Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bringing Back The Fear

I recently applied to renew Hashigo Zake’s on licence. Although the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 doesn’t come into effect until December 18, we have been in a transition phase and the application process takes into account certain provisions of the new act. So it included a “CPTED checklist” that we had never been required to fill in before. (To see it, scroll to page 8 here.) We have to answer yes or no to assertions such as:

Area behind the bar is raised to improve visibility
Premises is laid out so staff can monitor patrons at all times
There are no obstructions within the bar causing blind spots
CCTV is installed
Patrons are aware of the CCTV system

(Fortunately for Hashigo Zake, at a recent briefing to the Wellington hospitality industry it was implied that the standards being tested for here wouldn’t be applied to renewal applications, just new applications.)

So what does this tell us about how authorities envisage licensed premises operating under the Sale and Supply of Liquor Act 2012? I was reminded of the panopticon, a design conceived in the 18th century for institutions such as prisons, asylums and day care facilities. The concept was of a design that ensured that all inmates could be observed from a single point and while the staff at that single point might only be looking in one direction at a time, the inmates had to assume that they were being watched at all time and would moderate their behaviour accordingly.

The idea that bars are going to be required to be laid out like an 18th century prison is chilling enough. It’s also dazzlingly stupid. In a busy bar, staff behind the bar don’t waste their time peering over the heads of customers to look for intoxicated customers, half of whom – statistically - will have their backs to the bar anyway. There’s a far more effective way. It’s called collecting glasses. At Hashigo Zake, like most bars, every corner of our premises is visited every five minutes or so by a member of staff. The fact that we have things called rooms, which it seems will be an automatic fail in the brave new world, doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to our ability to monitor what is going on.

But early indications are that bar staff are expected to transition from dispensers of drinks, good service and advice to a kind of detention monitor. And bars will be required to resemble crèches.

So when and why did New Zealand become so afraid of alcohol and drinkers? Actually that’s the wrong question because the answer is the 19th century. When and why did our fear of alcohol come back with such ferocity?

Now that’s a complicated question. Maybe this will help: the Ministry of Justice just released the findings of a survey into the perceptions of crime among the public of New Zealand. It showed that people’s perception of rates of crime were completely at odds with reality. Official statistics show that crime is at a 33-year low but the majority of respondents were convinced it was rising. Someone (the media are deemed to be the culprits in this case) is exaggerating the problem and misleading the public.

Could there be a similar effect with alcohol abuse? That some party or parties, for whatever reason, are overstating New Zealand’s problems with alcohol abuse?

From Geoffrey Palmer’s Law Commission report of 2010 to the expert witnesses at the Wellington City Council’s hearings in 2013 into its own Local Alcohol Policy, New Zealand came about as close as it ever will to unanimous agreement on a topic – that something new and terrible called bingedrinkingculture has emerged and needs to be tackled. And our collective penance is the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 and its upcoming, accompanying Local Alcohol Policies.

But what is the compelling evidence of said bingedrinkingculture that has made this new flood of measures necessary? Let’s see. Here’s a graph from within the aforementioned Law Commission report: 
It shows that alcohol consumption fell steadily from the late ‘70s until around 1999. That includes the year 1989, when that year’s Sale of Liquor Act rationalised and, generally, liberalised our liquor laws. The figures rose again in 1999, when we stopped prosecuting 18 and 19 year olds for purchasing alcohol. It’s hardly a surprise that removing the threat of prosecution for a chunk of the population led to a rise in consumption. Now this graph is obviously a little out of date, but we can tell from here that the trend since this graph was plotted has been downward.

In other words, nothing to see here. Consumption of alcohol over the last thirty to forty years has fallen. 

Perhaps there’s something more specific going on, other than just overall consumption. That is certainly the message we’ve been fed for years now :- the problem isn’t simply alcohol and the silent majority of responsible users, it’s the bingedrinkingculture. Somewhere, out there, some portion of our society is drinking alcohol by the binge-full, in ways that are new and disturbing and a crisis for all of us. And that portion of society is, specifically, the kids.

Take this report for example. There are few specific, measurable facts from Dr Paul Quigley of Wellington Hospital or Sergeant Andrew Kowalczyk about what makes the current bingedrinkingculture different. It’s the intent that’s different, apparently. Dr Quigley says “now, they intended to get smashed, to get wasted.” Sgt Kowalczyk says “where you used to sit around, and you’d drink over a jug of beer, and you’d talk about the races, now it’s like, especially the youth, ‘let’s get pissed as quick as possible’”. 

With all due respect to these sincere and knowledgeable people, but did they sleep through the last fifty years? How much collective amnesia do we have as a society? At secondary school in the 80s friends of mine would do exactly what Dr Quigley and Sgt Kowalczyk complain about with exactly the same bleak, nihilistic attitude. Then when we got to university we were mocked by our elders for being amateurs.

As far as I can tell, the only empirical measure that researchers have to quantify the elusive bingedrinkingculture among youth are surveys. That’s right – all we know about the drinking habits of our troubled youth is what they tell us. (“So, teen survey respondent, here’s your first question: How often do you and your mates get wasted?”) Unless and until the actual alcohol intake of the respondents is accurately recorded the absolute numbers coming out of the surveys are worthless. 

But I will accept that the trends over successive surveys (provided their methodologies are consistent) can tell us something. So what do they tell us? Well according to the Ministry of Health, between the 2005/6 survey and the 2011/12 survey, rates of “hazardous drinking” in New Zealand fell. But why should that be a surprise? We know from Statistics New Zealand that alcohol consumption in the same period dropped. So it is entirely consistent and predictable that so-called “hazardous drinking” should have dropped.

Parenthetically, is this a good time to question the Ministry’s use of the term “hazardous drinking”? It seems that teetotallers have a lower life expectancy than moderate drinkers of alcohol. D’oh, I’m sorry I got that wrong. Teetotallers have a lower life expectancy than moderate and heavy drinkers of alcohol. So while I’m sure that by “hazardous drinkers” they meant “heavy drinkers”, maybe they should consider inverting their terminology.

But to diminish the orthodoxy that bingedrinkingculture is here, it’s a problem and it’s a new problem is to overlook the elephant in the room:- Courtenay Place at 3am on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Yes it’s a vile time and place and it leaves me demoralised as it does just about anyone I know. It’s a symbol of the one fact that almost no-one can disagree on :- that a number of people in our society become very ugly when drunk.

Thirty years ago we definitely didn’t have whole precincts in our cities like Courtenay Place where drinking, yelling, staggering, snogging and vomiting went on well into the next morning. The bars weren’t generally open late enough and not that many people stayed in town after midnight. But if alcohol consumption has fallen over the same period, where have all these hordes of late night revellers come from and who was doing their share of alcohol consumption previously?

The answer, I suggest, is the suburbs. In fact it’s the only explanation that makes any sense, given that per capita alcohol consumption peaked in New Zealand in the late 70s, in the era of 10pm closing. Back then parties often started when the pub closed and depended on revellers arriving with multi-packs of beer or wine. And many would stay until they consumed the stash that they’d brought with them.

The Christchurch earthquake demonstrated what happens when our cities lose their nightlife. In the year or so immediately following the Christchurch earthquake complaints to the Christchurch City Council about noise from suburban parties soared. In the last year, as the city’s nightlife recovered they’ve fallen again.

New Zealanders do not lose their resourcefulness when someone hides the drinks. My father, coincidentally, recently told me how he and his friends planned for their annual Old Boys Ball in the 50s. It was generally held in the evening at an unlicensed cabaret. So during the afternoon patrons individually dropped in at the venue to leave a hip flask of something distilled in a locker, to access later. Then they’d take crates of beer to someone’s home and refresh themselves in advance. Pre-loading and side-loading:– anyone claiming that they’re a recent invention is delusional.

Hoarding alcohol is a rational response to restrictions on availability. And buying in bulk has the advantage of being a money saver. It’s also far more likely to lead to over-consumption. A patron at a bar generally buys a drink at a time, at a price that incorporates the bar’s costs, from a worker who risks conviction for selling a drink to someone who’s intoxicated. But someone who has taken a large volume of alcohol to a party and has left that drink at arm’s reach has no brake on their consumption and probably has an incentive to finish what they brought.

The earlier the bottle store or supermarket closes, the greater the lengths that a determined drinker will go to to make sure he or she doesn't run out later in the evening.

So as ugly as zones like Wellington’s Courtenay Place can be, are they doing New Zealand (and our suburbs) an enormous favour, by bringing our most determined party-goers into one precinct? There their drinking can be moderated and when the worst happens they’re more likely to be seen to, instead of being left unconscious at the bottom of a suburban garden.

Again – does it need to be repeated? The liberalisation of New Zealand’s liquor law in 1989 coincided with a reduction in consumption. In fact this effect has been repeated throughout New Zealand’s history and it has been documented. Not that anyone thought to take into account the findings of Paul Christoffel’s 2006 thesis, “Removing Temptation: New Zealand’s Alcohol Restrictions, 1881-2005”. The law commission report saw fit to quote from some of his historical background. But they never bothered to mention the core finding of his research, which was that the availability theory (greater availability of alcohol leading to greater consumption) is patently wrong. In fact the historian wasn’t consulted at all during the drafting and debate of the new Sale and Supply of Liquor Act.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the new act’s flaws. Here are a few more:
  • Accompanying the act are new, much higher, fees for holders of liquor licences. Now remember that an enormous portion of the income that a licence holder derives from selling alcohol goes to the government in excise tax. But an intentionally punitive new fees regime has been imposed as well. Making the selling of alcohol uneconomic is a petty and stupid way of penalising the industry. Additional compliance costs are just going to make operators look for ways to take some of the risk back out of their business – probably by looking for deals with suppliers that hinge on increases in turnover.
  • The cost of getting a duty manager’s certification for the purposes of the act are roughly doubling. At Hashigo Zake we consciously get as many of our staff as possible qualified as duty managers. It’s a good way to make sure everyone understands the law and our responsibilities. Now we’ve been given a financial disincentive for doing this.
  • One of the measures of the new act is the outlawing of advertising of discounts of more than a certain percentage. However it was pointed out at a briefing recently that advertising such discounts with signs inside a bar or bottle store is legal. What's more there is nothing to stop a customer from taking a photo of such signage and posting it on the facebook page of the outlet. In other words, a much heralded component of the law comes with a built-in loophole.
In short, New Zealand’s new law looks like a blunder from conception to implementation. It’s based on a phony moral panic and incorporates a package of measures that are more likely to lead to irresponsible drinking practices. It seems to have been designed by people who are afraid of alcohol and want everyone else to be, regardless of whether that is healthy.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Liquor Laws. Rant #2.

I wrote these comments back when the drinking age and the rest of the new act was being debated. So the age thing isn't quite so relevant now. But it's still part of the tapestry of denial and delusion that went on when the act was being debated and continues now that councils are developing their local policies. So here is a collection of uncomfortable facts that need to be absorbed when interested parties weigh in about liquor policies.

1. Our society depends on alcohol. Alcohol is an almost ubiquitous component of our socialising, our celebrations and our cuisine. A recent article in the New York Times put it like this:
.. these same lifesaving social instincts didn’t readily lend themselves to exploration, artistic expression, romance, inventiveness and experimentation — the other human drives that make for a vibrant civilization. To free up those, we needed something that would suppress the rigid social codes that kept our clans safe and alive. We needed something that, on occasion, would let us break free from our biological herd imperative — or at least let us suppress our angst when we did. We needed beer.
Yes this could be interpreted as saying that alcohol is compensating for faults in our ability to express ourselves. A sad admission but also an unavoidable truth.

And whether we like it or not, occasional misuse and overconsumption are inevitable consequences. That’s not to say that it isn’t important to do something about the frequency and volume of those instances of overconsumption. But people in denial of the nature of our society’s relationship with alcohol aren’t helping.

2. The Hospitality Industry is far from blameless. Spokespeople for the hospitality industry stress that the industry is playing its part and alcohol consumed off-premise does far more damage than that consumed on-premise. It’s a half-truth. Sure pre-loading is how many of the worst behaved drunks get that way. But if bars were truly, consistently fulfilling their obligation to deny service to the intoxicated, then places like Courtenay Place would look a lot different at 3am on Saturdays and Sundays.

3. New Zealand’s “Drinking Age” was never 20. All we ever had was a law that said anyone under 20 drinking in a bar ran the risk of getting a criminal record. Disobeying the law was normal and carried no stigma. If you got caught in a police raid and got a conviction you were considered unlucky, not naughty, let alone criminal. Of course if you were a law student you could argue that a conviction for something so trivial would unfairly disadvantage you in your career and get discharged without conviction. In other words, even the courts considered the guilty to be simply unlucky.

4. Alcohol abuse among young people is not some kind of modern scourge. In fact the only thing we know for sure about alcohol consumption is that in general it’s falling. The rest is anecdotal. Certainly it is easier than ever to witness disturbing and embarrassing displays by young people of their inability to consume alcohol sensibly. But why is that? A generation ago, our cities didn’t have strips of noisy bars licensed until well into the morning, where young people socialised and drank. Not as many as we have today anyway. Instead we did our early evening drinking in bars before adjourning to parties in suburban homes to conduct the business end of the evening’s alcohol consumption. Instead of falling over in the toilets of bars or Courtenay Place gutters, people turned feral, fought and passed out in each other’s homes and back yards.

One other change over the last decade that I see has been that people have been encouraged to spurn our reserved demeanour and behave flamboyantly in public. This is particularly true of sporting events, where it’s no longer enough to attend, clap and cheer then leave. Spectators are expected to become participants in a shared public spectacle. The most extreme example is, of course, the Wellington sevens. As I acknowledged above, we collectively depend on alcohol to shed inhibitions and fraternise. But at the sevens this is taken to an absurd extreme, by design.

There’s another particularly perverse aspect to the theory that today’s yoof are somehow off the rails. I was at university in the late 80s. At that time we saw a few remnants of the drinking culture that we were told had prevailed in the preceding decades. A culture of mini-tankers, drinking horns, projectile vomiting, “international rules” and other, frankly nauseating traditions. We were told that things had changed and internal assessment and tuition fees had robbed our university of its tradition of degenerate drinking practices. I’m not naïve enough to assume that the legends we were told about preceding decades were reliable. But we were being lamented and even mocked by the previous generation for our relative sobriety. Yes it’s just words, but not to impressionable people in their late teens and early twenties out to match the exploits of the previous generation. Every generation is influenced by the bullshit stories the previous one tells.

Which leads to a (slightly over-simplified) conclusion that:

one of the reasons that young people abuse alcohol is that their parents did.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Liquor Laws. Rant #1

Yesterday I sat through a meeting at the Wellington City Council at which interested parties made submissions to the Council as they attempt to draft the new Local Alcohol Policy. Some sincere, credible representatives from Police, the District Health Board and one or two other branches of Health made the case for reining in the rights of liquor licence holders. And industry representatives tried to defend their ground. Some messages were hammered home:
  • Nothing good happens after 3am. [Police]
  • Restricting availability of alcohol reduces abuse. [Health experts]
  • It’s their fault. [Hospitality and Retailers, about each other]
Now I have one or two opinions on flaws in the thinking of a few parties to discussions about alcohol, which I’ll come to soon. But with respect to the fate of Wellington’s liquor licensees, it looks as though most of the heat and noise around the policy will come down to a few a lines on maps and times of day. Specifically, what streets will have different maximum closing times and what the various closing times will be.

In particular, the concept of having a designated nightlife zone with different maximum licensing hours seems to have been negotiated in advance between the Council and local representatives of the Hospitality Association. Going by what has been said, the Council envisage an area in Courtenay Place and another area in Cuba St. Jeremy Smith of the Hospitality Association said that they think the zones should be connected. Because there would be better lighting that way or something.

I don’t really care about the details because either way I’m staggered at what a colossal blunder they are conspiring to make. Here is why.

Courtenay Place wasn’t always Wellington’s nightlife centre. In fact it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. To someone brought up in Wellington it’s not that long since Courtenay Place consisted of an ugly bus terminal and some uninspiring shops. And on its side streets were massive wholesale fruit and vegetable markets. The bus terminal and markets have gone and I assume that that evacuation by long standing businesses made the influx by bars and cafes possible. It’s a classic example of the evolution of a city and exactly how nightlife quarters spring up in cities everywhere, from Dublin’s Temple Bar to Tokyo’s Golden Gai.

The trouble is that nightlife districts have a life cycle. They don’t spring up and stay interesting and youthful forever. They stagnate and get superseded by other districts. That stagnation happened about ten years ago in Courtenay Place. It's now a big brewery-controlled, noisy, cigarette smoke-filled (that's right) ghetto. The trouble is that no-one has told the Council or the Hospitality Association. Courtenay Place has become a model for everything that can go wrong in a nightlife district. Do I need to make the case here? I hope not.

It’s no surprise that of the dozen or so craft beer oriented bars that Wellington likes to boast about, only one is in Courtenay Place. If you’re looking for a venue for a new bar like Goldings Free Dive or Rogue & Vagabond, the brief you give a real estate agent is “anywhere in the CBD except Courtenay Place”. As a consequence there are signs that a lively and colourful new nightlife is emerging in the area where these businesses found premises – in back alleys and previously unfashionable streets near, but not on, Cuba Street.

But the Council, who seem to think the scenes in Courtenay Place late on Fridays and Saturdays represent “vibrancy”, and the Hospitality Association, led by individuals who, I believe, own businesses in Courtenay Place, are planning a regime that will penalise anyone trying to establish a business anywhere else – businesses that might give discerning consumers an alternative to the chaos on Courtenay Place. It may not be what the Council intended, but it’s what’s called an unintended consequence. It’s what happens when you draw lines on a map and create differences between the two sides.

Of course not all the results will penalise businesses outside the strip. If you’re a Courtenay Place property owner learning that your tenants have privileges with respect to liquor licensing, you’re going to put their rent up. I look forward to hearing the Hospitality Association complaining about sky-rocketing rents in the street in about a year’s time.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

What We Stock – a Rough Guide

An awful lot of time and energy is wasted arguing over a definition of “craft brewing”. The trouble is that the term was first coined for convenience and is inherently qualitative. It was basically coined so that a portion of the market could set themselves apart because they considered themselves different from and better than the majority of swill that was on the market at the time. And it was probably fair and sensible of them at the time. Of course you can’t realistically define a segment of the market as being “good”, so there have been increasingly desperate efforts since then to come up with more rigorous definitions. And now that “faux craft” is increasingly serious business the whole debate is doomed to becoming more and more fractious.

In fact, for a laugh and to make a desperate attempt at getting the final say on this debate, here’s another definition of a craft brewer:

a craft brewer is a brewer who stays out of debates on what a craft brewer is.

But it’s time to change the debate. Rather than flail around trying to retrospectively apply a definition to a term that’s already subject to widespread misuse, it’s time for people who care to state for the record what it is they care about. So here, for the record Hashigo Zake submits a definition of the criteria we use to guide (but not necessarily dictate) our product choices.

  1. Fair Competition: Hashigo Zake stocks beer from breweries who compete on price and quality and do not offer incentives to outlets to stock their products and/or exclude others.
  2. Brewing-centric: Hashigo Zake stocks beer from breweries who, from inception, have one or more individual brewers intimately and intrinsically involved in planning and building the business.
  3. Independence: Hashigo Zake stocks beer from breweries who are not owned by parent companies that are corporate brewers with a market capitalisation greater than $1 billion.
  4. Honesty: Hashigo Zake stocks beer from breweries who do not intentionally mislead consumers about their own history or products. Their product information is compatible with internationally recognised definitions of beer styles. They don’t consistently call a beer one style then enter it into competitions as a quite different style. They don’t mislead consumers about where and by whom their beer is brewed. They don’t trademark terms that they didn’t invent.
  5. Respectful: Hashigo Zake stocks beer from breweries who do not market their product by insulting, denigrating or exploiting a section of society.
  6. Quality: Hashigo Zake stocks beer that we think is good.

If anyone thinks that some aspect of these criteria is misguided - that’s nice, we look forward to seeing you demonstrate your superior grasp of what’s important in your own business venture.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Spectapular Time

The second Great Australasian Beer Spectapular took place over the weekend (May 24-26, 2013). Some crucial things were the same as last year:
  • Venue – surely the world’s greatest beer hall. (The Royal Exhibition Hall) What foresight from the residents of 19th century Melbourne.
  • The concept – original, festival beers from an enormous number of Australasian breweries.
  • Paddles with five 85ml serves in plastic cups.
Some crucial differences:
  • Queues – taking the pragmatic step of only offering a subset (around 15) of all the beers on offer at any single bar made all the difference. A little patience was needed during the Saturday afternoon session, but nothing for anyone to get worked up about.
  • 50% more festival beers. Up from 59 to 89, a sprinkling of them from outside Australasia.
  • Caterers were inside at booths instead of being outside in their caravans.
  • There was no VIP lounge.
  • Brewery stands where a brewery could serve the rest of their "non-festival" range. 
So what about the beers? It was possible to try them all. In fact a story flew around that a group had managed it in just one session. Apparently they had a paid servant.

As I worked my way through in numerical order (which was effectively alphabetical order by brewery name) being pulled from one radical style to another, completely different style, a particular impression emerged. Now it’s important to allow for the fact that this was a festival of previously unreleased beers, which is an invitation to brewers to be adventurous (with the constraint that they might be left trying to sell the rest of whatever size of batch they made for GABS). So pretty much every beer contained one or more characteristics that were intended to set them apart from their brewery’s normal range, and ideally from everyone else’s range too. But just how experimental a brewery was prepared to get varied a lot.

Now by the time I had got through the 16 beers from the first bar, I’d had:
  • an American Black Pale Ale
  • an Imperial Black IPA
  • a Dark Imperial IPA
  • a Black 19th Century IPA
  • an English IPA
  • a Barrel Aged Amber Ale
by the end of the third bar I’d also had:
  • a Barrel Aged Belgian Black IPA
  • a Barrel Aged Black Ale
  • an Imperial Black IPA Aged on Rum Oak
  • a Black Rye Witbier
  • a Spiced Imperial Chocolate Stout
  • a Belgian IPA
  • a Shiraz Barrel Aged Farmhouse Ale
  • a Black IPA
see a pattern? It was as if the (magnificent) Beer Review Generator had spun off the Beer Style Generator, where some very standard form of beer, such as a pale ale, was modified in one or more ways by the prefixing of a colour, a method of fermentation or a method of ageing. Or failing that was “imperialised”. And barrel ageing, which I think is very much in the “less is more” category, seems to have become the go-to method of recycling a recipe, or perhaps just a pre-existing beer. Oh, and black wasn’t the only colour – there was a white stout. Not to mention a certain brewery’s Belgian Blonde that came out a lurid red thanks to the use of beetroot. Now this is more an observation than a criticism. I just found it odd that hop-forward pale ales at or below 6%, without any major points of difference, were a novelty. And what ones there were came as a relief.

But this is a festival and 89 brewers were trying to do something original that was different from every other brewer’s original idea, without knowing in advance what everyone else's idea would be. It’s not strange that they clustered around a few related concepts. So congratulations to those who succeeded in doing something that left them right out on their own. In that category were:
  • Birra Del Borgo’s Myrtle’s Bunga Bunga Party. A lemon myrtle infused British/Belgian pale ale that shone in the 85ml format, but by the end of a full glass might have outstayed its welcome. And what a great name.
  • Bacchus’ White Chocolate Raspberry Pils. I gave it a low score but the flavour matched the description and it won the People’s Choice.
  • Brewcult’s Acid Freak – Balsamic Baltic Porter. Rather than mess around souring their beer these guys simply added balsamic vinegar. Kind of worked.
  • Young Henry’s Divine Manchu. They called it a “kombucha beer” – low alcohol, sweet/sour beer made with tea and fermented with a SCOBY – symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. I couldn’t finish 85mls of it but it had its defenders. Probably great for the colon though.
  • True South’s Killer Python Kölsch – a Kölsch with Killer Pythons (the chewy sweets) added. Surprisingly pleasant but don’t ask me why I approved of this but not the White Chocolate Raspberry Pils.

Finally, aside from the grumbles about what constituted originality, there were some truly great beers. Arguably quality won the day, regardless of originality, but this list probably just reflects my own biases as much as anything else:
  • 8 Wired Merge Like a Zip – Imperial Black IPA
  • Blue Sky Golden Ale
  • Feral Barrique o Karma
  • Garage Project Death From Above
  • Liberty C!tra Junior
  • Sierra Nevada Return of the Red Eye IPA
  • Summer Wine Brewery Warthog American Porter
  • ParrotDog BloodyDingo Imperial Red IPA

Monday, April 22, 2013

Offensive Beer Names

I thought it might be illuminating to look through the names of the beers we've had on tap at Hashigo Zake and check whether anyone might be offended by them. This could be an invaluable resource the next time the Dominion Post are looking for a story. By the time I got to the Es I was exhausted.

But to be fair to the Dominion Post, Garage Project do appear in this list an alarming number of times, and this is without getting as far as Golden Brown and Pernicious Weed.

Beer
Brewery
Possibly offended group
AK4.7
Founders
victims of gun violence
Avarice IIPA
666
saints
Bastard Rye
Garage Project
children of rye farmers
Beach Bum
Twisted Hop
beach goers
Beastwars IPA
Hallertau
victims of beast attacks
Black Arrow Pils
Townshend
victims of terrorism
Black Dwarf
8 Wired
black people of small stature
Black Magic IPA
Golden Bear
victims of voodoo
Black Ops IPA
Coronado
victims of counter-terrorism
Black Power
Moa
victims of gangs
Black the RIPA
Renaissance
Victorian era prostitutes
Blackbeard Porter
Golden Bear
victims of piracy
BlitzGreig IPA
Townshend
victims of the Blitz
Bumaye Imperial Stout
8 Wired
George Foreman
Bye Bye Blanket Man
Tuatara
Blanket Man
California Uber Alles
Garage Project
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Cherry Bomb
Garage Project
victims of chemical weapons
Clusterfunk
Funk Estate
prudes
Czar Imperial Stout
Wigram
Bolsheviks
Dasher’s Envy
Moon Dog
Prancer
Day of the Dead
Garage Project
the undead
Dead Good Pilsner
Free House
the living
DeadCanary
ParrotDog
victims of mining disasters
Defibrillator Weizenbock
Doctor’s Orders
victims of heart disease
Dirty Blonde
Cock and Bull
blondes
Emerson's last of the Mohicans
Emerson’s
native Americans
Epic Armageddon
Epic
survivalists
Expat Pom Porter
Twisted Hop
poms

Lift Your Game, Dominion Post


There’s nothing like seeing someone or something that you know turned into media cannon-fodder, to realise just how seedy journalism can get.

Garage Project’s Death From Above is not for sale anywhere yet and won’t be for a month. And it’s not being advertised anywhere, unless you count the brewery showing the artwork to its subscribers on social media.

That branding and artwork was actually the result of a forced change, after the beer’s intended name turned out to conflict with an existing brand. The intention all along was to make reference to the 34 year old movie Apocalypse Now. The beer in question has some ingredients with Vietnamese connections as well as being packed with American hops. It will no doubt be quite a mouthful. So in craft beer land an allusion to Robert Duvall’s Ride of the Valkyries-playing airborne cavalry is really, really apt.

Now to put things in perspective, Apocalypse Now has for years been the name of more than one bar in Vietnam. (Even more amusingly, Phnom Penh has a bar called “Heart of Darkness”.) The Apocalypse Now in Saigon has a surfboard on display with the slogan “Charlie Don’t Surf”.

But today must have been a slow news day, because someone at the Dominion Post saw fit to make calls to the RSA, a couple of Vietnam-born New Zealanders and a university academic to try and stir up some offence from people who would almost certainly not have heard of Death From Above if the reporter hasn’t called.

I don’t know much about the use of napalm, but it sounds as though it was a complete blunder to associate the airborne cavalry with the dropping of napalm, as the Dominion Post story did. But I guess if you only know Apocalypse Now from sound-bites, it is Duvall’s character who professes affection for the aroma of napalm.

Now as if the actions of Dominion Post, Stuff and Fairfax weren't sleazy enough, try going on Stuff and making a criticism of them for running this nonsense story. Will it get past their moderators? No. Make a really silly, reactionary comment wishing ill-fortune on Jos and Pete and, sure, they’ll publish.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Lies, Damned Lies etc


Statistics NZ yesterday released statistics showing that the volume of beer available for consumption had fallen dramatically in 2012. This has stirred the interest of Radio New Zealand in particular.

I had a closer look at some of the information given out by my one time employer. The most obvious detail was that the story was different when the market was segmented a little. In other words Stats give out numbers for four sub-categories based on alcohol strength. So there was a 22% fall for beer under 2.5%, falls of around 8% for the two bands between 2.5 and 5%. Then for beer over 5% ABV the volume of beer available rose 62%. That’s right 62%.

Now this has quickly been interpreted at (a) evidence that the popularity of beer is falling and (b) that the rise in stronger beer reflects greater popularity for the category of beer sometimes referred to as “craft”. And the spokesperson for the big breweries has been quick to blame the weather in 2012 for that apparent fall in popularity, even though it’s consistent with a long term trend.

Before any further discussion, it’s important to point out a few details about the process and the results.
  • The statistics are based on declarations made to NZ Customs. So they only reflect supply, not consumption and they exclude any alcohol that isn’t declared to Customs, such as homebrew. These discrepancies are probably insignificant if we assume that supply reflects demand and that home brewing is still a specialist activity.
  • That category of beer with alcohol greater than 5% apparently went from 8.956 million litres in 2011 to 14.468 million litres in 2012 – a 62% increase. But between 2005 and 2009 it fell from 24.510 million litres to 6.967 million litres. I was actually outside New Zealand during these years, but can't take credit for this scale of fall. So something is very fishy with this series. If anyone can explain this please post a comment. (There is a comment in the 2006 results saying “As the Beer Production Survey, which provided data on the volume of beer produced in New Zealand, was discontinued after the September 2006 quarter, information on volumes of beer by packaging type (bottled, canned, bulk) is no longer available.” But in theory this comment is irrelevant to this question of volume of beer over 5%.)
  • Another aspect of the survey is the calculation of what proportion of alcohol consumption comes from different beverage types. To do this they calculate how much actual alcohol has been present in the beer, wine and spirit volumes already tallied. In the case of beer, they multiply the volume of beer in each category by an alcohol percentage. For beer between 4.35% and 5% they multiply the volume by 0.04675, which makes reasonable sense. For beer greater than 5% they multiply the volume by 0.051. Huh? They treat all beer between 5% and 50% alcohol as being 5.1%. It’s only a small anomaly, since the volume of beer greater than 5% ABV is small (but probably growing), but it means that beer’s calculated share of alcohol consumption is under-stated, exaggerating the impression that beer is steadily losing popularity. The pity of this is that the method used is probably unnecessary. These statistics are based on Customs Certificates, which include the volume of beer and the volume of alcohol. (At least the ones Hashigo Zake submits do.)

Anyway, having looked for a few holes in these statistics I’d like to join everyone else in making a sweeping generalisation about the results:

DB and Lion’s sales are in free fall. (Punches air.)

Now we know that New Zealand’s major urban centres are becoming strongholds of brewpubs (Auckland), craft beer bars (Wellington) and breweries (Christchurch and increasingly Wellington). Meanwhile bars that are contractually tied to the big breweries are (anecdotally) counting the days until their contracts run out.
We know that Lion made Emerson’s owners an offer they couldn’t refuse and if the rumours are true DB, Lion and (In)dependent Breweries are racking up air miles looking for more small breweries to buy. And the big breweries are desperately building “faux craft” brands.

But this survey suggests that there will be fresh crisis meetings going on in boardrooms in Auckland. And the measures of the last six months will just be the tip of the iceberg. We can reasonably expect more of the usual:
  • more pressure on bars to stick to the letter of their exclusive supply contracts.
  • bigger incentives for bars to sign new exclusive supply contracts.
  • more use of volume targets with incentives and penalties in exclusive supply contracts.
  • more purchases of leading independent breweries.
  • more faux craft brands.

But what else will they resort to? More alcopop-like beers? More desperate marketing? Dirty tricks? Ultimately I wonder as well if DB’s and Lion’s owners will question the value of their investments and look to off-load them.

I can see one piece of good news for the big breweries. The new licensing laws are expected to impose big costs on bars and (in theory) a greater risk of being denied a liquor licence. I can see fear of the consequences of the new legislation driving more defensive hospitality operators back into the arms of the big breweries.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Truth About Faux Craft

Right now “faux craft” is news. Beers fitting that loose definition have been around for a while but seem to have become more apparent as the big brewers respond to the perceived threat of true craft beer. In New Zealand faux craft has been commented on recently in both Fairfax media and the New Zealand Herald. In the US the Brewers Association have gone on the offensive, starting a campaign to expose and shame the practice with some success.

Craft Beer College’s Steph Coutts recently proposed a formal tasting of a range of New Zealand’s “faux craft” beer and this resulted in an event on Saturday January 5th at Hashigo Zake. Invitations went out to some of CBC and Hashigo Zake’s regular associates and a group of 20 enthusiasts, brewers and beer writers sacrificed the pleasures of a sunny Wellington Saturday afternoon to sit together in an underground bar.

Steph and partner Jonny Day acquired stocks from four broad categories of twelve beers that they considered were faux craft. These were served blind (i.e. without being identified), one category at a time. In each of those four categories a fourth beer was added that was undeniably “craft” to act as a kind of benchmark and perhaps to ensure that we tasters took our samples seriously, since one in each flight was almost certainly a beer we respected.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that in general we expected a few preconceptions about the quality of these beers to be confirmed. In other words, we were braced for a fair amount of mediocrity. But we were all also open to the prospect that one or more of these offerings would give us a nice surprise and stand up well alongside one of the elite craft beers – maybe even show it up.

The first round was wheat beers. Samples of “A”, “B”, “C” and “D” were left in our glasses and we set about determining what was good, bad or indifferent and tried to match them to certain named beers. For me (C) stood out as an authentic and flavourful if imperfect German-style weissbier. Another (A) had many of the same characteristics but a lot less flavour and was a bit of a disappointment. (B) had a massive apricot aroma that identified it immediately but then failed to match its aroma with flavour and ended up somewhat insipid. Finally there was (D) which showed none of the aromas and flavours that I would expect a traditional German or Belgian style wheat beer to incorporate as a result of their distinctive yeasts. It was dreadfully bland. (C) comfortably won a show of hands for favourite and was revealed to be Tuatara Hefeweizen. (A) turned out to be Crafty Beggars Wheat As, (B) was Monteiths Apricot Wheat and (D) was Boundary Road Wheat Reaper.

We moved on to pilsners. (A) and (B) struck me as quite reasonable New Zealand Pilsners with plenty of hop aroma and bitterness on show. I speculated that a slight sweet note in (A) might have betrayed a little oxidation. Others judged it more harshly. (C) stood out for lacking the fresh hop characters we all expected from a New Zealand pilsner and tasted more like a plain old golden lager. Finally (D) blew away everything that came before it with fresh, vibrant hop aromas and flavours and a complete absence of flaws. It won the voting by a landslide and was revealed to be Croucher Pilsner. (A) was Boundary Road The Resident Pilsner, (B) was Speights Triple Hop Pilsner and (C) was Crafty Beggars Good as Gold.

On to pale ales and the craft wannabes were given something of a handicap by being put up against Epic Pale Ale. The Epic was immediately recognised by everyone. But I think that even if the craft representative had been something less distinctive the three faux craft pale ales would still have suffered from the same contemptuous judgement. All three really were awful, but in their own ways. Craft Beggars Pale And Interesting was hopelessly bland. Hancocks Grand Pale Ale drew scathing criticism for being faulty (diacetyl) and generally unpleasant. And Monteiths Pacific Pale Ale, whose commercial description made it sound like a hop-bomb, started with a raw, grainy aroma and barely improved from there.

Finally we had a round of “other” beers - a couple of darks and a couple of amber or brown beers. All were easily identified so the blindness of the tasting was somewhat compromised. The “control” beer was Emerson’s Porter, and as expected it was true to style and full of flavour. Boundary Road The Resident Red Rye was for me the best of all the faux craft beers – rich and flavourful thanks to the rye, balanced and bitter. Hancocks Brown Ale drew plenty of criticism and was considered faulty by some. For me its main problem was just a lack of flavour. Finally Monteith’s Barrel Aged Porter got plenty of positive reviews although I thought it reminded me too much of Monteith’s Black to get carried away. And for all the positive comment there was a lot of speculation about how much barrel aging it really had, whether the barrel it was aged in was actually made of wood or whether the beer was left in a barrel or vice versa.

In the end the tasting’s big surprise was the lack of a surprise. Respected craft beers stood out and many of the others were exposed as bland or faulty. Boundary Road’s The Resident beers did quite well, but the awfulness of their Wheat Reaper suggested that without their imported guest brewer (Spike Bukowksi) their capabilities are limited.

Many of us assume that with the resources at their disposal the only thing the big breweries need to make beer as well as genuine craft brewers is the will. This tasting suggested otherwise.