My big present-to-self this year, after several years on a semi-dependable runabout that has massively improved my daily / weekly / seasonal routine, is a nice new bike. While I did make sure to wear my super-smug cyclist t-shirt when I picked it up, today,1
I’m no rabidly dogmatic anti-combustion-engine fanatic — but I really do suggest you strongly consider getting your own velocipede, if you don’t already have one: it’s a nice mix of relaxed and efficient transport, with little traffic, no parking meters, and genuinely-therapeutic windows into the Zen Of Cycling — wherein you may come to believe that there seldom are hill climbs or headwinds so punishing that they’re ultimately unworthy of the blistering downhills or superpowering tailwinds that eventually follow.2
And what better to celebrate with than a radler? An actual radler, mind. Not that wrongly-named and more-wrongly-trademarked carbonated dishwashing liquid that D.B. peddle, nor their new-and-differently-horrible “Export Citrus” — which weirdly might kinda count as more truly “radler-esque”, and which must have them laughing all the way to the bank given that they charge basically the same for something upon which they pay a fraction of the excise tax. No, this thing was actually pleasantly refreshing. I can imagine it’d go truly gangbusters on a hot day, especially after and/or during a good non-commuter ride. There’s naught wrong with a well-made shandy — but therein lies the thing, doesn’t it? Waldhaus’ version (not really surprisingly) manages it; being recognisably beery (albeit superfriendily and easily beery), with lemonade that avoids tasting fake, candy-ish, and contrived as it too-often does.
It’s an often-mentioned madness that I technically shouldn’t have been allowed to buy that beer, here, thanks to an incredibly stupid quirk and/or interpretation of the local law. There was recently a knock-back on just this style term in the Czech Republic for Heineken — which, at a high level of abstraction, is D.B. — that deserves to be celebrated, but unfortunately doesn’t signal any kind of good news, here, given the vast differences in jurisdiction. There was a distinct element of protest and provocation when Hashigo Zake imported this,3 almost daring D.B. to send them a lawyer’s letter which they’d no doubt just frame and hang on the wall. Nothing ever came of it, but given the long-running rule that you risk losing trademarks you don’t actively defend, that might’ve been bad tactics on their part — and, just maybe, a brilliantly patient long-lead play by Dominic. Radlergate gave context to the Porter Noir Saga which came and went relatively quickly, but maybe there’s life left in the former fiasco yet. Hopefully it’s sensibly solved by the time I’m shopping for my next new bike, at least.
1: Even though I want to quibble with it, myself; there’s a good deal of CO2 involved in making a bike and getting it to me. But still. “Vanishingly little CO2, in comparison” doesn’t really make a good slogan. ↑ 2: Remember I say these things about hills and winds as a Wellingtonian. And while it’s maybe a trite example — but perhaps a decent-enough slogan (see above, n1) — it really might do your mental health a lot of good. It did mine. ↑ 3: Their distribution arm has since spun off and transmogrified into Beers Without Borders. ↑
Still enjoying my Sydney sabbatical — especially now the heat has eased somewhat — I’ve been reconfirmed in a small thought about small bars, of which this town has increasingly-many, thanks (apparently)1 to a relatively-recent law change. I had a bit of a ramble recently on the podcast about licensing laws and will need to return to the topic properly now that New Zealand’s “reforms” are in effect, but for present purposes my concern is that our current (and former) rules were applied almost entirely uniformly, whatever they are. There’s always a certain facile attraction in blanket legislation, but my recent wanderings have reinforced a simple point perhaps too-often overlooked: you are insane if you treat all licensed venues alike.
There is a lot wrong with the prevailing Antipodean drinking culture, and I’m not remotely suggesting that “small bars” are flawless2 or the complete answer to anything. But you have to applaud Sydney for its neat little ecosystem of different-sized places doing different-styled things, giving varied ideas and formats an airing and seeing what works. Treating every venue as if they were heaving, recklessly-discounting, neighbour-nuisancing boozers just because that seems an easier way to tackle genuinely-existing3 problems will wind up causing a tonne of needless collateral cultural damage. A lot of New Zealand’s new rules seem unfortunately destined to make life harder for exactly the kinds of operations that represent (on their good days) a more-enlightened approach to things-with-booze-in.4
From my bartender-training days, I remember “test-tube shots” being specifically called-out and demonised in the materials as if they were somehow inherently a sign of ill-advised drinking. But here one was at Stitch — a supercute basement bar in downtown Sydney, decked-out with a suprisingly-successful sewing machine aesthetic (including dozens of vintage Singer machines, and treadle-equipped tables to sit and drink at) — and it’s hard to imagine that an eighteen-dollar Boilermaker5 of a mini-Old-Fashioned and a dependable American import6 is ultimately implicated in many worrying and/or unhealthy nights out. Instead, it was a thoughtful and delicious little addition to their overall offering, perfectly capable of being Enjoyed Responsibly. If you can’t handle even the small amount of nuance needed to allow for just those kinds of possibilities,7 you need to get out of the policy-making business. All drinks are not created, or served, equally.
1: I’m a Foreigner; forgive me if I get the details and/or the history wrong. And by all means — and as always — corrections, clarifications and continuations are more than welcome. ↑ 2: This post’s title, to head off any observant but poorly-read pedants, is an irresistible little English cliché (of weirdly-uncertain origin, apparently) more than anything else. ↑ 3: Although almost-always overblown. We do love a good Moral Panic, as a species, it seems. But that’s another post for another time — and will require a lot more references (though Pete Brown does a damn-admirable job in pulling a bunch together for semi-regular and enjoyably-sharp rants thereon). Meanwhile, just have a look at the scaremongering quote from the Hotel Association rep. in the above-linked Time Out article. Battle lines in the policy debate aren’t as simple as regulators versus retailers; the huge operators will happily slag off the small to try and lobby against losing their advantages. ↑ 4: Indeed, recalling the spectacular tin ear I complained about the other day in regard to Wellington’s advertising, our Council’s first draft of changes for the local area included the creation of a ghetto — styled as an “entertainment precinct” — which would’ve hugely favoured the City’s obviously-problematic operators and seriously hampered further evolution of the increasingly civilised fringe. I remember being outraged by the incredible wrong-headedness of the idea around podcast-recording time; fortunately, it was abandoned. ↑ 5: See also Whisky + Alement, next time you’re in Melbourne, for a really excellent range of deftly-matched [Craft] Beer + Whisk[e]y combinations. ↑ 6: Albeit one with a bit of an identity crisis, to be fair; the brewery bleats on nonsensically about how “traditional” and “small” it is while a) committing the classic Big Business sin of trademarking a style term and b) producing 20ML already and planning under c) it’s new mega-corporate owners to d) quadruple capacity. ↑ 7: And then, once your imagination’s nice and warmed-up, to contemplate rules, conditions, and fees that differ appropriately in response to the character of the place in question… But again; details another time. ↑
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.
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.1This, 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.
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.
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:
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. ↑
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.1Apparently, 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.
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.
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 final Sunday-afternoon session of GABS was considerably lower-key than the ones which came before. There were fewer attendees (a shade less than the Friday afternoon session, perhaps would-be visitors were off being dutiful offspring for Mother’s Day), and the whole machine of the thing was running with now-practiced smoothness such that I, an early duties / backup volunteer had a particularly-early knockoff. Time, then — this not being rocket science — for a beer or several.
My first paddle was everything I could find from the ‘sessionable’ weight class of ≤ 4.5% ABV — I inadvertently overlooked the sixth on offer, Moo Brew’s ‘Belgo’, but I’ll get to that next — and for my second set of five, I decided simply to round up the beers from places I knew and was fond of for one reason or other. It did wind up rather a rag-tag collection, style-wise (though skewing heavily ‘Belgian’), and a sensible drinking order took some figuring-out, again. But I think I managed it; this was a fun little ride.
Starting with Bridge Road’s ‘God Save the Lager’ was daunting — since it’s a 7.5% Imperial Pilsner and I hadn’t really eaten breakfast before heading in to town — but made the most sense, style-wise. A return to tasting paddles made it re-obvious that a little / warmish / plastic sample only ever gives you a hint of a beer’s real character, but ‘G.S.T.L.’ seemed a nudge drier and ‘spicier’ than Epic’s ‘LARGER’ — though it definitely shared the element of being potentially very dangerous indeed. Also, “Imperial Pilsner” seems now to be well and truly a thing; it’ll be interesting to see how it goes, as a (sub-)style. Then, Doctor’s Orders ‘Plasma’ White IPA looked to be an obvious second, and shares the quality of having a style-name with an unexpected adjective in front of it. But really, where else to go, after Black IPA,1Red IPA and good old-fashioned — what do we even call it, now? — Regular / Middlingly-Brown IPA. The hazy-and-pale body makes you think “white” in Belgian-Wit-esque way, and the hops come through with enjoyably-peculiar notes that made me wish I’d given it a proper-glass try. I’ve had many glasses of Doctor’s Orders ‘Iron Lung’ black pilsner, so he’s got an obvious fondness for the stylistic colour-curveball and certainly seems to have the knack.
I’d had a little sip of the ‘Bob’s Farmhouse Ale’ from Murray’swhen I understudy-hosted the ‘Beerista’ seminar during Friday night’s session but it was all a little lost in my personal bewilderment and hurry. It was, at this more-civilised pace, delicious. Cleverly named for both their original location (before they moved the brewery to a headland North of Newcastle and put a charming little pub on Manly Beach) and its super-saison(ish) style, it’s alarmingly drinkable for its massive dose of booze, and genuinely fun and funky while it’s at it. The Little Creatures / White Rabbit ‘Little Rabbit’ that followed, however, was a little more vexing. A collaboration between my long-loved Fremantle favourite and their (also fondly regarded) country cousin, it just seemed to fall well short of its promise. From the outset, it was — for its style — unsettlingly, needlessly clear (that’s it on the far right end of my tasting paddle, above, glowing much like Bridge Road’s souped-up pilsner) and seemed way too strong given its stated inspiration was Westmalle’s table beer. And even if that latter reference was just them reaching / being a bit generous / fudging things for the sake of ‘marketing’ and standing out in the Big Book of Many Blurbs, its strength just came across as too unbalancingly hot. It was nice, but still kinda sad, in context.
Then finally, the black sheep of the paddle: Seven Sheds ‘Black Elephant’, which I reached just as I noticed brewer / beer writer Willie Simpson on a nearby table. A few of his books were instrumental in the transitioning of me from Clueless Drinker to Something Of A Beer Geek and now — as you know, if you’ve made it this far — Part-time Beer-related Rambler. So I just had to embrace the moment of geek-out and say Hi, and am relieved to report (as I always have been able to, so far in this industry) that he turned out to be a lovely chap and very approachable. Fittingly enough for a writer-brewed beer, the Big Book’s tasting note — “a complex riot of roasty notes” — was bang on. ‘Black Elephant’ is apparently a blend (recipe-wise, I believe, rather than just piping two tanks together) of two Seven Sheds regulars; a Belgian strong ale (‘Elephant’s Trunk’) and a spiced strong dark ale (with the throw-back-ish name ‘Willie Warmer’).2 And it tasted like just that; hugeness, spice, richness and the charming eccentricity of a mad old codger in a quiet pub.
Just to repeat myself, this tasting paddle was early in the Sunday session after almost no breakfast. And, to repeat praise from my general post-GABS ponderings, food at the festival was frequently fantastic. None moreso, to my mind, than the ‘Beef Debris’ Po’ Boys from the fine young folks at Gumbo Kitchen. I liked it so much I had one each day, and treated myself to this feast (he says, gesturing sideways) for the final day. There was a fried shrimp option for the po’ boy, but I could never tear myself from the sure-fire deliciousness of the beef. So I asked for a side of fried shrimp with my sammich, resulting in a glorious pile of omnomtastic goodness. After a boozy tasting paddle and this epic heap of endorphin-crackling delight, I had quite the happyface firmly affixed to my skull for a good while into the afternoon.
Original Diary entry: GABS Paddle #2: Random Favourites. 13/5/12 Happy Mothers Day. Quiet Sunday session, but a nice mood. (32) Bridge Road ‘God Save the Lager’ (7.5% Imperial Pilsner) Spicier than ‘LARGER’, though temperature and plastic make comparison tricky. Nice and dry. Could be deadly. (20) Doctor’s Orders ‘Plasma’ (7% White IPA) Nicely ‘white’ — cloudy, pale, like a witbier — peculiar hoppy nose (but again; limitations). Nice flavourful bitterness. Would be worth a shot. (25) Murray’s ‘Bob’s Farmouse Ale’ (9%) Pete Mitcham told me the name refers to the new location. Oak-aged, hazy + nearly as pale as #20. We had this at Beerista and it’s great fun(k). Love it. (57) Little Creatures / White Rabbit ‘Little Rabbit’ (6.9% Belgian) Similar colour as prior, but unexpectedly clear. Strong, given the stated inspiration (Westmalle’s table beer), and quite ‘hot’. Big round fruit from Noble hops (probably). (50) Seven Sheds ‘Black Elephant’ (7.8% Black Trappist) Willie Simpson! (Minor geek-out impending…) Fittingly, the note is bang on. “A complex riot of roasty notes.” Hell yes. Weird + good. Soy-saucy. [And he was perfectly nice about the geek-out.]
1: There are a couple of them in my Diary on upcoming pages — local boys Funk Estate put out a new one I’ve been liking / drinking a lot lately which whole-heartedly embraces the contradictory style-term — so I’m sure I’ll have a proper re-airing of the sometimes-vexed issue of “Black IPA”. 2: It gets the okay, I think, simply because his actual name is Willie. Otherwise, it’d be just so appallingly worth of an entry on Pumpclip Parade (well, if it had a pumpclip) — the label test even has the very Dad-joke-ish note “Guaranteed to warm the extremities”.
At GABS, I was understudy for Local Taphouse’s Guy Greenstone, who was set to host ‘Beerista’ introductory tasting sessions at the ‘Craft Beer College’ series of free seminars running at the festival. He had a run-in with pneumonia, but was looking hearty during Friday’s Session One, so I seemed to be in the clear. Until about ten minutes before showtime. I was called in, hurried upstairs — from the front door, where I’d been head-counting for the security guys — and stumbled through (well, it seemed to me; apparently it went fine) a fun little chat about on How To Taste A Beer And Thereafter Ramble A Bit About It — with much-appreciated help from Pete Mitcham. Tremendous fun, in the end, but a bit hectic and nerve-wracking on short notice and (as I keep pleading, I know) little sleep.
So: a beer. A proper glass thereof, no mere tasting paddle would do. And no other beer made as much immediate sense as Garage Project’s ‘Double Day of the Dead’ — the miraculous resurrection / version 2.0 / GABS 2012 Special Edition Reprint of ‘Day of the Dead’, my favourite beer of 2011. Weirdly, given the tactical shift I made just recently, this also amounts to my first-ever actual Diary entry here online for a Garage Project beer. Which feels very odd given how often I bang on about them in the podcasts (one of which was recorded with them, in their actual garage)1 and how very-many of their beers are waiting in my notebook ready to be uploaded (soon — ish), but these are the consequences of falling way behind in my rambling.
The beer, like its first edition, is a strong (and moreso, second time out) black lager, made with cocoa, agave syrup (i.e., the precursor to Tequila), and smoked chipotle chili. I vaguely recall something being mentioned about a dose of vanilla, too, for this batch — but I have a notoriously crappy memory. It’s got a lot going on, but all the components get along harmoniously and feel like they’re there for a reason. Despite a somewhat-similar shape but a briefer bill of adjuncts, it feels quite a lot more purposeful than Resolute’s ‘Zaragoza’, for example. The booze and the chili add a comforting-but-confronting warmth, the agave (with the vanilla, if I didn’t just hallunicate its mention) seems to smooth out the base nicely, and the cocoa has the wonderfully dusty quality of the tiny little shards of smashed hollow Easter chocolate. It’s fantastic, and was just exactly what I needed.
GABS bought a lot of each beer — running back-of-the-envelope calculations on what the event must’ve involved, money-wise, damn-near did my head in earlier today — and must’ve taken the entire run of many beers that appeared. Not quite so with this one, I was able to tell those jealous Wellingtonians who could only live their Spectapular through me and my all-day Twitter ramblings. There’s a small amount stashed aside and we’ll probably see some of it around town soon. And hopefully some more a few months’ from now, for the Día de los Muertos itself — after it spends the intervening time on holiday in a bourbon barrel. Which is a pretty fucking exciting prospect, if you ask me.
And as I mention in my notes, a proper-glass at GABS was a little on the steep side, price-wise — this was a relative bargain, at $10 worth of tokens, roundabout in the middle of a $6 to $16 range2 — but that’s probably inevitable, given the nature of the event as one stocked almost-entirely with one-off brews. Plus, it pays to remember, that’s me writing as someone a) presently unemployed, b) spending New Zealand dollars in Australia with a non-delightful exchange rate, and additionally c) a person who earnt those slightly-limp New Zealand dollars on criminally-underpaid bartender wages.
Original Diary entry: GABS Glass #1: Garage Project ‘Double Day of the Dead’ 11/5/12 Reward for crash-replacing the host of Beerista. Proper glasses are crazyexpensive, though I can see why. Two notches up in strength, and I can tell: a little booze-heat evident before the chili heat. Cocoa — upgraded to Whittaker’s — is lovely and dusty in that weird way I like. Still nicely balanced and well-assembled, given its many adjuncts. (A dash of vanilla this year, I think they said.) A worthy resurrection.
1: When it was incredibly empty, in hindsight. There was a big comfy couch where the brewhouse now stands and barely enough spare space to swing a proverbial cat. It’s been replaced by all sorts of lovely shiny stainless steel. 2: The low end was populated by a surprisingly-varied collection of beers not necessarily united in gentler strength or simpler-looking recipes whereas the high end of the territory was held by Renaissance’s Oak-aged edition of their much-loved and marvellous ‘Stonecutter’. Despite the high price, I kept hearing good things about it from various visitors — and the GABS organisers did make the wise and simplifying move of making all tasters one token, whatever the price of their full glass. 3: With apologies for the considerably crappier camera in my phone, not the ultra-lovely one I always have in my bag. I suppose I was just enjoying my beer to much, and didn’t think to re-take the shot with the mask, after snapping that image for the Twitters.
I do plan on going through the ‘backlog’ of the pen-and-paper Diary, still. The Great Rethink wasn’t me walking away from that so much as it’s just me giving myself room for other things as well. I’ll probably be a little more fast-and-loose with some of the intervening entries — I do have nearly ten months to catch up on, after all. Sheesh. (Onwards!)
It was minutes past midnight, as the basically-anonymous 30th of June transformed into the 1st of July — Canada Day.1 I had a few ideas burbling in my head for the much-more-famous Fourth of July and so felt some sort moral obligation to celebrate this national day further North, too. I’m a sucker for Occasion Beers, and national days make excuses for such — Australia Day being my personal favourite, for various reasons.
Molson isn’t any kind of craft darling; it’s ultra-massive mainstream golden lager. But I can happily report that it’s not crap. Were it smuggled very-slightly back in time and into the ‘Chosen One’ Choosing Session we’d had a few days prior, it would comfortably take second place: no real trace of faults, but no real substantive charm, either.
But what it does have is the single-greatest health warning / mandatory Take It Easy message I think I’ve ever seen: “Great Beer. Great Responsibility.” It’s mere inches away from quoting Spiderman, which makes me very happy indeed, giant nerd that I admittedly am. Obviously, the logic of it doesn’t go through, since this is very definitely not “great beer”, but it’s a rather delightful way of putting things, all the same. I’d suggest that other people adopt the phrase, but it turns out that they went and trademarketed it, the hockey-loving bastards. Beer-and-trademarks is becoming a truly depressing ongoing theme — though this is a very minor instance of it — and doubtless one I’ll have to get back to and give a proper going-over one day.2
Original Diary entry: Molson ‘Canadian’ 30/6/11 →3 1/7/11 Happy Birthday Canada! I’m a sucker for an Occasion Beer, and had never had this, so here we go. Doesn’t really deserve a reputation as a Budweiser of the North. Is perfectly clean and easy. Would be a very comfortable 2nd place in the above, for example. Only the merest hint of funk on the nose, otherwise a good example of lawnmoweresque blandness-as-a-virtue.
1: The Blessed Wikipedia assures me that, here in New Zealand and Australia, the first of July is ‘International Tartan Day’, which I hadn’t previously heard of — though it does seem to have a nicely defiant origin, which I could probably get behind. 2: It got something of an airing in the write-ups of Invercargill ‘Sa!son’, Budweiser, and the Stoke beers, among other random mentions here and there. (If you were curious / couldn’t find the “search” box.) 3: Good thing I changed post-dating regimes. God knows what I would’ve done with that.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
Once more unto the brandwank, dear friends, once more.
— Not quite Henry V
This one positively reeks of being a project out of the marketing department rather than one with its origins in the brain of a brewer, beer drinker, or normal person. At the time I’m putting this post together (in early July), a cursory Google search still more-readily produces write-ups concerning the beer’s branding (such as its packaging and website) than it does things which address, you know, the beer itself. The ‘pitch’ is simple: a beer produced using ingredients from just one barley farm, and just one hop farm.
But immediately, of course, there’s a snag. That’s not “Single Source” at all. I’ve mentioned two farms already. And then there’s a brewery in Timaru — not at either farm, and not anywhere near the home of Monteith’s in Greymouth on the West Coast. The water is from the area around the brewery, but the yeast is from god-knows-where and doesn’t actually rate a mention. So that’s four sources for a modern beer’s four canonical ingredients, two (i.e., half) of which aren’t really discussed, and a muddling of a historic (small-town) brewery with a modern (national) ‘brand’.If they were talking about an estate beer, made with barley and hops grown at the brewery, it might be worthy of the title — and such things do exist.1 Here, they’ve gone 1) catchy name, 2) half-assery.
Their precious Latitude / Longitude references don’t even make any damn sense. The location given for the origin of the hops — with its six decimal places — traces them to the grower’s front garden, rather than his fields. There’s some mention of the hop-farmer thinking his Southern Cross hops were particularly suited to the ‘microclimate’ in his garden in the official writeup, but there don’t appear to be any actually growing in that part of his property, and if they are just from his front yard, how ridiculously few have they used? Then, the coordinates for the barley — with their even-more-insane seven decimals — appear to point to the farmer’s driveway, or at least the hedgerow that runs along it. Something’s amiss; given their relative proportions in the brewing process, there’s just no way you could be more precise about the source of your barley than of your hops. And I called attention to their decimal places for good reason: six digits narrows you down to a tenth of a metre, seven digits basically gets you within a single centimeter. It’s an utterly stupid degree of “accuracy”, one that is just bursting with wank and ironically so “precise” it’s just obviously wrong. Three decimal places would pinpoint an area of roughly a hundred-or-so metres, and would thereby count as information rather than just bullshit.
On top of that, as Matt Kirkegaard pointed out (when he held his nose and read their over-inflated press release), it’s an absolutely bizarre kind of self-undermining bullshit if you stop to think about it for more than a second. It accidentally implies all sorts of terrible things about the beers in the same range: that they’re made without any real care or attention paid to the quality of their ingredients, that they’re utterly divorced from their roots (fitting for ‘Radler’, perhaps, but hardly inkeeping with the story for their ‘Original Ale’), and they’re not really worth protecting from getting lightstruck and skunked. If you go to conspicuous lengths to emphasise something apparently-worthy about one of your products, it starts to look rather odd that you aren’t really worried about that allegedly-serious concern when it comes to your others.
This isn’t remotely unique to Monteith’s and “Single Source”, of course. The same thing happens with the aggressively ‘all-natural’ marketing of Steinlager “Pure” — just what the fuck sort of witchcraft and chemical buggery and radioactive goo are they telling me is lurking in regular Steinlager? It’s probably partially a by-product of different projects being farmed out to different ad agencies, but it’s in particularly stark relief with this black-bottled, relentlessly brandwanked beer — especially given the fuckups the execution of its ‘story’, and the incredible sameyness of the product. And they have the unmitigated gall (amidst a fancy-pants website that tries desperately to be Down Home and simultaneously Ultra Modern) to describe their goal as:
A beer that didn’t need to rely on hype to be appreciated. A beer for the love of beer, if you like.
To which I have two-and-a-half responses: 1) like balls — and 2) if that was the plan, then a) you failed, and b) why all the, you know, hype? The beer isn’t terrible, at least. It’s the usual kind of basically-faultless but basically-featureless sort of thing we’ve come to expect from this corner of the market. It felt a bit like the label copy had been written in advance, or by someone who’d never met the beer (or perhaps a dictionary); it definitely wasn’t “aromatic”, though it did have a funk-free and pleasant mild nose, and it was certainly more in the realm of what normal people would call “smooth” than “crisp” (the lager-advertiser’s fallback adjective).
If we put it in its proper context of overly-marketed mild-to-flavourless lagers with delusions of grandeur, then I suppose I’d rather have one of these than a Budweiser. In that sense, and in that sense alone, it’s alright. But, to borrow the masterful conclusion from Hadyn Green’s piece on the subject:
In the end the fakers always lose, or run off following some other trend… Craft beer is like comic collecting, antiquing, cave diving, wine drinking or any other hobby — the interest for the enthusiast is the story. But the story can’t be tacked onto a paper-thin attempt. No one cares about the director’s commentary on a terrible film.
The beer itself is a non-disaster, and yet everything about “Monteith’s Single Source” is a clusterfuck of awfulness. Each word literally fails; the ad-man’s version of the world requires that you 1) ignore “Monteith’s”, lest you think less of their other products for lacking the prized black bottle, 2) not understand the word “single” or have any idea what goes into a beer or how many varieties might be used, and 3) not actually look up the “source” using the coordinates provided, in case you realise that their absurdly long string of digits is rather hollow and stupid and possibly some peculiar sort of geographical / mathematical equivalent to the kind of large, flashy (and, you know, overcompensatory) cars some men feel the need to be seen driving.
Verbatim: Monteith’s ‘Single Source’ Lager 13/5/11 330ml 5% @ MH Some 30th Birthday resonance with my Steinlager Edge, and a nice reminder that Moa aren’t the only local brandwankers. The ‘pitch’ is offensively daft, overwrought and ironically-damning of their main range. And it’s not single source, is it? The beer is freakishly pale — maybe the black bottle blocks out too much sun… Faint nose, mercifully funkless. Certainly not “aromatic”, though. Nice intial feel (though it’s more smooth than “crisp”), but the flavour, such as it is, is quickly tied to a piano and pushed off a bridge. It’s very nothing. A sad, wasted opportunity.
1: So no, marketing division, this isn’t “a revolutionary new beer”. Even if you had made something genuinely “single source”, you wouldn’t have been the first.