Part 2: Angst and Anxiety in Thorndon
Wednesday was to start with the Media Briefing session. I didn’t know what to expect from this. It started early: 11:30am (that’s early for bartenders). Fortunately I awoke at 6am, and had plenty of time to get to the Rydges Hotel in Thorndon.
I walked into reception and took off my expensive named-brand raincoat. With a background in the film industry, I appreciate the value of good rain gear. Underneath my raincoat, I was wearing a hoodie from a bar I got drunk in in San Francisco, a denim jacket with the sleeves torn off, and my trademark red doc martens with yellow laces. In short, I was in a respectable establishment, in not at all respectable attire. You wouldn’t think this thing matters anymore, but it does. I immediately garnered bad glances from the people in the vicinity, and a staff member came out from behind the desk and approached me.
‘Can I help you… Sir? He asked, glancing up and down. The pause was too long to be polite, but not long enough to be insulting.
‘I’m looking for the Beervana Media Briefing,’ I said. As an experienced bartender, you learn not to take guff from swines in suits as a matter of principle.
‘Upstairs, Room 3 on the left.’
‘Thanks.’ He was after all, just doing his job.
When I got to Room 3 it was worse than I had imagined: about ten people in smart casual clothing, scattered around a large conference table. They held notebooks and nice pens. The one sitting nearest me had his notebook open already. The indecipherable squiggles of journalistic shorthand crawled all over the page. I felt like fraud: a scribbler from the internet who had wandered out of his cave to where grownup journalists roam.
I wanted to run. Get out now, before they turn on you! They’ll jump you any second now and stomp you for impertinence! Get away son, get away.
The Media Briefing featured presentations from Cryer about Beervana, Rob Simic (an expert from ANZ) about the finances of the ‘Craft’ beer industry and Jon Holl from All About Beer, regarding the state of the American beer scene. Very little was added to my sum knowledge by these talks, as they were more designed for journalists with deadlines than an industry insider like myself. Although the report put together by ANZ will be a useful document for anyone who wants to cite some concrete figures on growth rates and market share of ‘Craft’ Beer.
One quote that did stick in my head though was that “Investors seem willing to pay above market rates to buy into the story of New Zealand craft beer.” There seemed to be a tone of confusion about this statement, as if bankers couldn’t understand why someone would sink a lot of money into an industry that promises next to no return.
From where I sit, it makes perfect sense: I’d invest in a brewery because I believe in drinking good beer, and I want to ensure I can get a good pint for years to come. Expecting a return on buying into a ‘Craft’ brewery is to me like expecting a return on buying a pint at the pub. Passion and enjoyment are why we get into this industry, not striking it rich.
Mind you, another reason people might pay ‘above market rates’ for shares in a brewery is because of IPO’s that promise investors they’ll be drinking with Odin in the Halls of Valhalla, but somehow fall short of that, but I digress.
The other good occurrence was that I became better acquainted with the Portland contingent. The tall, attractive, bearded man who sat next to me turned out to be Ben Love from Gigantic Brewing, a thoroughly nice guy. Chatting with him, I discovered that besides being the first bartender to pour his beer in New Zealand, I’d already had some of his IPA at Mikkeller Bar in Copenhagen a few weeks earlier and listened to his business partner on a podcast series I follow. Sometimes the beer world is a really small place.
At this stage I also met Sean Burke from Commons Brewery, and Denise Ratfield of the Pink Boots Society, the first person ever to address me by my Twitter handle before we’d even been introduced. I found conversations with Denise to be a little difficult at first, owing to the fact there was a smartphone almost permanently in her hand.
I sat amongst the respectable journalists listening to the speakers and pretending to take notes. I felt as a little more relaxed. I had established that enough people in the room knew me to justify my presence there. For the most part I listened with little interest.
I was however, very taken by the trousers of the geek from ANZ. They were plain, slightly textured black business trousers, discretely emblazoned with the bank’s logo on the corner of the pocket.
It was strange. Was this? A uniform? Is this how they dressed their bankers up to do battle? I suddenly envisioned battalions of people in company ties and tastefully-discrete pinstripe, waging brutal warfare, rank-and-file marching down conquered streets. When the our financial system finally collapses, and we’re all so poor and crippled with debt that our society turns on itself; it will be people in trousers like these that lead the execution squads.
Jesus, did I just think that? Was my brain already breaking down to some atavistic level?
The briefing session was followed The Portlander’s Longest Lunch. This was a truly decadent experience: four courses, consisting of two dishes and a beer to match each dish. The thing was, each dish could well have constituted an entire course in their own right. The experience amounted to smashing your way through eight courses with matched half pints over about four hours.
I won’t bore you with descriptions of food you’ll never eat. Suffice to say I highly recommend the Longest Lunch as an event. The food was exquisite, the beers top-notch, and the matches sublime. I particularly fell in love with Gigantic’s Pipewrench IPA, which was a new experience for me: a gin-barrel-aged IPA. Strong, subtle and interesting.
I was sharing the table with Denise, whom I got know quite a bit more (in between bouts of tweeting) and found good company. My other luncheon companions consisted of two big chaps from the company that provided AV support to Beervana. They were remarkably entertaining, even though one of them didn’t like beer (so I stole his Pipewrench) and the other only liked the pale lager, but was really thrilled to be here trying all these new brews he’d never heard of.
AV Guy: You wouldn’t believe how much it’s changed. Back before all this new brewing business.
Dylan P. Jauslin: What do you mean?
AVG: We didn’t go out. We didn’t have restaurants and bars and whatnot. That’s all happened in the last 20, maybe 30 years. Town was dead back then. You didn’t just go out for a meal. There were no restaurants in Wellington. Not like there is today.
DPJ: So what did you do? on a Saturday or whatever?
AVG: Well, we’d go around to somewhere. Maybe someone’s house. Then you’d get pissed. You’d drink a shit-ton of piss. And it didn’t taste good. Not like these fancy brews. [Long pause]… Then we’d, dunno, drive home completely munted. Crash the car on the way. Maybe kill someone. You young fullas really have no idea.
To cut a long lunch short, four hours, three kgs and two litres of beer later, I waddled back to Golding’s to smash out a few dozen emails and catch up on a little of paperwork before the second event of the day began: The Brewer’s Guild Mashing In.
This is the after-function for the Brewer’s Guild AGM. It’s an industry event, meant for insiders only. An occasion to socialise and and network away from fanboys and drunks. It was held upstairs at San Fran and not open to the public (and neither should it be). It’s supposed to be a dignified and professional occasion, but when you put a hundred people in a room and give them a free bar, a debauched piss-up is a very real risk.
My first challenge at The Mashing In was to get inside. It was a ticketed event for Brewer’s Guild members only. Both my employer and my partner are Guild Members, so my name should have been on the list, but it rarely works out like that. As I approached the door, I mentally prepared to make enough bad noises until I got in. However one glance at my Hashigo Zake cap, and they let me in without question.
I spent a lovely few hours catching up with all manner of brewers, brewery staff, bar owners, distributors and other associated industry folk. We had come here to network, and for the most part, it was a wildly successful evening all around. Even so, pockets of drunkenness kept breaking out. Our particular group was continually harassed by a man who worked for a filter company who was quite drunk and on some sort quest to prove how much he loved the Wellington beer scene; a task he set about with almost preternatural energy.
I’m not sure who it was that brought up the fact that over half the brewing talent of the country was currently in the room. What would happen if there was a fire in this god-forsaken box at the top of a narrow flight of stairs? How long before one of these drunken smokers sets fire to his own beard? If this particular roomful of people were to all die in a horrific blaze, how many years hard work in the ‘Craft’ beer industry would be undone in on hideous moment? Five years? Ten?
It doesn’t bear thinking about…