In this, as in all things, context is king. Perfect circumstances can rescue the naffest of beers — and mismatchings of time and/or place could equally ruin the most otherwise-charming. Today, Wellingtonians were rightly beside themselves with the sheer loveliness of the weather out there, seizing upon this as the first real Saturday of the summer by pootling around in boats, sitting in the warm sunshine, or hurling themselves off a pier and into the still-actually-rather-brisk-now-you-mention-it harbour. Myself, I was gardening.1 My deeply-ingrained nocturnality is slowly and awkwardly (but painlessly enough) giving way and I’m becoming a little more ambitempstrous2 as I slowly discover worthwhile things about the daylight hours the Normals inhabit.
Meanwhile, there was a Crafty Beggars ‘Wheat As’ in my fridge, thanks to its — potentially ironic — inclusion in a little Thank You parcel the Brewers’ Guild gave me after I helped go over the Beer Writer Of The Year nominees earlier this year. Since I was hugely not a fan of it the first time I had it — as an inherently-underwhelming thing as well as because of its annoying halo of brandwank — I resolved to give this “bonus” bottle its best-possible go. A few hours of serious hack-and-slash dig-and-heave garden rehabilitation provided exactly the right opportunity to climb the goat-track to the Thinking Chair in the back corner of the property to take in the view,3 eat some delicious cheese, and have a beer.
And it was, I’ll cheerfully admit, fucking glorious; properly refreshing, flavourful but not distractingly so, it went gangbusters with the cheese (and its surroundings), and had the added benefit of being a sessionable four-point-zero percent. Given the price-point these things seemed to be pitched at — doubtless to serve as a bulwark against Independent / Asahi’s rather-aggressive (and successful!) attempt to carve out some market share — it could prove one of the bargain buys of the summer. If — always a crucial “if”, and always up to the individual — you can bring yourself to hand over your money to its producer.
If you’ll forgive the loose extrapolations from a single (but sublime) moment, this impossible-to-overstate element of context is a good part of the reason why I can never bring myself to push the “ratings” buttons in Untappd, and a strong element of my ongoing leeriness of beer awards. What would I be rating any particular beer against — my assumptions of what it was going to be like, its reputation, its “style” (defined by its marketing department, or someone more “objective”?), or how it fit the particular occasion, no matter how little thought I gave to my selection? And likewise, what hope can any number of potentially-bloody-marvellous beers have of being at their best in a little tasting glass, among scores of broadly-similar relatives, at a table full of weary judges?
I would happily stand up in any beer geek support group and say “Hi, my name is Phil Cook and, just the other day, I acutally bloody loved a Crafty Beggars ‘Wheat As'”. Hopefully, this is part of what separates the enthusiasts from the snobs. I won’t be rushing out to buy more — Lion aren’t in boycott territory,4 but I think there always plenty of more-deserving candidates for a dose of my meagre monies — but, in context, it was great. If you need me, I’ll be up in my Thinking Chair, mulling that over.
1: And then I hurled myself off a pier. ↑ 2: Apparently the actual word is “cathemeral”. ↑ 3: Caveats: 1) it’s a rental, not “mine” (nor even “my bank’s”) in the ownership sense, 2) there’s a seriously perilous goat-track to get to this spot; it’s not even vaguely representative of the rest of the place. I hope my Middle Class credentials are unsullied after you’ve seen my Harbour Views. ↑ 4: Unlike, you know, some people. ↑
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.
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.
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.
It really is difficult to separate the thing-itself from its surrounding fog of incidentals. This is your old-school philosophy headache, right here; what are the properties, and what are the mere relations — and which are the essential properties, and which are just accidental? What the philosophers seem to have unaccountably neglected is that this problem gets massively more difficult when the incidentals in question bug the fuck out of you.
Given the recent sharp uptick in their brandwank, it’s hard for me to fairly approach a new Moa beer. I’m still entirely capable of liking their stuff — and, spoiler alert, I was recently renderly properly giddy by the re-apperance of their barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout — but it’s probably easier for the older, pre-buyout pre-brandwank bonanza stuff to endear itself, like their ‘Five Hop’ still does. Anything new has nothing (by way of good associations, in my head) to guard against all that bile-raising bullshit seeping down into it and getting damn close to ruining its chances of a fair hearing. But I do try, I really do.
An edict came down from On High which reduced the range of potential after-work freebies, which struck me as a fairly mad idea — but of course it would. Moas (Moai?) on tap were still fair game, and we had this, which was a one-off and another Marchfest offering. It was billed as a chocolate wheat beer, and named ‘Black Power’. And my eye starts twitching, and I can feel the rage starting to warm up in the back of my brain.
“Black Power”? Really? The 2011 Marchfest gave itself the under-title “the craft brewing revolution continues” and returned to a Che Guevara motif they’d used a few years previous. Most of the festival beers go along with the theme, to greater or lesser degrees, but a quick glance down the list of names leaves this one standing out fairly glaringly in the lacking-class department, referencing as it does a still-existing and still-violent local gang. After the Breakfast Beer Fiasco,1 this just stank of another tilt at conning the media into providing free advertising — mercifully though, as best I can tell, they pretty-much failed. And after the boringly sexist bullshit their marketing department has been indulging in lately,2 a “chocolate wheat beer” just seemed nakedly pandering; a simple-minded trick for winning over the women in attendance, given a cartoonish and stereotypical view of what women might drink.
Maybe not. Maybe the name was more genuine, and less tactical. Perhaps it didn’t even come from the marketing department’s Outrage Generation Subcommittee. Given a black beer, it might’ve just been an ill-considered joke, not an attempted con. And quite-possibly the chocolate wheat beer plan wasn’t shallow demographic-chasing; it could’ve just been an honest attempt to make something interesting and do an autumnal merge of the typically-summery and traditionally-wintery. This is a real problem, one of many, with brandwank: it breaks the trust between the producer and the consumer, and makes it damn hard to give credit where credit might be due. All motives become suspect, and design or business decisions just look like yet more bastard ad-man villainy.
Against all that haze, I did try to give this a fair shake. But I just didn’t like it, and I really do think that was the thing-itself, rather than its accidental or relational properties. Wheat should give a certain amount of texture that does go well with chocolatey notes — like it does in the bloody-marvellous Emerson’s Dunkelweiss, and vaguely like what oatmeal can do for a stout — but this was just disappointingly thin. What chocolatey flavours there were tasted too much of just that: chocolate flavour, in the synthetic sense, not the genuine article. Despite the limpness and the underwhelming taste, by the end of the pint it still managed to build up a filmy sticky sugary feeling in my mouth like you’d get from a pint of Red Coke after months of drinking only the Black or Silver versions. As I hinted above, Moa are capable of making a black beer with enough presence to knock your out of your shoes and leave you grinning on the floor. This one, though — much like ‘Moa Noir’, their regularly-produced black lager, if you ask me — is just a little too little to stake out a worthy corner of the lighter end of the spectrum. The relationship between what it could have been and what it was is a little too close to the one between a thing and its shadow; outline recognisably similar, substance very different. But if I start bringing Plato’s Cave and its related baggage into all this, we’ll fly right over our per-session Philosophy Limit.
Verbatim: Moa ‘Black Power’ 7/5/11 from the reduced staffies selection @ MH. On which, don’t get me started. This was a Marchfest offering from Moa, and it seems to be the intersection of stunt naming and pandering styling, in that it’s a “chocolate wheat beer”. I’m lacking in details, there being no official write-up lying around online, but it ain’t no Emerson’s Dunkelweiss, that’s for damn sure. The body is limp, the wheatiness hard to find in the glass, and the chocolate tastes fake, such as there is. It’s like actual-strawberry vs “strawberry flavour”. This is a sad simulacrum of a non-bad idea; a fifteen-year-old’s cartoon version of something that could be worthy.
1: Essentially the first real act of the Rebrand was to announce the “launch” of a “breakfast beer”, which raised the ire of a fairly reactionary anti-alcohol campaigner who — right on cue — described basically any pre-noon (or pre-evening?) drinking as “pathological”. The media had a “controversy” to report on, and Moa quickly assumed their pre-prepared mantle of Battler and Victim and Struggling Local Business and All-round Top Bloke Just Havin’ a Laugh — transparent rag of polyester horseshit though it obviously was, to anyone who cared to look. ‘Breakfast’ wasn’t even a new beer; it was just re-packaged ‘Harvest’, something they’d made for years. The whole sad story was addressed, in some exasperated detail, in episode 2 of the Beer Diary Podcast: Beer and Marketing. 2: For example, just on the subject of their ‘Breakfast’ beer (see above, n1, obviously), it was billed using such phrases as “finally, a beer the ladies can enjoy” presumably for the simple reason that there’s fruit in it. Moa’s marketing people evidently have a way out of touch view of the current relationship between beer (good and bad) and the number of X chromosomes a person happens to have.
As you’d probably guess, we buy a lot of beer at work. And frequently, it seems we fill in the corners of an order with some half-dozens of especially random stuff. Because why not?
Peter and I were working one Saturday afternoon,1 and these things were staring at us from the fridge, prompting questions for which we didn’t even have the beginnings of answers. Perhaps the Overboss (being mostly-Scottish) was already familiar with it when he ordered it, or maybe he was just being nostalgic and whimsical. But it was a mystery to us, and the Blessed Internets were contradictory in their reports and thereby less help than usual. So, being good empiricists, we just had one. And being publicly-minded learners-of-things, we also cut in those people with the unanswerable questions. That did carve a 330ml bottle into a half-dozen shares, but what we lacked in per-person sample size, we made up in roundtable (or over-bar) discussion.
Handily, this both mild, and weird — two things which are usually enough to stimulate controversy and conversation on their own. I’m a fan of both factors, in general, but only half warmed to this — I certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as the weirder beers by the same brewery, which also makes ales flavoured with heather and pine. I should elaborate on my Diary note: I don’t only like my weird beers to be very-weird — the favourable comparisons Dave (from Hashigo) and I were drawing for this were to Nøgne Ø’s lemongrass ale, which I’d had relatively-recently — but I wanted this to be weirder. It would’ve suited being weirder; not being moreso tipped the mildness dangerously close to unforgiveable limpness.
And damn, “weird” is another one of those words that look weird when you type them or read them too-many times in quick succession. Appropriately enough, I suppose.
Verbatim: Grozet Gooseberry & Wheat Ale 9/4/11 random bottle @ MH. 330ml ÷ 6 including Peter, Dave & Denise. From the brewery who make the heather Fraoch and the pine Alba. This was controversial in the crowd. Dave would buy a keg, Denise thought it was too… nothing, normal. I’m half way. I like weird, but I want weirder. Nose was better than taste — tinned pineapple, says Pete.
1: Er, Saturday the 9th of April 2011, obviously. As you can tell from the datestamp. But I’m writing this on a Thursday evening in June. Which shows you how bad the backlog has gotten. This time-travelling posting-plan does my head in sometimes, self-inflicted as it is.
I’m not crash-keen on wheat beers. I mean, I do like several of them very much (Three Boys Wheat is a stand-out example), but I’m rarely quite in the mood — if I want something this light, I usually reach for a golden ale. But that’s just me. It was a stinking hot day, so I indulged myself in a side-by-side(-by-side); I bought the foremost after the Croucher ‘October’ confusion, and had the latter two thanks to my Australian friend Glenn and his duty-free allowance.
I also couldn’t help but put two identically-named beers against each other. I’d have thought that the hefeweizen / Hugh Hefner joke was a common one, but I could only find two others on BeerAdvocate.com.1 I’m torn, deciding a winner on that score — Burleigh put a stonking great moustache on the label, which is awesome, but I thought the Hef himself was pretty much always clean-shaven, which seems to me like Points Off, then.
The variance among the three was quite striking and made for a pleasantly-random scattergun sequence of sips from each — although what amounted to three standard-sized regular-strength beers in quick succession did catch up on me in the heat. Croucher’s was the darkest, tending towards banana cake rather than the habitual-for-hefe fresh banana note. On occasions that side of it seemed too much or just slightly off, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker. Burleigh’s was much more in that ‘classic’ mode with light, fresh fruitiness, and then Red Hill’s threw in what I thought was a pretty noticeable hop sideline — possibly dragging it out of the traditional form, but interestingly so.
My absolute favourite factoid about German-style wheat beers centres on that banana flavour. Learning about how the yeast just coincidentally made that very-familiar ester was an early Beer Nerdery moment for me (tutored by my biochemistry-majoring friend Toby, out on the balcony of the original Malthouse with a Tuatara tasting tray), but the best bit is that the Germans have been making hefe since long before they ever had bananas imported. So where we normally meet the fruit first and then think that the beer tastes like it, there must’ve been a point in history where Germans would first try this odd exotic fruit and say to themselves “damn, this tastes like wheat beer“. How wonderfully odd. I really must try to track down a historical reference.
Verbatim: Croucher ‘Hef’, Burleigh ‘Hef’ & Red Hill Wheat Beer all 330ml + 5%, latter two from Glenn, so I couldn’t resist a comparison on a muggy day. 22/12/10 I should’ve really done a bright sunny day photo, but I’m hiding inside. I wonder how many other tokens of the Hef/e trope there are… But Burleigh get extra cred for the silly ‘tache on their label. Croucher’s darkest, ambery even, then RH, then Burleigh. Taste + smells go: funky (too much?) banana cakey; then lighter, fresher banana: smoother; then light + with a more-present hop sideline (they grow their own Tettnanger @ RH). This is basically science now, right? Amelia’s right that Croucher’s cakeyness is as if the cake has been in the sun too long — a slightly past-it-ness. I’m still not entirely a wheat beer guy, but they do have their place — hot days. Which I usually just try to avoid entirely. And then, nearly a litre of wheat beer inspired some Proper Science; a 3:2:1 blend. Turned out superchoice.
1: And even then — one (‘Head High Hef’ from Breakwater Brewing) hardly seems an overt reference, and the other (‘The Hef’ from Gardner Ale House) isn’t even made any more. More are quite-possibly lurking on RateBeer.com, but my advanced-search-fu was insufficient to bring them out.
George (the gifter of the original Diary) organised a little tasting session at his house for a few friends of ours, with me playing the Informative Nerd. I’ll be the first to admit that I made them all run a bit of a marathon, but we hit most of the Big Styles, did some Interesting Comparisons, and had a whirlwind tour of the Long and Rambling History of Beer.
There’s a lot more variation in beer than there is in, say, wine or whisky, so a fairly zoomed-out overview can go a long way towards making people more ‘conversant’ in the basic styles, why they are what they are, how to figure out what they’re in for by looking at the bottle, and to help people discover what is (and isn’t) Their Thing.
I can’t help but notice, though, that I utterly failed to fulfil Jessie’s request / demand for a “super-awesome” Diary entry. I’m definitely more of an improvisational entertainer than an on-demand one — and that curry was seriously distracting. Especially after all that beer.
Verbatim: Beer 101 10/10/10 I have to write something super-awesome, says Jessie. No pressure. Tasting session & history lesson at George & Robyn’s, with Jessie + Simon + Pip. Great chance to get my nerd on, and evangelise to Robyn. We had: – Wigram Spruce Beer – Hoegaarden – Hofbräu Munchner Weisse – Köstritzer – Pilsner Urquell – Mussel Inn Golden Goose – Tuatara Porter – Invercargill Pitch Black – Emerson’s Bookbinder – Fuller’s IPA – Epic Pale Ale – Three Boys Golden Ale – Chimay Blue – Kriek Boon. And now, George + Pip have wrangled us a curry. Bloody marvellous.
Verbatim: Emerson’s Dunkelweiss. I’d sold too many of these without yet trying one, and so went halves with another bartender. Very glad I did. It certainly deserves the “Caramelised Chocolate Bananas” notation on the label, and has a gorgeously smooth long-lasting flavour with a nice side of wheaty liveliness.
Also, note the ghostly apparition of our bar manager Scott, in the top-right corner of the frame. He showed up late to a long-exposure shot.
Afterthoughts, November 2010: It takes me ages to convince people that Scott really is visible in that photo. Even he had trouble recognising himself as a near-ghost, intially. Seeing-faces-where-there-aren’t-faces is an occasionally-hilarious thing, to be sure, but I promise you this one’s legit. Scotty ain’t no Virgin Mary, and the Malthouse wall ain’t no grilled cheese sandwhich.
I visited the Grand Ridge brewery (in a poky little Victorian town called Mirboo North) when I was in Australia for my birthday a few years ago (2006?) and had a fantastic time there, so I was pleased to see their stuff in the local corner shop upon my return to Melbourne for Karen & Lee’s wedding.
The Blonde itself (herself?) is a lovely accessible wheat beer. Hugely drinkable, with a good dose of fruity- and spicy-ness, even a bit of a fresh herby sort of a thing going on. Good for evangelism to people who usually stick to their lagers, or to anyone who’s already been pursuaded into a Summer Ale type of thing.
And it has to be said that the range of craft beer on offer at the local IGA (a superette, essentially, in New Zealand English terms; just a little convenience store) was seriously heartening. A lot of the next few entries are from one little shopping spree in the early evening of the Friday when I arrived in town.
Verbatim: Grand Ridge Natural Blonde. 2/10/08 $3.50 @ IGA, Armadale 3143. In Melbourne, Fatty and I raided the local shop. Hadn’t had this at the brewery two years back. It’s lovely + drinkable. Very accessible wheat. Fruity and spicy, freshly herby even.
Afterthoughts, October 2010: I have no earthly idea why that beer — that wheat beer, even — seems to have no head, and no trace of having had one. I’m similarly confused as to why my historical self didn’t find that notable.
Verbatim: Hofbräu Schwarze Weisse. 28/4/08, 500ml, $5. Watching Hellboy. Not overly schwarze. Rich brown, really. Good head, lightly fruity nose, not too wheaty. Maybe a good intro to peculiar things. Nice fresh taste.
Afterthoughts, October 2010: I do continue to be gripped with the search for ways to introduce people to Peculiar Things. And this is a goodie for people who might say “oh, I don’t like dark beer” — too many of those people just mean “I don’t like Dry Stout”. (Just like too many of the overarching “don’t like beer” people turn out to be “don’t like lager” folk.)