Hops Spring Eternal

I go on a month’s holiday back to Blighty and watch sheer madness unfold, as Red Santa Corbyn unleashes holy hell on the Labour leadership contest, and unfancied England give Steve Smith’s Australians an object lesson in the perils of hubris. It was quite reassuring to get back to the sleepy calm of Nu Zild in August, and what better way to dispel the chilly temperatures than a long-overdue maiden visit to Beervana. The curtain raiser for the foodie fortnight of Wellington On A Plate has long been on my bucket list. So when the Lady of the Manor wondered idly whether I wanted to go, I wanted to go.

Refreshingly, it was better than expected. As a proud Bradford lad, I had always been led to believe that the price one pays for the ‘real ale’ experience was sharing a dilapidated pub with pot-bellied middle-aged men sporting WG Grace beards and Batman T-shirts. This was high tea at the Langham in comparison. Hipsters, public servants and the occasional stag do mingled cheerfully, insulated from the great unwashed by the steep $45 entry fee. The food was impressive: the shuttered and darkened generic stadium outlets looked forlorn behind the gaudy stalls offering gourmet dumplings, fish tacos and ‘contemporary street food’. There is clearly a lesson here for Westpac Stadium: why must benighted Phoenix and Hurricanes fans queue morosely for rancid hot dogs and warm Tui on gameday?

You don't need alcohol to have a good time, but it sure helps.
You don’t need alcohol to have a good time, but occasionally it helps.

Beers were grouped under ‘Gateway’, Artisan or Cult. Embracing the vibe, I decided that it was Cult or die. The hits: chocolate cake and sherry stout; black doris plum cider; sour cherry and choc top pilsner. The miss: the Islay malt flavoured Scotch ale – truly, the dark side of disgusting. I couldn’t locate the fabled ‘stag semen’ bitter. One unexpected gripe was the smell. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that having 1000 people indoors quaffing ales and guzzling fried food was a recipe for extreme flatulence, but the concentrated effect was quite off-putting at times. One unintended consequence of the ban on smoking in pubs is that tobacco smoke hid a multitude of grosser odours.

Of course, there was something for the unadventurous, and my revulsion at seeing punters opting for Mac’s Gold led to an outburst on Facebook, until a friend pointed out to me that back in the day, Mac’s had been a trailblazer for small-scale ‘craft’ beer in a market dominated by DB and Lion mediocrity. Then they sold out. Literally and figuratively.

And that’s the elephant in the room for Aotearoa’s independent craft beer revolutionistas. While it was heartening to read and taste the stories of the quintessential Kiwi backyard brewing pioneers, fusing hobby and business from the garden shed or bach caravan, the financial realities are sobering indeed. Craft beer is not that lucrative. And while craft beer sales still account for a rather measly 10% of all beer sales (and some of those are produced by the big beasts), if that were to rise, the temptation for small producers to cash in to attractive offers from conglomerates looking to crush declining marketshare at birth, might be too much to bear. I have to say, leaving aside the wackier offerings, the variety among the rest was not as great as the aficionados claim. And if the NZ wine industry can start heading towards rationalisation, the question has to be raised whether beer also can remain truly independent.

We have managed it with coffee, although many more New Zealanders still drink instant than drink proper coffee, shockingly. But the lucrative potential of booze is altogether greater. Still, in the meantime, I’ll stop playing Jeremiah, and raise a toast to craft beer. Cheers!