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GABS Glass #1: Garage Project ‘Double Day of the Dead’

Garage Project 'Double Day of the Dead'
Garage Project 'Double Day of the Dead'

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.

Diary II entry #213.1, GABS Glass #1 - Garage Project 'Double Day of the Dead'
Diary II entry #213.1, GABS Glass #1 - Garage Project 'Double Day of the Dead'
Diary II entry #213.2, GABS Glass #1 - Garage Project 'Double Day of the Dead'
Diary II entry #213.2, GABS Glass #1 - Garage Project 'Double Day of the Dead'
Garage Project 'Double Day of the Dead', with mask
Garage Project 'Double Day of the Dead', with one of many, many masks3

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.

GABS Paddle #1: Everything ≤ 4.5% ABV

Tasting Paddle #1
Tasting Paddle #1

As I’ve mentioned a few times when talking about GABS, my Friday was very sleep-deprived; I only had two hours sleep on Thursday night — my nocturnal nature meshes not at all with early-morning flights — and wound up awake for some twenty-six hours. So I took it very easy, those first two sessions.

I’m a dedicated flag-bearer for midstrength / sessionable beer, and was delighted to see that in a festival of (mostly…) one-offs, I was still able to assemble a paddle-worth of beers at-or-under 4.5% ABV.1 They were pleasingly varied, style-wise (though that did make figuring out a drinking order rather perplexing), which I took to be a good sign of the increasing health of this corner of the industry.

I started with Croucher ‘ANZUS’ — as did the festival, since this was officially beer #1 on the Big Board, and a fittingly trans-Tasman2 way to begin what really was a genuinely Australasian festival. The Little Country wasn’t just there in a tokenistic way; a quarter of the beers were from over here, and from what I’ve read, a lot of Australians had a pleasingly eye-opening experience with New Zealand craft beer. ANZUS is a 2.7% hoppy pale ale, which puts it in the same family as Hallertau ‘Minimus’ and Liberty’s ‘Taranaki Session Beer’, and if that family is determined to have more offspring then I’ll gladly give them all the oysters and tax breaks I can to encourage the activity. Minimus was my ‘Beer of the Year’ for 2011, together with its brothers-from-other-mothers, so I’m positively delighted to see more of them around. It was delicious, and well-balanced — no easy trick at that ABV — and refreshingly bitter. So far as one can tell from a festival-thimble, at least. It’d make a cracker addition to their full range — hint hint, Paul, hint hint.

Next was the Sarsaparilla Stout from country-Victoria’s Grand Ridge, a brewery I have some extra fondness for after a particularly-excellent birthday evening-and-morning spent there years ago. I didn’t notice the mention of licorice in the book until after my first sip — and man do I hate licorice — so the very-much black jellybean nature of the thing was an unpleasant surprise. But if that’s your thing, this’d be a damn-handy four-percent sweet stout to have lying around for wintery afternoons. The Mash3 ‘Koffee Stout’ was only a touch stronger (or 0.3 of a touch, depending on how you calibrate these things), and muchmore my speed, caffeine-fueled organism that I am. Sessionable coffee stout sounds like perfect Writing Beer, to me.

I finished with a Pair of Weirds, one minor, one major. Hargreaves Hill’s ‘La Grisette’ was a bit of a history lesson, in both beer-style and words-of-French-origin terms. The basic idea seemed to be of a blue-collar after-work Belgian; a less-funky old-style Saison, perhaps. The flavours evoked a lot of sweetness, at first, but it dried right out at the back of the palate and could indeed make for a wonderful hot-day restorative. But then, damn. Feral’s ‘Watermelon Warhead’ was one of those beers that was the talk of the festival — in the “no, fucking seriously; try it” sense. An intensely sour Berliner Weisse, dosed with Watermelon juice and fermented in Chardonnay barrels, it was face-puckeringly surprising and brain-tinglingly fantastic. Alice Galletly likened it — in this growd of nearly-five-dozen beers — to a palate-cleansing sorbet, and that’s bang on.4 Making things even more impressive, it transpired that the ABV in the booklet (2.9%) was essentially a work-in-progress guess / estimate / number read of freshly-rolled dice; the beer was more likely around one point nine, making it handsomely the most flavourful — and most charmingly odd — “light beer” I’ve ever had within grabbing distance, or been tempted to grab.

Diary II entry #212, GABS Paddle #1: Everything ≤ 4.5% ABV
Diary II entry #212, GABS Paddle #1: Everything ≤ 4.5% ABV

Original Diary entry: GABS Paddle #1: Everything ≤ 4.5% ABV 11/5/12 in this absurdly gorgeous building back in the beloved Melb. (1) Croucher ‘ANZUS’ (2.7%) A little warmer thant I’d like, but still. In the Minimus mold, obviously, more bitter? Hard to tell from 85ml. (34) Grand Ridge ‘Sarsparilla’ Stout (4%) ~ and licorice root really evident. Black jellybean. Subbed for a hop addition, so rather sweet. (58) Mash ‘Koffee Stout’ (4.3%) Much more my speed. Tasty, but subtle. (36) Hargreaves Hill ‘La Grisette’ (3.8%) A style I’ve never heard of, but kind like. Feels like it’ll be sweet, but dries right out. Weird, but worthy. (55) Feral ‘Watermelon Warhead’ (2.9%) My first Berliner Weisse, and it’s exactly as sour as I’d like. Tart and indeed Watermelonny. Still nicely round.

1: There were actually six in the book, it turned out. I missed one — Moo Brew’s ‘Belgo’ — entirely. But, to atone, I had a whole glass on the Sunday. You’ll see it here soon.
2: Let’s just ignore, provisionally, the rather-fraught third (‘US’) member of that Treaty and focus on the ‘A’-‘NZ’ relationship for a moment — my guess is that Croucher are referring, all at once, to being a New Zealand beer at a festival in Australia, brewed in a vaguely-American style.
3: This being from Mash Brewing in WA, not from the Mash Collective which operates out of Stone & Wood in NSW (which also had a beer in the lineup). It’s probably a very good sign that breweries are proliferating rapidly enough that their names are starting to collide.a
— a: See also, for example, New Zealand’s plural ~Dog beers: ParrotDog, Rain Dogs, Black Dog.
4: Watermelon Warhead was also tied — with a Wig & Pen beer that became my GABS Glass #3 — for the lowest-posted official IBU rating, at a ‘paltry’ 6. Which just goes to show you, among all the hop-fashion and bitterness-chasing, that sour beers really can deliver intensity from a whole ’nother direction.

Resolute ‘Zaragoza’ Molé Stout

Resolute 'Zaragoza' Molé Stout
Resolute 'Zaragoza' Molé Stout, twice

Last week was massively distracted, in my brain and many others, by the run-up to GABS and Good Beer Week in Melbourne — but it (i.e., the week) still found time for the (North Island) launch of a new contract brewer in the local scene, Resolute Brewing. Well, for a given value of “new”, at least, since it’s the work of Nathan Crabbe, formerly part of contract-brewing operation Golden Ticket. He’d departed that gig for a job brewing at Harringtons but evidently had a relapse of the do-your-own-thing itch and is back in the game as Resolute.1

He pitched his Beer #1 as a ‘Molé Stout’, inspired by — and brewed with many/most of the same ingredients as — a traditional Mexican mole poblano sauce, namely chocolate, chili and (very many) various spices. Which immediately puts me in mind of last year’s beloved ‘Day of the Dead’ from Garage Project,2 but they’re very different beers, despite their rather-similar initial impressions. Surprisingly light (in both colour and alcoholic weight — the latter not quite as intended, I was told), Zaragoza was definitely promising and well put-together, especially considering its two-dozen-odd ingredients — they weren’t fighting like angry cats in a bag, though they weren’t making much noise of whatever attention-grabbing kind, come to that. Subtlety is no bad thing at all, but it was a little unexpected in this case. To me, it massively suited warming up rather a lot and developed into something like the (friendly) ghostly apparition of an astonishingly decadent chocolate brownie — all the flavour, none of the stodge. If anything, it could use more meat on its bones, but it wasn’t worryingly thin.

Resolute and Golden Ticket, side by side
Resolute and Golden Ticket, side by side

Golden Ticket, meanwhile, has continued in the hands of Nathan’s former business partner Ally McGilvray and has been making some lovely beers — like ‘Black Emperor’ (a “black pilsner”) and ‘Champion Malky’ (a characterful golden ale) — one of which was on handpull right beside this one, fittingly enough. I’d had two pints of Zaragoza and realised I had time for another half of something before I had to head off, and was unable to resist the fittingness of the two beers side by side and one after another. I also got that photo of the badges together — Hashigo’s difficult lighting mandated using my camera’s HDR trickery and the multiple exposures made Dylan’s photobomb ghostly and spectacular. ‘Brown Marvel’ is a charmingly quaffable take on an American Brown, a nicely balanced mix of a little malty roast and a little fruit hop. And as if to underscore the surprising lightness of Zaragoza, this “brown” seemed a shade or two darker in the glass than the stout which came before it.

Original Diary entry: Resolute ‘Zaragoza’ Stout 8/5/12 @ HZ for BGC,3 its North Island launch. R is Nathan, formerly of Golden Ticket, then Harringtons, then on his own again. Brewed at the resurrected Twisted Hop, which is neat. I’m not enough of a foodie to know much about Molé, but chili-choc is the general idea. Only 4.5% (intended to be %5-ish), and very-brown, not black. Surprising lightness of body isn’t bad, but I was keen for some stodge. Tastes very brownie, but with utterly un-brownie texture. Hints of vanilla emerge (whether from actual vanilla or not). Chili isn’t of the hot kind at all. This isn’t a patch on DOTD, but it’s equally not at all bad and a promising start. — Then, appropriately, Golden Ticket ‘Brown Marvel’ (5.5%, $8, 380ml) Which is, oddly, darker. Pleasantly easy-going. Suits handpull. A little roast, and a little fruity hop.

Golden Ticket 'Brown Marvel'
Golden Ticket 'Brown Marvel'
Hashigo's Daily Menu, Resolute-ified
Hashigo's Daily Menu, Resolute-ified
Diary II entry #211, Resolute 'Zaragoza'
Diary II entry #211, Resolute 'Zaragoza'

1: There’s no real suggestion of a falling-out, or at least none that I’ve picked up on. It just seems to be the case — and fair enough — that since Golden Ticket had, by now, put out more beers without Nathan that it had done with him it’s become Ally’s thing.
2: My favourite beer of 2011, a black lager with cocoa, chili and agave syrup — which was also launched with appropriate timing, having its debut on the actual Dia De Los Muertos, November 1. ‘Zaragoza’, equally fittingly, made its first-first appearance on Cinco de Mayo.
3: I habitually refer to Hashigo’s ‘New Release Tuesday’ as “#BeerGeekChurch”. They became ‘a thing’ with the Garage Project’s 24/24 phase, and have continued since. There is always a decent crowd of lovely beer nerds to hang out with; it’s a brilliant part of the week.

Alaskan Winter Ale

Alaskan 'Winter Ale'
Alaskan 'Winter Ale'

The best-laid plans and all that, right? Four different U.S. imports arrived in the keg fridge at work in the early stages of last winter, and all four had glorious great big ostentatious American-style tap handles. I quickly hatched a plan (not just within the bounds of my own head; I told the right people and made the relevant notes) to put them all side-by-side on the 4th of July. It just seemed to make sense. But these things had a way of undoing themselves and I’d show up to work in the days preceding the Americans’ collective birthday and find that one or other had been cracked, with or without its marvellous handle, and placed in some random corner of the taps. Sigh.

But. But — it turns out that if the proverbial man with the best-laid plan (and possibly the mice) is extraordinarily stubborn, faced with a quiet weekend night shift, and entirely comfortable with spending a few hours in the keg chiller, shuffling hefty things into organised piles in a zero-degrees-Celsius environment — the Zen Art Of Kegtris1then you might just witness a resurrection of that plan. And, as you can see from the handles arrayed behind my glass, that’s exactly what happened. It was, in its own way, beautiful. If I do say so.

July 4th tap handles
The Four of July

The reshuffle was a Saturday night, and I was (uncharacteristically) also working the Sunday — which is when I had this, as a little reward for getting everything done and ready for “tomorrow”, the 4th. I’ve entirely forgotten which lovely friend of mine I happened to bump into before work who shouted it for me as I mooched around before my shift — I’d turned up early, even further out of character and probably due to the disorientation of the schedule change.

It made for a great start to my workday, not least because 6.5% ABV in a light and sweet and gorgeously perfumed little ale helps to put a bit of a shine on your face, if you skipped breakfast. Comparisons to local-oddity ‘Captain Cooker’ from the Mussel Inn are meant as sincere and complimentary. They’re both charmingly peculiar, enjoyably different, and really interestingly tasty. And seriously, the tap handle is a fucking great big snow-covered tree. With a weirdly adorable eagle on the top. I still can’t believe the Powers That Be were content to leave that sitting in a dark cupboard, but I’m glad I overruled them.

Original Diary entry: Alaskan Winter Ale 3/7/11 From the four, all properly in place at last. Much paler than we expected, light amber. Smells like Christmass + shortbread, candy sweetness. Made with spruce, which help justify the already-awesome tap handle. Has that Captain Cookery sweet perfume. 6.5%-ish. Lovely start to a Sunday at work.

Alaskan 'Winter Ale', tap handle top (Malthouse, 3 July 2011)
Alaskan Winter Ale's tap-handle eagle
Alaskan Winter Ale, tap handle base (Malthouse, 2 July 2011)
Alaskan Winter Ale's tap handle base
Diary II entry #120, Alaskan Winter Ale
Diary II entry #120, Alaskan Winter Ale

1: Which really does seem to be a ‘me’ word — a fact that makes me deliriously proud. I do hope it catches on. If it does, I’m totally adding “neologist” to my CV.

St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout

St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout (My house, 8 May 2012)
St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout

My Canada Day last year then continued with this, a Quebecker Oatmeal Stout, there at my desk at home (with the Diary itself and my rather-lovely Hashigo Zake bottle opener visible behind it, and it perched on ludicrously-extravagant Moa Beer leather-and-felt coaster). And, just for a sense of continuity and appropriateness I’m now — as then — listening to The Tragically Hip, who I’ve been fond of for ages and to the extent where it appears as a data point to those not-insignificant numbers of people who assume me to be Canadian.

This is a massively well-renowned stout, and it was being consumed by someone to which oatmeal stout is a kind of wintery, liquid Kryptonite.1 But it and I just didn’t get along fantastically well. Its company was pleasant enough, but it should’ve been like a fireside chat with Stephen Fry himself, given the circumstances. This just didn’t have the glorious smoothness that is half the reason I go so wibbly for a good oatmeal stout,2 and there was a faint tinge of metal that made it reminiscent (not entirely unwelcomely) of a thick foil bag of chocolate-chip cookies.

It just seemed a little past its prime — though the Best Before date was impenetrably Hieroglyphic, smooshed and encoded. Consensus from a few at Hashigo was that it probably had been around for a while and had come via a third party somewhere, this not being one of their ultra-cautious imports. While neither a disaster nor a complete swing-and-a-miss, certainly, it simply wasn’t quite what I wanted and seemed unable (in that time and place) from making good on its promise. Mercifully, in the same takeaway-shopping trip, I also bought another ‘Péché Mortel’ from the equally-Quebeçois Dieu du Diel!, which was completely delicious and undegraded and thereby rescued the evening convincingly. Now I just want another of those.

Diary II entry #119, St Ambroise Oatmeal Stout
Diary II entry #119, St Ambroise Oatmeal Stout

Original Diary Entry: St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout 1/7/11 continuing the theme. $9.5 @ HZ, 341ml only 5% Another hundreder,3 which didn’t immediately grab me. The smoothness of the oats (and of the online praise), just isn’t so much there. I initially thought I just had it too cold. But it’s still having the same sharp uptick ride on the palate. Not unwelcome, just unexpected, unplanned. Slightly metal? Can’t decipher the best before. “12 B? 30 / J2010” Hopefully the latter isn’t it… Not sure. Smells like a bag of cookies. [2nd Péché Mortel was way better.]

1: Damnit. Now a Superman reference seconds after talking about Canadian music has the Crash Test Dummies firmly stuck in my head.
2: See, for example, Liberty’s stupidly-fucking-fantastic ‘Never Go Back’ — or, if you think that might be cheating a little, with its hugeness, just look to Firestone Walker’s ‘Velvet Merlin’.
3: By which I mean it scored a full 100 on RateBeer.com. I probably use that word as short hand because I really loved Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (in which it means something very different).

Molson ‘Canadian’

Molson 'Canadian', on Canada Day (Malthouse, 1 July 2011)
Molson 'Canadian', on Canada Day

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.

Molson 'Canadian', thinks it's Spiderman (Malthouse, 1 July 2011)
Molson 'Canadian' thinks it's Spiderman

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

Diary II entry #118, Molson 'Canadian'
Diary II entry #118, Molson 'Canadian'

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.

The ‘Chosen One’ Choosing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberty / Mike’s ‘Taranaki Pale Ale’

Liberty / Mike's 'Taranaki Pale Ale'
Liberty / Mike's 'Taranaki Pale Ale'

If it weren’t for that Firestone, we’d have just had ourselves a three-peat of Liberty beers here in my Diary. Unlike the others, though, this has Liberty’s Joseph Wood in Collaboration Mode. It’s an emerging trend in the local scene, and Joe’s one of the keenest participants, it seems — he worked with Yeastie Boys for their ‘Warrior’ and ‘Monster’ beers, was part of the hophead ‘Four Horseman of the Hopocalypse’ supergroup (with Hallertau’s Steve Plowman and Epic’s Luke Nicholas and Kelly Ryan), and joined in with the NZ Craft Beer TV ‘Mash Up’ project. Hell, he’s even said he’s keen to collaborate with me, in what could be the greatest-ever excuse for a summer roadtrip. In a sense — in, I pause to stress, a positive sense — he’s something of our industry’s Timbaland, in that regard.1

So here we are with a Taranaki Team Up; New Plymouth’s Liberty and Urenui’s ‘Mike’s’ / White Cliffs. Fortunately for all concerned, they brewed this one at the latter, which has nearly ten times the capacity of the former. Because if this had been overly-scarce, things could’ve easily gotten all Mad Max as us beer geeks squabbled over the dregs. It was a crowd-pleasing thing of oomph and deliciousness, loaded with that kind of enthusiastic fruit-bowl boistrousness that we’ve come to love 8 Wired’s ‘Hopwired’ IPA for. The comparisons to that really are inescapable and rather strong, but — just as I said with the also-striking resemblance between Three Boys’ Oyster Stout and Emerson’s Southern Clam Stout — you’d be very hard-pressed indeed to find something more worth emulating. TPA has popped up a few times since, and seems to have slightly drifted towards the ‘healthy bronze’ end of the colour palette, rather than its initial ‘luminous gold’.2 But it continues to be great fun, continues to be somewhat-dangerously-drinkable (given its heft), and will hopefully make a few more appearances over the summer.

As my notes lament, I was meant to be bartending at Matariki (speaking, as I was quite-recently, of beer festivals), but some administrative snafu best left forgotten meant that I’d just be doing my regular gig that day. My pint of TPA helped compensate very nicely indeed — not least because it (and the batch-to-batch Hud-to-Hud comparison that Stu from Yeastie Boys had arranged for a few of us geeks to celebrate the second edition of the equally-boozy ‘Hud-a-wa”), put an uncharacteristically-cheerful shine into the start of my work-day, bless it.

Verbatim: Liberty / Mike’s Taranaki Pale Ale 25/6/11 7.1% on tap @ HZ, after Hud-to-Hud batch trial with Stu, Martin, Tim, Amy, Shannon & Annika. Another improm[p]tu geek con. They’re all off to Matariki, and I was meant to be. Sadface. So a pint + a pie before work. Hazy, pale peach. All the big-crazy fruit salad, a la Hopwired. Fruitier than a row of tents, says Martin. It’s like Emerson’s Southern Clam after Three Boys Oyster; name one token more worth emulating.

Liberty / Mike's 'Taranaki Pale Ale', tap badge
Liberty / Mike's 'Taranaki Pale Ale', tap badge
Liberty / Mike's 'Taranaki Pale Ale'
Diary II entry #116, Liberty / Mike's 'Taranaki Pale Ale'

1: If I hadn’t already compared one of his beers, the staggeringly awesome ‘Never Go Back’itself to Samuel L. Jackson, that’d be even more apposite and more obviously-positive. There was a time, which probably just coincided with me watching more movies, where he just seemed to be in everything, and awesome in everything — stealing the show in tiny little bit parts like right at the end of Out of Sight. The man’s been in over a hundred films, for God’s sake; Wikipedia feels obliged to put his ‘Filmography’ on its own page, and just look how many cram into each year.
2: My photo doesn’t quite do it justice. Perhaps because of the lighting in Hashigo, or perhaps because mine was from fairly far down the keg (if I remember rightly), and things can get extra-hazy with hop-loaded goodness — just like they did with my ‘Taranaki Session Beer’, coincidentally enough. Alice Galletly had a similar problem, lamenting that her plastic-on-a-picnic drinkware didn’t do it justice. But just check out Kevin McLellan’s photo — Alice and I ain’t lyin’; that stuff was gorgeous.

Uploaded, at last: 4 December 2011

Firestone Walker ‘Velvet Merlin’

Firestone Walker 'Velvet Merlin', tap handle
Firestone Walker 'Velvet Merlin', or at least its glorious tap handle

Karma is a bitch, sometimes. One day, I upload a podcast in which I make a flippant reference to wishing that trench foot isn’t lost from the world — I’m not even sure why I did; these things just ramble out of my brain, sometimes — and the very next day, I’m faced with a metric crapload of kegs to shuffle around in the chiller when I’m wearing my worn-out leaky hiking boots (rather than my ass-kicking hefty steel-toed factory-worker boots — which are also wearing out, truth be told). It didn’t get genuinely horrific, but it was conspicuously less fun than Kegtris usually is.

But — in yet another of those instances wherein the universe finds a way to reassert the relevance of a Diary entry, no matter how inexcusably belated — some of kegs in that swag were Firestone Walker’s ‘Double Barrel’ Ale, a beer which I’ve liked for ages, and am dead keen to have on tap. All the Firestone beers I’ve had so far have been charming, in their own ways. And this thing was an absolute delight to have as a guest for a little while. As you may be able to see on the awesomely ostentatious and typically-American tap handle, it’s another oatmeal stout, and I (to reiterate) bloody loves oatmeal stout, I do. This was the first to be tapped of a swag of American imports that we had stacked in the fridge, and its awesomeness and the sheer delightful silliness of that stonking-great handle proved a brilliant tease for the four more that were destined to go on together on the Fourth of July.

It was, to my no-surprise-at-all, just glorious. Positioned in a very pleasant middle-ground between the very-light likes of Little Creatures’ one-off oatmeal stout and enjoyably-worrying heavyweights such as Liberty’s ‘Never Go Back’, it’s smooth and silky and decadent without feeling overly or guilt-inducingly so. Nothing leaps out of my memory (or my notes) to really distinguish it from others of its kind, other than its nicely-built goodness. But that’s a fine and lovely thing, just to be doing what you do do well in an un-flashy and self-assured way. This does that.

Basically the only thing even remotely wrong with it is the name. There’s nothing inherently wrong about it — slightly obscure or bizarre as it might be, it does kinda work: “velvet” is certainly a word that anyone who makes this beer should feel entirely free to use, and “Merlin” is the nickname of their Brewmaster, Matt Brynildson. The tragedy is that is was once called Velvet Merkin. And that’s a whole bunch funnier. “Merkin” is seriously close to being an inherently funny word, and is well worth looking up if you’re not entirely sure what it means or why it might’ve been the name for this thing. I have — as you might have picked from the fairly-liberal swearing or from the short-form rants on the topic — a proudly defiant anything-goes approach to the English language and just hate to see people needlessly flinch from “bad words”. It’s the name of a beer, for fuck’s sake; you have to be legally an adult to buy it anyway, and this is such a gloriously outmoded word that it’s hard to imagine anyone clever enough to know it being simultaneously wowserish enough to have it give them the vapors and make them need a lie-down. But they self-censoringly changed the name when it graduated from being a one-off project, and that’s just kinda sad.

Just like oatmeal stout, swearing (and “bad language” more broadly) is one of the joys of life. Both take skill and timing, both are nourishing to body and mind, and both are capable of shocking and delighting — in turns or at once. Mister Fry is definitely with me on the swearing, and I can’t help but assume he’d be partial to a bloody-marvellous oatmeal stout, too. He just seems the type, don’t you think?

Firestone Walker 'Velvet Merlin' Oatmeal Stout
Diary II entry #115, Firestone Walker 'Velvet Merlin' Oatmeal Stout

Verbatim: Firestone Walker ‘Velvet Merlin’ Oatmeal Stout 24/6/11 5.5% on tap @ MH, with the glorious tap handle. Revising my July Four plan, but I’ll still jump in while it’s here. Ari Sr. shouted us a round! Loving the oatmeal stout these days. This is nicely placed on the number line between the Creatures and the Liberty. Smooth + light + lovely. Some silk sheets, but not too many. All very well put together, nothing seems to upstage obviously.

Belatedly uploaded: 29 November 2011

Liberty ‘Taranaki Session Beer’

Liberty 'Taranaki Session Beer'
Liberty 'Taranaki Session Beer'

Just like anything worth doing is worth doing well — a hat-trick of great big black beers, all three of which are weird and wonderful in their own ways, just to pick an example entirely at random — so too is any pattern worth keeping at all equally worth smashing to pieces. So here’s me, leaping off my big boozy plateau into a delightful little mountain stream of midstrength loveliness — and writing up my second Liberty beer in a row, which helps make up for their relative absence from here (as against how often they were mentioned in the podcasts, and in person).

And I do bang on about session beer a lot, I suppose. Certainly more than Normal People. I first had this around about the time we recorded our podcast episode dedicated to mistrength beer, but it unaccountably goes unmentioned. Making up for that, as I put this post together, I’ve finally gotten around to adding a “Sessionable” tag, which will hopefully continue to attract a steady sequence of delicious pints of beer. Also, I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am that I can now describe something other than my beloved Hallertau ‘Minimus’ itself as being broadly “in the Minimus mold”. The comparisons really are inescapable, what with this being a hoppy golden ale / very-pale pale ale and in the same booze-bracket as its friend from further North.

Hallertau have taken to slightly-tweaking Minimus in response to changing seasons / ingredients / random dice rolls / shifting whims / whatever / all of the above, and its ‘Winter’ incarnation had just hit the taps at work the night before. On blearily blinking into the unforgiving daylight the next morning — because it was morning, you understand, not because of over-indulgence: I was, after all, drinking Minimus — I somehow managed to read and comprehend a message on my phone to the effect that NZ Beer Blog’s Martin and Yeastie Boys’ Stu were having a beer at Hashigo and suggesting that I should join in. When I also read, on the Twitters, that they’d just tapped a keg of Taranaki Session Beer and that 8 Wired’s Søren was also on his way in for a pint, the thought of an Accidental Beer Nerd Convention was irresistable. And so off into this frequently-awful overlit thing you all call “daytime” I ventured.1

And well done, all of you that made my uncharacteristically-early start so worth-while. That beer was delicious, deserving of high praise even if I wasn’t such a weirdo about my midstrengthables, and the company was bloody marvellous. If anything, TSB was a touch sweeter than the Winter Edition of Minimus, and Liberty’s Joe had apparently tried some clever trick (the details of which were not entirely over my head at the time, but which have long since turned to mist and evaporated from my brainpan) with his water chemistry to help get around the basically-inevitable problem of the slight ‘gap’ in the palate that happens when you dip back down to this kind of weight. Even if you happened, at the time, not to care about the bonus of Something Sessionable, this is glorious.

It must be said, also, that if you can make a big-ass imperial stout and one of these with equal grace, then you’re doing very well indeed. After a few conversations back and forth, Joe floated the idea of me heading up to the ‘Naki to join in a Liberty Brew Day and maybe doing a ‘collaboration’ (ludicrously one-sided as it’d be, with me playing Second Assistant Who Tries Not To Break Things). Given the range encompassed by this thing and the one right-before it in the Diary, I’m rather deliriously spoilt for choice. (But I do have a few ideas…)

I’m glad I got the physical Diary in the shot, too. It’s been a while since it made an appearance, and I think I lined it up behind my pint after Stu commented that the thing-itself was rather surprisingly smaller than he’d assumed, after seeing its scans on here. My handwriting, just by the way, is tiny — when I started school, there was some horrible mental collision between those oddly-hugely-lined exercise books they make you use and the regular-random-notepaper my Dad let me scrawl in at home. It permanently broke my sense of appropriate scale for the handwritten word, accidentally turning me into a very effecient indeed user of paper. Even two-hour law school lectures wouldn’t see me use more than both sides of a single sheet of A4.

Verbatim: Liberty Brewing ‘Taranaki Session Beer’ 21/6/11 3.7% on tap @ HZ. Mini beer nerd convention by accident, with Martin + Stu + Søren. Towards the end of the keg, hazy barley-sugar orange. After (Winter) Minimus returned to MH last night. What a turnaround after the last three! This is similarly-pitched loveliness, maybe a little sweeter with slightly-less of that inevitable palate-gap, perhaps.

Liberty 'Taranaki Session Beer'
Liberty 'Taranaki Session Beer'
Liberty Brewing 'Taranaki Session Beer'
Diary II entry #114, Liberty Brewing 'Taranaki Session Beer'

1: Anyone who bothers to check metadata would discover that my photo is timestamped at slightly-before 2pm. Which you might not think is “the morning”. But you have to remember Warren Ellis’a rule: if I’ve been awake for less than two hours, then it’s morning, no matter what the goddamn clock says.
— a: I mean the author, not the musician.

Originally posted: 22 November 2011