Introducing himself and his mission, Michael Jackson (the drinks writer, not the other one — as the inevitable caveat goes) often said “I want you to think about every beer you put to your lips”. He definitely didn’t just mean taste; he always talked about history, and context, and companionship. But my suspicion is that he wouldn’t have stopped there, and I submit we should add ethics to the list: sometimes, the behaviour of the people who make or sell a beer is reason enough to avoid it entirely. I’m even fairly agnostic about the details. I just want to see more people drawing a line somewhere.
So, that was 2016. It was… interesting. As you perhaps noticed. Plenty happening in the beer business, but no shortage of distractions in the wider and weirder world. Despite working on various of beer’s front lines, I felt a little disconnected from it all last year. And so rather than trawling through my notes looking for particular favourites (such as I’d do when preparing for a Year In Review episode of the podcast) I took some time for a more-general contemplation of the year gone by, and its heroes and villains — or at least those who are not helping,1 and those who are. Here, I present three loud boos and three cheerful hurrahs.
I’m a big fan of sour beers. I like what they do to my brain, in terms of their inherent deliciousness. But also — and I say this as a bartender, host-of-tastings, and general observer of the business — part of the fun is what they do to the brains of other people. Nothing more efficiently upends a newbie’s naïve understanding of “what beer is”,1 and nothing seems so capable of making professionals spout nonsense. After a few recent articles and tasting sessions,2 I just want to take a moment to defend sour as a character and as a category.
So, that was me. I’m the wag, in the old-timey parlance of the newspaper. There’s little point pretending otherwise, since the sign was twenty steps from the front door of the pub where I work — and a large part of my m.o. here involves uploading literally hundreds of handwriting samples you could compare against. I’m all for the normalising of beer into the wider popular culture, but this crap isn’t helping. And I say that as a bearded someone (admittedly, it’s neither “bushy” nor “bristly”) who works in the (for want of a better word) craft beer business.
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.
So that was the week that was. The week that was a while ago, now. How time flies when you’re quietly recuperating. Weirdly, given the work I gravitate towards, I’m a natural introvert and crowds of lovely beer nerds are still, you know, crowds. I think exhaustixhilirated just about covers it; sound prediction there, Phil From The Past. You get a strange view of things during festivals when you’re doing too much to do much, but from where I was standing, this is what Beervana — and its satellite events in The Road Thereto — looked like:
The days are just packed.1 This is always a weird time of year to be a beer geek who works in the beer business; the combination of so much going on and so much to do warrants one of those legendary compound German words. I am exhaustixhilarated. This is terrificifying. So, naturally, Emma and I nicked off for a fifteen-hour one-day road-trip to see the final days of an exhibition and that freakin’ gorgeous mountain. There wasn’t even any beer involved. It was great. Bring on the week ahead, I say.
I’ve just got the one actual beer hat — which does stand in stark contrast to my predictably-overstuffed t-shirt drawer. My Dogfish Head cap is a beloved and battered souvenir of a ridiculously enjoyable afternoon spent bartending at Beervana 2010,1 relatively early in my full-time-beer-person career. As I was doing my taxes this week, generally feeling fortunate to’ve been able to patch together a modest living doing work I enjoy, I thought I should lay out my metaphorical hats — in the spirit of delight (my plan, such as it is, is vaguely working!) as much as disclosure,2 though I’m a big fan of both.
One of the two real constants in my Philosophy Of Beer is that drinking is drug-taking.1 You can say this without being puerile or Prohibitionist; it is, after all, just the plain and literal truth. A lot of things are drug-taking ― from my morning coffee and daily antihistamines to things like morphine and amphetamines ― and there’s no point pretending otherwise or ignoring the wider context, variable as it is. The “drug” concept is (like everything) fuzzy at the margins, but I’m most interested in the ways it entails the need for some kind of moderation in your personal life (which I’ll return to later) and some kind of regulation in society.2 Needless to say, the details vary wildly with the character of the particular drug, and it’s entirely possible to strike the balances very badly indeed. For now, as a warmup to tackling trickier issues later, let’s address one specific rule ― age3 ― and how compliance with it is tested.
The Police regularly conduct “controlled purchase operations”, where an underage person is recruited to attempt to purchase alcohol from, say, a supermarket or a bar. That person can lie when asked their age, but they don’t carry fake ID. Recently, Dominic Kelly ― proprietor of beer bar Hashigo Zake and its importing arm Beer Without Borders ― criticised the practice, labelling it entrapment, and describing it as ‘seedy’, ‘inherently unfair’ and ‘appalling’. Now, I like Dominic. I count him a friend and consider him one of the country’s unsung beer writers; through his editorials in B.W.B.’s entertaining newsletters and his occasional blog, he’s a strong and valuable voice on its regulatory and business aspects. But here, he’s almost completely wrong.
As we mentioned in the last podcast, we’ve got a few Lost Episodes in our proverbial back pocket. They’ve become little exercises in time travel, but we didn’t want them to languish forever, so I’ll be uploading them over the next few weeks. This conversation was recorded on 17 September 2015.
We sat down for a few beers ‘on the record’ with our friends Dave Wood and Denise Garland. Dave is the general manager of Wellington beer bar Hashigo Zake as well as the current President of SOBA (the Society of Beer Advocates) and Denise is a journalist — and both have long been key members of the beer community. They talk about the rapid evolution of the local scene, their introductions to it and their ‘epiphany’ beers, the simple pleasures of everday beers in their right place, and the joys of making your own homebrew. We also discuss the bar business, SOBA festivals, women-in-beer groups like Beerded Ladies and Pink Boots, lament the general lack of brown ales and have a few dated-but-foreboding words to say about company takeovers — Dave idly ponders a Ballast Point buyout that was just a few weeks in the future.