The Brothers Banks

The hangovers from Choice Beer Week should be well and truly forgotten by now and we can look back fondly on a week of excess and celebration. Myself, between avoiding Beervana like the plague (as either a worker or a punter) and closing Goldings at midnight I had one of the easiest Beervana weeks since I started working in the beer industry.1

Which isn’t to say I didn’t live it up and have a bloody good time. And my highlight of the week would have to be the Annual BrewNZ Awards dinner, where every yeah they dole-out trophies and medals to the brewing industry like candy at a kids birthday party.2 This year’s lolly-scramble was particularly gratifying, as I got to watch several friends and acquaintances receive awards, including our chums at Renaissance Brewing, who took out Champion Brewery (which I had actually predicted a few days earlier). Good stuff.

There was however, one rather odd moment in the evening, when they announced the winners of the Morton Coutts Award for Innovation. Now this is a hotly contested, but rather vaguely defined award. The previous winners are Stu McKinlay, for inventing a new, never-before style of smokey-death-beer and Jim Pollitt, for erm, well… I’m not actually sure. Near as I can tell, he actually spent most of his time undoing (de-innovating?) the damage done by Morton Coutts and his Continuous Fermentation.

So we were all on tenterhooks to hear who would take out this most prestigious award. And the winner is: Doug and Jim Banks. Um, who? Everyone looked around confused as as a pair of mature twin brothers got up from the DB Breweries table and wandered onstage looking for all the world like Tweedledee and Tweedledum in suits and ties. Ok, so who are these guys we asked? There was a brief thank you speech, which consisted of pretty much only the words “thank you,” and they left.3 No further explanation. We were just left to speculate.

So the evening continues and the ceremony takes a break. I slip out into the foyer to visit the bathrooms and who should be having their photo taken with their shiny new trophy? It’s Tweedledee and Tweedledum!

Doug Banks, Te Radar (MC) and Jim Banks.

Doug Banks, Te Radar (the award’s MC) and Jim Banks.

I spotted my chance and when the photos and interviews were over and they turned to go back into the hall, I slid between them and the doorway.

“Hi,” I said. “I just wanted to say congardulations on the award. I was wondering if you could tell me what you innovated?”

I got blank looks. And then they told me.

Now a warning: a lot of what they said was about brewing science. I’m neither a brewer nor a scientist, so I may get a few details wrong here. I tried doing a little research on the brothers and got in touch with the Brewers Guild if they could give me anymore details. They linked me to this article on the brothers, which gives the basic facts, but no extra details. I also got in touch with DB to see if they could give me more info. They linked me to the Brewers Guild. Thanks DB.

I’m not a journalist, and I didn’t take notes, so I’m working from memory here, and I should point out I was a little drunk at the time. So apologies for any factual errors I make. Here goes:

Mr Banks and Mr Banks have been working for DB for decades in technical and scientific capacities. They worked with Morton Coutts developing Continuous Fermentation. Coutts had invented this process, they said, and it fell them and their team to figure out how it worked and how it might be improved (there was more on this subject to come). Now I’ll be honest: I’m not keen on CF. I’ve never had a CF beer that I thought tasted any good. But hey, it’s pretty neat science, even if it makes bland beer.

So what else had they worked on? Micro filtration. Ah! Now we’re on firmer footing, beer wise. They apparently helped develop a process that made sterile micro-filtration possible, which is now used in breweries around the world. Now again I’m not a huge fan of filtering beer, but it can be a useful tool for brewers trying to clarify and increase the shelf life of their beer. Certainly it’s nowhere near as bad as pasteurizing it. Neato.

At this point the conversation was jumping all over the place: low alcohol beer. They helped develop a process that makes it easier to brew low alcohol beers. Again not particularly something I’m interested in, but the science as they explained it to me was pretty sweet. Something about a permeable membrane.

Then we got on to what seemed to be their favourite subject: yeast. It seems a lot of their work has been centered on isolating yeast strains in the CF system. As I understand it, because CF breweries don’t have the same turnover of yeast cultures and entire-system clean-outs that comes with batch brewing, if an undesirable yeast strain gets into a CF system, it can cause a lot of problems. Now isolating yeast strains is something I’m very interested in. Afterall, this is what gives us all the different strains of yeast you find in your local homebrew shop. And er, Beard Beer.

Something I found very refreshing out the brothers is they made no bones about the fact that they worked for a corporate giant, but they did hasten to point out that they weren’t just about the mega-beer. They also help out the little guys when they need scientific assistance. Apparently they helped sort out yeast issues at the Shakespeare, back in the day.

So I chatted about yeast-strains and brewing processes with the Banks brothers for a while. At this stage however, I REALLY needed to pee, so I made my excuses, congratulated them again and went about my business. And back at the tables I told everyone about the two nice gentlemen scientists I met, the ceremony resumed, and that was that. Or so I thought.

The ceremony wrapped up in due-course, and I was chatting to Dave the Beer Guy, when out of nowhere popped Mr. Banks (I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you which one). There was something else, he said, that he forgot to mention. And then he started talking about, and really couldn’t make this stuff up: bioluminescent rabbits. It was something to do with yeast isolation again: giving rabbits different samples and using luminescent indicator when certain strains were present. Assuming no rabbits were harmed in the process, that’s a pretty cool piece of science.

And so the conversation rambled on again. Mr. Banks told us about a design of theirs that’s used in one of the largest breweries in Europe and about a brewery he’d worked on in Africa that wastes very little water. We both agreed that that’s the way New Zealand breweries should be working towards, both for environmental and economic reasons.

In fact if there was a consistent theme to our discussions it would be making brewing more efficient. And I’ll be honest: the motivation for this is mostly financial. People like the Banks brothers work for DB because they save DB money. They mean DB can more efficiently churn out their bland, homogenous products. But I still salute Mr. Banks and Mr. Banks for their work because it has a roll-on benefit for all sectors of the industry. Efficiency (whilst maintaining quality) should be a goal of all breweries, no matter what scale.

Our pleasant chat with Mr. Banks finally ended when we were ambushed by the video camera and we had do our darndest to look sober for an interview. Still, I thank the Brother banks both for their work and for taking the time to explain it to me. I get the impression not many people ever ask them what they do or are very interested in the answer.

To Mr. Banks and Mr. Banks: Gentlemen Scientists of the Brewing Industry.

1. In fact I kind of feel like I got off too easy this year. Previous years I’ve been an absolute wreck after working too many 14+ hour days straight.
2. Although some years they’re stingier with medals thank others and the goody-bag you take home after the party is a bit light.
3. Thre were some other things said, but we couldn’t hear them because of the PA system, which was bloody awful.

Film Review: Beer Hunter the Movie

Those with a long-ish memory might remember back in early 2012, Dom at Hashigo was attempting to raise funds for a documentary on the late Michael Jackson. No, not that one, the other, beer-related one. The one who’s known as the world’s greatest beer writer. The one known for pretty much inventing modern beer style guidelines and for introducing Belgian beer to the Belgians.

Beer Hunter

Well, now the film is finished and SOBA organised a screening at the slightly absurd Roxy cinema in Miramar. So how’d it turn out? Well for one, I definitely went with the right audience. Only a hundred-odd Beer Geeks would chuckle at quips about yeast strains and beer marketeers. And in this regard, I’m not entirely sure how wide an audience this film is going to have. If I didn’t already know and care who Jackson was, it might have been rather slow to watch.

So this is one for the Beer Geeks. Fortunately, I am a massive Beer Geek, and this film was right up my alley. Indeed I found this to be an utterly charming little film about an utterly charming man. Jackson comes across as exactly the type of guy you’d like to meet at the pub for a pint. Modest, knowledgeable, quite the conversationalist and most of all, brimming with passion.

And that’s what this film captures brilliantly: his gentle exuberance and love for all things beer-related. I feel like I got a real insight into Jackson and I even felt an unexpected rush of sadness when it came to his death.

My favourite moment of the film:

Czech Brewer: “They want to sell it in Britain, but they want to re-label it as an ale.”
Jackson: “They want to sell your lager as an ale? Tell them to fuck-off. You can’t sell lagers as ales.”
[Big laugh from the audience]

So this film is definitely a great watch if you’re familiar with Jackson’s work, or even just interested in beer geekery in general. Now if I had to criticise (and you know I do), I’d say the film was rather poorly shot and edited. The camera work at sound is at times infuriatingly bad, to the point of distraction. But then this is a low-budget, amature production; so we should forgive the hallmarks of cinéma vérité.

Perhaps the most perceptive comment on the film though, came from my fellow bloooger Denise. She pointed out that this movie ‘Came too late.’ Throughout the film we’re watching a rather decrepit (for want of a better word) old man who looks closer to 80 than 65. It comes out during the course of the film that Jackson had secretly been suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. It is however, clear from the start that there’s something not entirely right with the fellow.

I can’t help thinking it’s a real shame this film wasn’t started 10-15 years earlier, when Jackson was much more in the swing of things (although the film makes it clear he never slowed down). Still, I guess that’s the way things happen in life. And the fact that Jackson himself never lived to see it completed does serve to make a point about unsung heros.

Verdict: Definitely a great little film if you’re self-style Beer Geek or interested in Jackson’s work. Both the film and the man charmed me utterly.