Nicholas generously sent me on each version’s release (because I helped name the series), the couple of bottles Moa sent me (before I could get around to telling them not to; I’ll find a home for those soon…) — and this, which came from a bottle store who were somewhere between mystified and outraged by it, and wanted to share the experience around. ↑
4: I hear a rumour that the Crafty Beggars brand has failed to meet expectations, and will be axed. The big breweries sure are fickle with their new ideas. Meanwhile, I am still happy calling the whole experiment “ridiculous”, with the proviso that the everything in its right place principle did render one of its members worthwhile on a very specific occasion. ↑
5: Occasionally, you hear a minor defence of D.B. along the lines that they appended the “East” to IPA and thereby made up a nonsense new style and so technically aren’t bullshitting anyone. Sadly, that fails on two counts: “East India Pale Ale” really is the original style term, and D.B. explicitly (and very, very wrongly) link their product to the Usual History of IPA. ↑
Late-breaking news that beers from Stone, a legendary but rather isolationist Californian brewery, would be available “legitimately” in this part of the world was greeted with some surprise by local beer geeks. Stone have never exported to New Zealand (nor even to all parts of their own country) and Greg Koch, co-founder and figurehead of the brewery, is famously opposed to “grey market” imports and goes out of his way to encourage that the consumption of beer be “fresh-and-as intended, or not at all”. And indeed, plenty of the incredulous reaction was vindicated; in the end, it transpired that an announcement of impending distribution was a tragic (and strange) miscommunication. But what we Wellingtonians did get — and what Melburnians soon will get — turned out to be a super-sized, double-venue’d, fairly-freakin’-serious tap takeover. There was a subtle lingering awkwardness in that the night’s hosts — Malthouse, and its younger brewpub sibling, Fork & Brewer — have always dealt in the kinds of mainstream offerings and parallel-imported beers1 that Greg so righteously rails against, but still. The result was a shining example of How To Pub:2 the beers I had were only uniform in their excellence, and the mood in both bars was wonderful to partake in.
One of few real criticisms of the night was that each venue’s beer lists weren’t published anywhere and you had to fall back to scouring Untappd / Twitter / Whatever for clues, if ping-ponging between bars seven hundred metres apart seemed inconvenient. But just before leaving work, I spotted (somewhere online) that Stone’s new sessionable ‘Go To’ IPA was on at the F&B, so I headed there first. I did technically already own, waiting for me at Malthouse, a glass of the ‘w00tstout’ Stone brewed in collaboration with Drew Curtis (of Fark.com) and Wil Wheaton (of, well, Plenty Of Awesome Things) having stopped by the bar earlier keen-bordering-on-paranoid not to miss out on it but equally conscious of its over-ten-percent punch and the work I had left to be done — including driving a delivery van. In any case, starting with an Imperial Stout doesn’t often bode well, so thankfully the unexpected prospect of a midstrength hoppy pale was enticing enough to distract me.
After an alarmingly-shaky start a few years ago (in both the brew~ and ~pub departments), the Fork does seem to be finding its feet. Co-hosting events like this — and doing so rather well — can only help to demonstrate that. Meanwhile, ‘Go To’ was delicious and exactly what I felt like: a properly thirst-smacking lush golden body with a massive hop aroma hurtling up the nose to shock a fading brain back into alertness — and also to cut through the worty wafts of a brewpub in mid-brew. The Americans in general have a reputation for their superboozy beers (lacking a ramping-up excise tax regime to discourage them), so it was gratifying to see a sub-five-percenter go against the trend — and then to spy another (the ‘Levitation’: a maltier, smoother and calmer affair, utterly perfect for pint #2) and to have that, too. I then wound up helping a friend work his way through a flight of tasting glasses, having sips of four much-madder beers — white wine barrel-aged ‘Cali-Belgique’; Matt’s Burning Rosids,3 brewed in honour of an employee killed in an accident at the brewery; Perfect Crime; and Vertical Epic 11.11.114 — which were all well put-together, diverse, interesting, storied, and at least a few leagues North of merely “good”; great fuel for sipping and rambling.
But my w00tstout kept calling from down the road, and didn’t disappoint once I retrieved it. I think I spent a full hour with it, a massive thing of madness and deliciousness with plenty going on — the collision of two of my own particular kinds of geekiness in such a lovely beer made for an utterly sublime experience. A few more tasters from the relatively-bonkers end of the spectrum followed — a white-wine barrel aged saison called ‘The Tiger Cub’; and the red wine barrel-aged version of the ‘Cali-Belgique’ I’d previously tried — which both just went nicely with more sipping and rambling with regulars and colleagues from my Malthouse days. I switched back to having pints of the saner stuff, afterwards, and found the everyday Pale Ale and IPA both to be buckets of fun and just as worthy as the weirder ones, in their own ways. The bar was in absolutely fine form, and despite the critical eye that a former staff member would naturally have, it probably still hasn’t been equalled when it really gets a run-up and goes in for full-noise beer events.
The beers were all good. They were stupidly and consistently good, forming a range of genuinely impressive scope with properly skillful execution. But one of the surprising lessons learned from having a cross-section of such legendary things in front of me was that we’re doing pretty damn well, here. It’s one thing to leap at the chance to try them, to let yourself be blown away by them, and to drift blissfully through a fair few glasses — but don’t despair that they’re not more-readily available down here. Even with only a token factoring-in of scope and history, the local (and here I mean “Australasian”) breweries are easily pulling their weight.5 Damn right I’ll be visiting Stone whenever I find myself even vaguely in California’s orbit, but as these beers were running out one by one last week, I wasn’t mourning; I’m not even close to done learning about the things within reach to worry very much. ‘Go To’ was great — but so are Liberty’s ‘C!tra Junior’ and Panhead ‘Quickchange’, just for example; I could go on.
Close to midnight, I went in search of a suitable nightcap, and found it in the form of Stone’s 2010 Imperial Stout; a giant velvet exclamation point to end a lovely evening. Epic Brewing’s Luke Nicholas6 was commandeering the sound system (for better or — occasionally — worse), as he does, and Greg Koch jumped up on the bar for some old-timey-style evangelism, which was kind of adorable and awesome but also put me back in mind of a few misgivings. I’m all for broadening peoples’ notions of what beer can be, but there’s an uneasy inconsistency in Stone’s off-and-on-again absolutism about some things: Greg’s fanatical anti-grey-market stance is awkward standing in front of a fridge featuring more than a few such bottles, and preaching about the unenlightened “on this very street” is a little strange in a bar that will happily — and rightly — sell them a faux-import Heineken right now. The event could’ve been staged in collaboration with (if not at, for reasons of scale) Hashigo Zake, for example, if moral purity was a paramount concern. And against all that reaching-out rhetoric, something like “Fizzy Yellow Beer Is For Wussies” clashes horribly. Not least because of the simple fact that several of the Stone beers on offer that evening were objectively-speaking both a) fizzy and b) yellow — nor the even-better point that, with everything in its right place, even the simplest, blandest, most-unfashionable and “mediocre” beer can be just the thing for the moment. The real problem here is a simple breach of the Ethics of Comedy: the Fizzy Yellow Beer line makes fun of the mainstream drinker, not the often-duplicitous producer, and amounts to the sin of “punching down”. If we’re going to be evangelising — and please, let’s — we’d be better off not trying to snark and smile at the same people simultaneously. Beers as good as these actually do very well at speaking for themselves, anyway.
Original notes:7 City Tap Takeover 13/3/14 @ F&B, to start. 1) ‘Go To’ IPA 4.5% just as Colin, Luke + Greg arrived. The place is jumping — but very worty as Lester is still going. Fucking delicious, hugely hoppy, golden + fabulous. Massive, uppy, but not angry. Gorgeous. Nice to see this place crammed with happy — if starstruck — nerds. 2) ‘Levitation’ 4.4% Another session beer spied, and therefore ordered. Really nice comparison; vastly maliter, less hoppy, less spiky + fizzy in presentation. Glassphemy, too, in a Coopers glass — sure sign of a busy bar. Loads of good people + good vibes. (Helping with Kit’s tasters: Cali-Belgique (White Wine) 8.8% Matt’s Burning Rosids 10.5%, Perfect Crime 6.8%, and Vertical Epic 11.11.11 9.4% Just shows a great breadth. 1) is like unpuckering Funkonnay, says Kit, and he’s on to something. 2) is like a jasmine bonfire, serious but lovely. 3) more forgettable after just a sip, but you quickly get that in a crowd. 4) Holy hell, #freshisnotbest. Big explosion, despite its age. Spicy, which might help it on that front.) 3) @ Malthouse, now. W00tstout! @wilw’s beer, among others. I bought one at 2pm, out of sheer FOMO. Which wasn’t necessary in the end, but totally worth it. The only plausible case for insurance, really. So good. Tonnes of smooth, boozy flavour. Pecans evident but not obnoxious. Just sublime. It took over an hour, and it was marvellous. Then two little tasters: The Tiger Club (White Wine) 8.9% and Cali-Belgique (Red Wine) 8.8% — And, fuck it, a pint of the flagship Pale 5.8% Everyone’s having a grand time. The staff are in their element, and the bar is — as it always did — kicking arse in Beer Event mode. The a Stone IPA because why not. Greg’s on the bar, and Luke’s on the sound system. It’s vintage Malthouse, and it’s bliss. And then, while I was looking for a nightcap, a sour-face-inducing Gueze came out, for the VIPs, I guess. 6) Imperial Stout 2010. There we go. That’ll do.
1: And rightly so I hasten to add, for reasons that flow from their physical locations, market niche, and from the fundamentally-usually-rather-overblown nature of the anti-grey panic in the first place. The scare-quotes are very firmly only “legitimately” in this post’s first sentence because, despite Greg’s fevered use of words like “illegal black market” (see the footnotes of the above-linked entry), the sale of his beer here has always been legal under NZ law whether he likes it or not — and whatever the valid concerns there might be with the practice. (Also, to pre-emptively split hairs, I’m not certain that the F&B stocks / stocked grey beer, but they definitely trade in mass-market stuff.) ↑
2: Without meaning to imply that there’s only One Way, of course; I just had a surpassingly wonderful very quiet-and-civilised night at Golding’s, drinking plural Panhead beers, eating delicious pizza, and watching the Cosmos re-make. ↑
3: It turns out that the Rosids are a group of flowering plants, including — no surprise, in context, once you learn the first half of this sentence — our friend the hop. ↑
4: One of those joyful-and-t00-rare moments when the Americans’ maximally-stupid middle-endian month-first date notation won’t drive me mad. ↑
5: I’m fairly sure it was Luke Robertson who nudged me into keeping this in mind, but I can’t remember if he did so on the Twitters, his blog, or in his podcast. I recommend you follow all three. ↑
6: Who must’ve been a contributing cause to this event happening in these places, friend and collaborator of the manager — and fellow oddball hophead to Greg Koch — as he is. ↑
7: I’m on to my third actual Beer Diary, but the power cord for the scanner has fritzed out, so I’m having to make do with somewhat-difficult-to-stage photos, for now. ↑
The days are just packed. There’s a mixed-blessing over-abundance of wonderful beery stuff in my life at the moment; much of which I’d love to be writing about, but I’m finding — for the moment1 — it’s all jostled up in my brain and forming a bit of a tangle. This happens from time to time, I’ve found, and is attributable to various causes which range from the everyday to the idiosyncratic. Back when I was a bartender, ranting and raving, armed with a beer and a keyboard, in the middle of the night, it was easier to navigate — partially because it seems I really am a nocturnal person attempting (with various levels of success) to live a day-walking life. As much as I love it, and as much as off-the-cuff rambling (whether praise or condemnation) about beer flows as freely as exhaling, I have found myself in mildly-daunted bordering-on-freaking-out mode a few times,2 and thereby unusually quiet. Which doesn’t seem a very me thing to be at all, so enough of that. This online incarnation of my Diary actually started as a way to start my brain moving properly again — more about that, another day — so we’re hopefully back on a well-worn path.3
I met this beer last week, as we prepped for a Craft Beer College tasting (at which I was co-hosting — so, you know, disclosures) which included it as part of a run-down on the role of different malts in the making of craft beer.
Graham Graeme Mahy, the man behind 666 Brewing,4 is one of those insufficiently-sung (if not actually “unsung”) characters in the local industry, and his beers reputedly never last long on Hashigo’s taps. ‘Black Se7en’ leaps bodily down that numerological well that brewers seem so attracted to, referencing not just the Pitt-Freeman movie wherein Kevin Spacey is the bad guy and there’s a severed head in a FedEx box,5 but 7 hops, 7 malts, 7% ABV and 77 IBU. It’s a little belabored, especially when you learn that “666” itself is a similar nod to Mahy’s June 1966 birthday, but the resulting beer is unarguably worthy.
I neglected to make any notes or take a photo of the glass I had on the night (since I was, you know, working), so I resolved to swing by Hashigo on my way to work the next day — which did mean committing to a pre-noon beer for the sake of these ramblings; the things I do in the name of research and completeness. It’d been yanked off the taps to clear the way for a Fresh Hop Friday tap takeover, but evidently I wasn’t alone in thinking it worth re-visiting, as Sam & Dave had emptied the line into a jug rather than down the drain. And — generally speaking, whatever the time of day — I do love a Black IPA, both as a consumable liquid and as an intellectual exercise. Beer styles are useful things, but reifying them and pretending they have any kind of actual independent existence and/or any real stability over time is just madness and likely to turn you into some kind of pedantic trainspotting anorak — and, worse, diminish your enjoyment of tasty things. “Black IPA” is almost singularly capable of doing some peoples’ heads in — and this is the one that finally got to me, with all its aggravating deliciousness.
Aggravating because this really does make a nonsense of the idea of a Black IPA. There’s a lot6 to be said / pondered / argued about the style (such as it is); what it should be called, what its defining characters are — and whether it exists at all, or deserves to. I’m perfectly happy with a world that contains both Hoppy Porter and Black IPA, and I’ve recently been convinced that “Cascadian Dark Ale” isn’t as daft a term as I initially thought. I like the Scrabble Bag Full Of Adjectives approach to beer style naming wherein brewers seem comfortable just throwing terms together in novel ways that are nonetheless capable of economically communicating their intent. Meanings evolve, concepts are recombined, and nothing is carved in stone. Beer is like that partially because language is like that.7 So I think there can be Hoppy Porter which isn’t Black IPA, and vice versa; I’d see it as a matter of emphasis, and starting point — which element you’re tweaking, which is your curveball adjective and which is your foundational noun. But ‘Black Se7en’ isn’t like that, it’s merely-black IPA, with a shameful lower-case b.
That’s because Black Se7en is apparently brewed with a surprisingly-contemptible product from Weyermann (a German malting company, and one of the world’s giant beer-ingredient providers) called “Sinamar®”. A dark roasted-malt extract, its sole reason for existing is to impart colour without a traceable hint of flavour. Brewers have some clever tricks for minimising the extract of roasty flavours from malt — like throwing it in the mash tun at the last minute as the wort is run off — but this just seems like a bridge too far. That it touts the avoidance of additive-listing regulations and compliance with the (god-damn motherfucking) Reinheitsgebot as advantages betrays the pointless sneakiness of it as mere food colouring. Why not release a whole freakin’ rainbow of Se7ens — what was the point of the blackness? Or is it some kind of very-devious post-modern meta-level commentary on the state of the “style”?
If you’re reading this, I’ve probably ruined your chance to run a fair test, but if you can put a glass in front of someone without telling them how it’s made, it’d be fascinating to see what they make of it, and whether they report any flavour notes that you’d expect from darker malts. They shouldn’t, given the design, but I couldn’t help second-guessing what the hell was going on in my brain as I drank it. Perception is like that, of course, but the interestingness of the exercise couldn’t quite soothe my outrage at the thought of all that effort going to jump through hoops for mere colour and compliance with a “Purity Law” for which there exist no sufficiently-large scare-quotes. It put me in mind of all the engineering effort poured in to making modern life, and particularly its gadgets, fit within ludicrously-strict readings of religious rules about the Sabbath. There’s a lot to admire in the ingenuity, and a certain charm in the mindset, but it just seems like a tragic misapplication of cleverness.
The beer’s damn good, though. And that calmed me right down.
Original notes: 666 Black Se7en IPA 3/5/13 @ Hashigo, on my way to work. Had this for a CBC tasting last night, and it’s motivatingly interesting + delicious. Actual, literal Black IPA, in instructive ways. Some influence of the gdmfing RHGB. (7%, leftovers for Fresh Hop Friday.) So weird that this should be so worthy but philosophically annoying-but-fascinating. It’s gorgeous, IPA-aromatic, satisfyingly bitter, too-drinkable for 7% (especially at breakfast!), balanced + damn good. But… but… Why black? Why?
1: Where “the moment” = the last few months, admittedly. Let’s go with deep time. ↑
2: Particularly, I’ll freely admit for the sake of brain-clearing, with the editorship of The Pursuit of Hoppiness, which I inherited when Kate Jordan moved over to the Melb.. It’s a damn fine publication, and I’m excited to have a crack at it, but it’s been an oddly-intimidating thing to tackle, given its pedigree, its profile, and the fact that a whole bunch of people pour work into it. I’m very much accustomed to working on my own, in the dark. The transition’s proving tricky, but I’ll get there. (He says, as he hacks out a personal blog post for the sake of greasing the rusted cogs of his mind — and if you can’t air a mea culpa and a minor confessional in the footnotes of your own website, what the hell is the point of having one?) ↑
3: An apt metaphor, since my other brain-cranking trick mostly involves hopping on my bike and going for a blat around some of Wellington’s many bays and up and over a few of its equally-many hills. The cycling-fanatic and craft-beer-nerd crossover is almost as strong, it turns out, as the beer-geek and geek-geek overlap which I’ve revelled in for years. ↑
4: The website’s run-down of their beers is depressingly out of date, but experience shows that this happens with basically every brewery, there being way too many items forever on the To Do list — a point beautifully lampooned by the in-progress page for Panhead. Graham Mahy, however, earns all sorts of bonus points for using the word “plethora”, something I’ve loved since Three Amigos. He’s also apparently the true creator of Moa’s original beer, now known as ‘Methode’ — which further suggests that they can continue to fuck right off with their incessant suggestion that Josh Scott is “the brewer”. ↑
5: Er, Spoiler Alert, I suppose. (Or maybe it’s a UPS box. I can’t recall.) ↑
6: See — just for example and just from myself — the entries for Yeastie Boys ‘PKB’, Deschutes ‘Hop in the Dark’, Croucher ‘Patriot’, Golden Ticket ‘Black Emperor’, Funk Estate Black IPA (which seems to be my fullest exposition on the idea), and Left Coast ‘The Wedge’. Close reading of those will probably reveal me even contradicting myself in my take on the phenomenon, but that’s kind of my point. ↑
7: In my favourite modern example, “peruse” is shifting from meaning reading thoroughly to mere browsing.a “Lager” comes from the German word for storing something away, but almost all modern lagers are brewed at breakneck speed. “Stout” was once an adjective appended to a subset of porters, but has come to be seen as a noun for a separate category; one of many kinds of non-porter ale. ↑
— a: In a brilliant coincidence, I found an article on the point which also references Three Amigos.
8: By which I mean two hundred and something, I think. I’ve got a stack of coasters and Post-Its and such to transcribe back in to the actual Diary, so I’ve somewhat lost count. ↑
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.