Lager Roundup Vol. 2: Contraband

One of the most frustrating thing working in a beer bar, or any bar for the matter, is annoying shit-heads sneaking in their own alcohol. It bugs the hell out of me: you spend a lot of time and money building a nice bar, you stock it full of wonderful beer; then some cretinous spanner with a bag full of Corona comes and takes up space that could be occupied by customers who actually understand what we’re all about and, you know, spends money.

And it is always Corona too; or one of its equally cheap and crappy siblings. No one ever sneaks a bottle of Panhead The Vandal into a good bar. You know the best beer I’ve ever caught someone sneaking into the bar was? A Cooper’s Pale Ale. And I’m damn sure they chose it because it’s dirt cheap here, not because they actually appreciate it’s subtle nuances.

Having said all this, we don’t actually get a lot of people sneaking alcohol into Golding’s. Our ‘customer base’ (nebulously defined as it is) are not the sort of people that sneak shit beers into good bars. Further more it’s even rarer that we catch any of them. So it came as a surprise that I managed to confiscate two unopened bottles of beer less than a month apart.

Now normally, I wouldn’t bother reviewing beers like these. It’s not sporting, you know? Like shooting low-hanging fruit in a barrel. But I don’t know, something about drinking shitty beer that we took off absolute munters appeals to me on aesthetic level: fate brought these beer to me. I’m meant to review them.

Then again, it could just be schadenfreude.

Beer 1: Flame

Yup, straight in with the good stuff: pure bogan juice. This particular bottle was confiscated during the Wellington Sevens, or as it’s colloquially known, ‘Munter’s Halloween’.


Best enjoyed from a Framboise glass.

We cracked this bottle after our not particularly busy Sevens Saturday shift.

Aroma: N/A.
Appearance: Pleasantly golden.
Favour: Blearg
Over all notes: poor.

One of my colleagues summed it up nicely: “This tastes like someone poured brown sugar on wet cardboard”.

Hmm. Wet cardboard… That’s a sign of oxidation. I have no idea what conditions this bottle has been stored in. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that this bottle has been stored in less that optimal conditions (and possibly someone’s pants, to get it past the security gates of the Sevens Street party).

Moving on.

Beer 2: Tui

Alright, this shit just got real. This particular bottle was confiscated off a guy on a stag do pub-crawl. Any seasoned bartender knows that guys on stag dos are trouble. Usually more trouble than they’re worth. And if they’re in drag, it’s even worse (incidentally, this is why Hashigo has a blanket ban on men in drag, excluding performance artists and the legitimately transgendered). This guy wasn’t in drag; he was one worse still. He was wearing a unitard.

Anyone wearing a unitard to a pub is guaranteed to be a A-grade, certified cock.


Aroma: Bugger all.
Appearance: Pleasantly amber
Favour: Meh
Over all notes: You know what? Tui starts of pretty good. It’s got some mildly inoffensive nutty amber flavours, but just as they reach your tongue, they just sort of trail off into nothing. Again, one of my colleague’s summarised it nicely as having ‘the ghosts of flavours’.

You know I can’t grab your ghost-beer. Lets move on.

Bonus Beer Beverage 3: Wolf Blass Yellow Label Pinot Noir

Umm, do I have to?

Umm, do I have to?

Now I spied someone stashing these two bottles after closing, in an alcove outside Golding’s before heading of towards Hope Bros. My guess it that they’d been drinking one of them on the way into town and would’ve picked them up on the way home.

Silly person.

The one on the left was unopened, so I figured I wouldn’t catch some disfiguring disease from it. So, yeah… Lets review it….

Bugger this, I can’t do this any more. I think I’ve shot my quota of Barrel Fish, so here’s an actual piece of consumer advice:

Beer 4: Mussel Inn Golden Goose

Taken in the dying days of Summer...

Taken in the dying days of Summer. Paired here with a nice fresh Gerald Sandwich. 

Golden Goose has been described as “the Thinking Drinker’s golden lager.” For years it’s sat in the fridge at Hashigo as the ‘craft’ alternative to green bottle shite.

I love Golden Goose. It’s head and shoulders above corporate lagers, because it has that rare, almost-mystical thing that the corporate brewers like to claim their beer’s have: a full malt body. It’s light, but it’s full and well-rounded.

Alright we’re done here.

Attack of the Lager Lout

So regular readers (if I have such a thing) may have noticed a decrease in my posting frequency.  With the opening of Golding’s I’ve had a noted lack of time and will-power to write anything.  Speaking of which Garage Project Major Goldings was a smash hit with the 30 litres lasting about an hour.  The beer turned out kind of like a hoppy-wheat-ESB; quite drinkable and a little odd.

Anywho, posts are about to get even less frequent, as I’m off on an short beer-research trip to San Fran, taking in GABS on the way back.  This’ll probably be my last post for a few weeks, so I thought I’d better make it a good’um.

Those active on the more beer-y section of the Twittersphere may have noticed this conversation going down (click for a larger version):

Click for a full sized version.

Take a moment to read that, it’s quite the rant.  It’s something I’ve encountered before too.  Every now and again you meet a customer that insists that:

A) Pilsners are not lagers (they are), and
B) Beer Geeks are a some sort of breed of lager-hating fascist-nazis.

I experienced this several times at Hashigo, records of which exist here, here and here.  The usual complaint was that either the staff at Hashigo wouldn’t serve lagers, which was odd, because there’s always one on tap and several in bottles, or that we would mock anyone who dared order one.  Again this is odd because why would we serve something if we didn’t want people to order it?  Indeed the idea we would mock every person that ordered a lager is pretty ludicrous, because tap pils was our biggest seller. More to the point if I’d taken the time to mock every lager drinker, I’d never have had the time to get anything done in the day.

Anyway, back to the issue at hand.  My personal experience of this was much similar: a chap came up to the bar one busy weekend at Hashigo and ordered a lager.  We had some sort of pils on tap, and I recommended it to him.  “I don’t want a pilsner, I want a lager,” he said.
“Pilsners are lagers,” I said.
“No they’re not,” said he.
“Actually they are, you see it’s a matter of yeast…” and I launched into an explanation of yeast varieties and the taxonomy of lagers.  Hell, I’d have pulled out map and shown him Pilsen if he wanted to see it.

However, it wasn’t to be.  I noticed very quickly not only his attention but also the will to live sliding off his face.  Sometimes when you need to temper your enthusiasm when talking to non-Beer Geeks.  So I gave him the short version: “Take it from me mate, pilsners are a type of pale-lager that originated from Czech town of Pilsen.”
“Alright, I’ll take one of those then.”  And all was good again.

Or so I thought, until I went to go clear some glasses and walked past his group.  I watched him take a swig off his beer and grimace.  “Fucking bartender.  He tried to tell me pilsners are lagers.  They’re so full of shit here.”

Listen buddy, my anatomy is not equipped with middle-fingers big enough for the likes of you.  I was seriously pissed of at that guy, but I didn’t tell him that.  In fact I let it all slide.  Looking back on it, it wasn’t that he didn’t know about beer styles or didn’t share my passion and geekery.  In the end, I resented him because he insulted my professionalism as a beertender.  Beer is my passion, and I bartend to share that passion with other people.  I’m good at bartending, and if each day I can help a customer derive the same pleasure from beer as I do, then I consider that a good day.

Back on track now and to my original point: pilsners are lagers and anyone who tries to say otherwise is speaking out the wrong orifice.  But what about Beer-Geeks hating lagers?  Well, for starters  it’s not true; I’ve spent the last three years serving lagers to the beer community of Wellington.  Secondly, most craft breweries make a lager and frequently it’s their biggest seller.  So this assertion that geeks just don’t like lager is utterly false.

That said, there is another issue lurking in the background like a bad smell: accusations of snobbery.  Certainly I’m no stranger to being called a snob.  I’ve even occasionally worn the badge proudly.  But it’s never a nice thing to be called and I also think it’s quite unfounded in most cases and especially with Roland and Brother’s Beer.

You see I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon in over the years working in a beer bar: if someone comes into a bar and asks for something you don’t have, they frequently can take it as a personal insult.  This happens most often with the big branded green-bottle lager drinkers and can be quite vehement at times.1  On more than one occasion I’ve had said to a customer “Sorry we don’t have [Heineken/Stella/Steinlager/whatever]” and had people react as if I’ve told them to go fornicate with their own mother.  In most cases I try to recommend a nice alternative, but frequently the battle is lost.  They either splutter “what’d ya mean you don’t have [beer XYZ], you’re a beer bar, what kind of beer bar doesn’t have [beer XYZ]?” or occasionally, they just walk out.

And then they send angry tweets.  Or post bad reviews online, calling you and your establishment snobs and wankers.  And what are you supposed to do in that situation?  You really can’t win.  What you should try to do is be polite and find them a beer they’ll enjoy.  Educate, don’t exclude.  And I think Brother’s made a fairly good effort to do just that (at least until the end, but hey, they’re only human) and I hope I do in that situation too.  But if they’ve already walked out, or like Monsieur Roland, won’t engage with the bar-staff, there’s nothing you can do.  They’ve excluded themselves.2

Now I’ve been thinking about this, specifically why this happens.  Why is it that some people take a bar not stocking a particular beer as badly as they’d take take an insult to their own mother?  I think the answer is a lack of understanding.  You see they just don’t understand a Beer Geek’s passion for flavourful, independant beers, and why they rail against bland corporate beer.  Not serving Heineken is to us a logical expression of our passion.  But to Roland’s ilk, it makes us mad, pretentious, snobs.  He just doesn’t get it and probably never will.

And you know what?  We’re all guilty of this on some level.  For example, take the British Cornish Pasty Association.  They’re passionate about pasties.  Ok, I can understand that.  But why do they declare carrots to be sacrilege in their official recipe?  That I don’t get.  To me that makes them mad, pretentious, carrot-hating pasty-snobs.  I just don’t get it and probably never will.

How about an example closer to home?  How about CAMRA then?  I will never understand what those guys have against carbon dioxide.  C’mon guys, some beers are better fizzy and cold.  Deal with it.  Frankly I think CAMRA (or at least elements of it) are a bunch of gas-and-lager-hating, elitist snobs.3  Is this starting to sound familiar?  I like real-ale as much as the next Beer Geek, but a slavish devotion to only cask-conditioned ales is to me frankly ludicrous.  I just don’t get it and probably never will.

So perhaps we’re all as guilty as Roland of not understanding each other’s passions.  Ok I take that back, we’re not because we don’t go making dicks of ourselves on Twitter.  And that I think, brings me sideways to the point I’m trying to make.  People have some odd passions and we all need a little patience and understanding with them.  Whether we be the expert Beer-Geek trying to explain why we don’t sell Heinie or the bewildered everyman who’s just trying to get a beer with a label he recognises.

Alright I gotta stop here, before I go full-hippie.  Peace and Love, ya’ll.

Also, pilsners ARE lagers, FFS!

  1. Although it can also happen with craft drinkers.  Not dyed-in-the-wool Beer Geeks obviously, but if I had a dollar for everytime I’ve heard an outraged “What’d ya mean you don’t have [Epic/Moa/Emerson’s/Renaissance/Green Man Tequila Beer]?”  Usually because it’s the only craft label they know and are comfortable with.  And no, I’m not joking when I say Tequila Beer.
  2. Although I did hear a rumour that this mysterious Roland allegedly works for a major liquor brand, which would put an entirely different spin on the whole thing.  I’m in no position to confirm or deny that though.
  3. Admittedly, my impression of CAMRA is probably poorly coloured by reading the comments sections on the Zythophile Blog and by small handful of members that have come into Hashigo and been utterly fucking rude, insulting, sanctimonious, knob-heads.  A large section of SOBA members are CAMRA members and good people.

Coming out of the Wardrobe

I have an announcement to make that may shock and astound you: I’m leaving Hashigo Zake.  Actually this might not come as a surprise to many of you. Despite my trying to keep a lid on the news, it seems that half of Wellington already knows, and lately I’ve been in the surreal situation of having people I barely know coming up to the bar and congratulating me about my new job.  Anywho, the fact of the matter is that I’ve been offered the Manager’s position at a new bar, Golding’s Free Dive, which will be opening next month.

Now I will unashamedly say that to my mind, Hashigo is by far and away the best beer bar in New Zealand, if not Australasia and/or the Southern Hemisphere.1  Certainly it’s the geekiest and probably the bar that’s done the most to further the cause of good beer in New Zealand.  To a lot of Beer Geeks then, leaving Hashigo could seem a bit like leaving Narnia.  But as Milton’s Satan once said: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven,” and it seems about my time to step out of the closet wardrobe and seek my fortune in the real world.2    

Of course I’m not suggesting that working at Golding’s is going to be a bad day in Tartarus, far from it.  On the contrary, I’m rather excited about the whole prospect.  You see, the core Hashigo team has been together now for three years, give or take and while they’re fantastic to work with, there’s also a great many chefs in that kitchen.  In this regard, Golding’s offers me the opportunity and challenge to help build a bar from the ground up: to help make it into a awesome little bar.

And Golding’s Free Dive is going to be an awesome bar: at once a free-house, serving good beer with no pesky ties to any brewery, big or small.  It’s also intended to be a dive bar (hence the name): a comfortable little out of the way spot where you can while away the hours, unmolested by the rowdy mobs it town.  There will be more details to come.

Now I’m heading into uncharted waters here:  I’ll be the longest running staff member ever to leave Hashigo.  I’ll also be the first staff member to transfer over to another Wellington bar and the first staff alumni to stay in Wellington (most in fact, leave New Zealand).  In this regard, the record is not great.  Two other staff have gone on to work at different bars, but neither of them lasted very long there.  And the reason is simple: Hashigo ruins people.  I’ve joked before that it’s somewhat of an ivory tower: working there is so good, you sometimes forget what working in the real world is like.  But as I said, the prospect of a new challenge is immensely exciting.  

Of course, my decision to leave Hashigo wasn’t easy.  I’ve been there for over three years, more or less since the beginning, and it’s been a fairly major part of my life over that time.  I’ll miss it dearly, so to ease my transition and cheer myself up, I thought I’d reflect on a few of the things I’m not going to miss about Hashigo:

  • My workmates.  They’re bastards to a man.
  • The regulars.  Wellington’s description was accurate: they’re “scum of the earth.”
  • Explaining what ‘Hashigo Zake’ means. That got old fast.  
  • Sake.  New Zealanders are cretins when it comes to this subtle and noble drink.3  
  • The historic plumbing.  It’s shit with shit.

Right, well that’s cheered me up.  Now I guess I should go on to talk about what I will actually miss about Hashigo:

  • My workmates.  Bastards to a man and like family to me.  
  • The regulars.  Wellington’s description was accurate: “scum of the earth… what fine fellows they are.”
  • The staff discount.
  • The pies.  Hashigo’s pies are a thing of beauty.
  • The credibility.  I don’t wish to sound arrogant, but Hashigo has a good name in both local and international beer circles, and occasionally it’s worked as a handy introduction at breweries and other bars.  I’ve always been proud to say “I work at Hashigo Zake.”

One of the things I’m probably going to miss the most though, is the feeling of being on the cutting edge of beer in New Zealand.  As I said before, Dominic and the Hashigo Crew have done so much to further New Zealand ‘craft’ beer in the last three and a half years.  Whether it be campaigning in the Radler case (or a myriad of other IP abuses), arranging international collaborations, donating obscenely generous amounts of labour to beer festivals, setting up local beer festivals, broadening local tastes by exposing New Zealanders to the international beer scene, supporting (frequently unknown) up-and-comers like Garage Project, ParrotDog and Funk Estate, or arranging distribution for local breweries.  Hashigo was a game-changing in the New Zealand beer scene and they continue to push the boundaries wherever they can.  I’m proud to have been a part of it.

But I am also stepping back from all that.  Golding’s will be serving good beer, but it wont have the same geeky edge.  We’ll always be a few steps behind.4    That’s fine though.  In fact that’s as should be.  Golding’s will be less about geeking-out and more about chilling-out, in a cool place, with good people and good beer, which is something we all need from time to time.

I’ll close now by saying that I hope that all those out there who I’ve served enjoyed having me as their bartender as much as I enjoyed serving them. And I know that I leave a lasting legacy at Hashigo; something that has made Hashigo a better place: The Boston Pork Pie.

[Image Pending]

Think of me next time you eat one.

Zum Wohl!

  1. You don’t have to agree with me on that, but I’m not the only one that thinks this.  And before you ask, no I haven’t sampled them all.  Neither have you, so shut up.
  2. I’m quite proud of that literary juxtaposition.  Just saying.
  3. At best they ask for good sake (pronounced sar-key for some reason) hot when it should be chilled or at room temperature.  This is like asking for your pinot gris to be warmed up.  At worst they shoot it and then rowdily proclaim “Phwar!  That’s rough!”  Well, maybe if you didn’t shoot hot alcohol, it wouldn’t burn so much.  No, actually at worst they ask for sake bombs, which is an insult to both our beer and sake.
  4. But on the other hand, there is also a another benefit to leaving Hashigo: I can now go there and enjoy it as a customer.  Fuck yeah!
  5. I’m well aware, there will be a lot of variance on that one…

Three Men Walk into a Bar

As a barman, I meet all sorts.  Customers are strange creatures, and recently I met a trio that inspired a fair deal of ambivalence in me.  I’m not sure how best to explain the encounter, so I’m just going to take you thorough it as it happened.

So three men walk into a bar: an Englishman, an Englishman and an Englishman (sorry).  They walk up to the bartender (me) and pull out a piece of paper.

“Hi there, we’re looking for some hard to find beers; thought this might be the place to find them,” said their spokesman.  Certainly, said I.  What are you after?

He consulted his list.  “12 Gauge” (a strong lager from Leigh Sawmill Brewery).  No, we don’t have it.  Meow Cafe might have bottles of it.  My mind races for an alternative New Zealand beer: tap pilsner?  Liberty Alpha Dog?

He consults the list again.  “Mammoth?”  (Pink Elephant’s strong ale).  Sorry, we don’t have that either.  Hmm, Liberty High-Carb?  I mentally store that recommendation away for the moment.

“Got any Engima?”  Ah, Twisted Hop’s Barleywine!  It hasn’t been brewed since the earthquake.  We had a lot of the Red Zone version of it at one stage, but we sold out a while back.  That beer’s extinct in the wild as it were.  I know of a couple of bottles in captivity (private cellars), but none for sale.  I explain all of this whilst digging around in my brain for a recommendation. Renaissance Tribute Barleywine.  That’ll be perfect!

I’m about to recommend a Tribute, when he speaks again: “Emerson’s Old 95?”  Ha.  I should have seen that coming.  That’s another extinct beer.  Again, I know there are still bottles in captivity, but that hasn’t been brewed in almost two years.  As I explain this, a thought occurs to me.

Where did you get this list I asked?  It turns out he’d copied it out of the book 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die.  Now things are starting to make sense.  That book was published in early 2010.  Most of the writing was probably done in 2009 and the research for it as early as 2007-2008.  Now that’s not long ago in the scheme of things, but with the radical growth of beer in New Zealand, five years ago was practically the Dark Ages.

Don’t believe me?  Winter 2008 was the year Yeastie Boys launched with a single batch of Pot Kettle Black.  They only did four releases in the year following, the second and third being Golden Boy and Kid Chocolate.  The fourth was the second vintage (that’s right, vintage, it started as an annual release) of PKB.

Need more perspective?  Late 2009  was the year 8 Wired launched, with a beer called “All of the Above.” Never heard of it?  It was later re-named ReWired.  I suspect the book would have been nearing completion at that stage, and no one who worked on it had ever heard of the virtuoso Dane, brewing in small-town New Zealand.

Anyway, so now I know what I’m dealing with.  What else is on the list?  Invercargill Smokin’ Bishop.  Well, that’s a winter release.  You’ll be lucky to find it this time of year.  We have no other New Zealand equivalent, but maybe a Rex Attitude?  Harrington’s Big John Special Reserve.  Ah!  If only we had some Double-Barrelled Cockswain’s on tap!  Never mind, an 8 Wired Batch 18 will blow their minds, I think.

Look mate, I say, that book’s pretty out of date.  Let me recommend some New Zealand beers I think should be in that book.   “No thanks,” he says.  “I’ll just have a look through your menu.”  The three of them bury their heads in the bottle-list.

Ok, that’s odd.  Well, clearly they’re experienced beer-hunters, so they know what they’re doing.  Since I wasn’t busy, I grabbed the bar computer and had a quick dig.  Hey mate, I said, it looks like Regional Wines and Spirits have bottles of Smokin’ Bish’ and Big John.  They’re an awesome bottle shop not far from here, I can give you directions if you like.

He looks up.  “No thanks.  The rule is we have to drink them in an on-licence.”  Um… What?  Now I know it’s fun to make make arbitrary rules for simple tasks to make them more challenging; like say only stepping on black tiles when walking across a chequer-board floor.  However to me, what he said was utterly-nutterly-butterly insane.  Isn’t the point of beer-hunting that you go you go out of your way to try beers no matter how you get your hands on them?  I have a friend who once on a trip to Germany, went out of her way to go to Bamberg, just because she liked Rauchbiers.  Personally, I’ll walk across broken glass if I want a beer bad enough.  It’s about the beer, not the method of acquisition: the why matters, not the how.

I was still digesting this revelation when he finally ordered beers: three Rising Sun Pale Ales.  Um, wait, what the fuck?  These guys have come all the way around the world hunting specific New Zealand beers, to probably the best beer-bar in the country.  When they can’t find them what do they do?  Drink imports.  From snatches of their conversation, I gathered at least one of them had already had Baird beer before, in Japan!  Hashigo is probably the only bar in the country that still has Batch 18, but you’re drinking imported beer you’ve had before?

Ok, chill out.  I begrudge no one their tasty beverage.  Clearly these guys know what they like and like good beer.  Except…

They came back the next day and drank Chimay and Rochefort.  What?  Really?  Two (admittedly beautiful) Trappist beers that can be found in almost any beer-bar world-wide?

Alright, fine.  So you know what you want (god-bless you for that).  But readers might see why I’m a little perplexed here.  The point of international beer-hunting is that you go to a place and seek-out the beers that come from there.  Heavens knows I flout the ‘drink local’ ethos almost daily, but if I’m travelling somewhere, I want to try the beers I can’t get anywhere else.

I can’t help feeling like these chaps have lost sight of the wood because of all the pesky trees that keep getting in the way.  They came all this way to not try local beers because they weren’t on an obsolete list?   I suspect a Pokemon1 mentality has take over here: the act of collecting, the ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All’ has become more important than the actual thing you’re collecting.

I’m going to finish by saying two things:

First of all, I like your style.  The enthusiasm and dedication of going around the world trying beers everywhere is something I applaud.  But also keep in mind that beer is a fluid thing (literally and metaphorically): breweries fail and change hands, new beers are created and new breweries start-up.  Books don’t change though.  The 1001 is fixed in history, so you’re doomed to failure.  You will probably never taste Old 95.  With that in mind, don’t lose sight of what beer-hunting should be about: enjoying good beer, in good places, with good people.

So yeah, keep that in mind.  And god-speed, you mad bastards.

  1. For those mature readers unfamiliar with Pokemon, it was a cartoon/trading card/videogame series where people imprison animals in ludicrously small cages and then sic them on random strangers.  Imagine a blend of stamp-collecting and dog-fighting and you’re pretty much there.