Beer, Glorious Beer

Beer, Glorious Beer

As someone who’s all too familiar with the epic nights of a student and spent the prior night sinking piss at a work function, going Gonzo for a feature on beer didn’t seem like a great concept, but my trepidation was brief. I had forgotten that real beer need not be associated with slabs of SoGos and tacky voms. You see, speed wobbles and an incurable hangover simply aren’t the point. A new approach to beer and its consumption is needed, particularly in Dunedin; a new approach that goes beyond just getting pissed. Besides, I was in Wellington, which is making a name for itself as the craft beer capital of New Zealand. So I and a small group of enthusiasts set out to sample the syrup which has become the envy of Aotearoa’s beer-drinking many.

A Brief History Lesson

Our first and, as it turned out, only port of call was an establishment called Hashigo Zake. Japanese for “Pub Crawl”, or literally “Liquor Ladder”, their beer selection is exceptionally diverse. And with the slogan “no crap on tap”, you’ve got to trust them. The place is hidden underground, with the entrance down a small alleyway. Yet despite the dungeon-like location, Hashigo Zake is incredibly welcoming, and tracking down the proprietor Dominic Kelly for a yarn about craft beer and its history is an easy task.

Said to be as old as civilisation itself, beer most likely emerged simultaneously and accidentally in several ancient cultures due to the fermentation of bread. Critic can only assume this was discovered when a 5-year-old Egyptian kid became intoxicated while eating his packed lunch. Humanity understandably pounced upon this gem and developed it into the nectar what we love today. More important in the saga, however, is the recent development of craft beers.

Dominic says the “craft” label emerged in the 1980s, when “brewing in most countries had degenerated to a state where almost every brewing company that had ever existed had been consolidated into a tiny number — just two in New Zealand.” The remaining companies saved money by eliminating stylistic diversity from their product ranges. Products were distinguished by their branding, rather than by the beers’ merits. “Capitalism at its worst,” as Dominic puts it.

This trend was most apparent in New Zealand and the US. Even Australia had Coopers, a big brewery that was family-owned and had interesting, distinctive products. And although traditional brewing countries like the UK, Belgium, and Germany had a lot of consolidation and corporate giants, plenty of traditional breweries survived.

Craft brewing emerged in the US as a reaction to this “disastrous trend”. Dominic says a similar movement came about here to combat the exclusion of small breweries from bars by DB and Lion Nathan. Despite the movement not reaching the same momentum here as in the US, Dominic believes that “we’re in the middle of dramatic improvement in the craft beers being brewed here. If only the hospitality industry played its part.”

The Right Prescription

Hashigo Zake has helped breathe new life into New Zealand’s stagnant beer industry. Dominic had the idea of starting an authentic craft beer bar for a long time, but only began planning Hashigo Zake when he decided he didn’t want to keep working in IT. “At the time I was working for an investment bank in Tokyo, and I borrowed a lot of ideas from bars there such as Popeye (Tokyo’s most famous beer bar). Before leaving I managed to make many of the contacts that have let us start importing some amazing beer that wasn’t available in New Zealand before. I also heard the expression Hashigo Zake used there when I was on a pub crawl. I left Tokyo in 2009, came back to Wellington, and started looking for a location. I found a cocktail bar on the market in a location that met almost all our requirements, and we opened in time for Beervana 2009.”

Where Is The Love?

As our group enjoyed our third pint, an 8-Wired IPA, I suddenly realised that although I personally love beer, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. And what better tool to deal with questions of love and humanity than science? So we invited Dominic back for another round. Beer drinkers really are knowledgeable sorts...

Dominic reckons that beer is appealing on many levels. “A typical, well-made ale will first offer a variety of enjoyable aromas from hops, which themselves come in hundreds of varieties. Esters created during fermentation may then offer sweet, fruity or vegetal early flavours, will have pleasing carbonation, will progress through a variety of flavours imparted by hops, malt and yeast, before finishing with a satisfying bitterness that terminates any sweetness left from the sugars that might still be present.”

Enough science? Well, the easiest part to understand is that “after working your way through a glass, there is the bonus of a nice buzz,” says Dominic.

Different experiences will be generated by each of beer’s diverse styles. Beer’s moderate levels of alcohol and carbonation also make it refreshing in a way that soft drinks, with their cloying sweetness, can never be. Plus, bitterness can be bracing and a little energising, “especially as an after work tonic.”

What’s more, the strongest type of craft beers, “sipping beers” like Barley Wine and Imperial Stout, “can be every bit as satisfying to a jaded palate as brandy or whisky,” says Dom.

The Holy Grail –
Choose Your Vessel Wisely

One of the world’s current great debates is regarding the future of the humble pint glass. I find little more satisfying than cradling a pint at the pub, yet technically it’s not a great drinking vessel. “They’re certainly poor at concentrating aromas,” Dominic says. “And at 568 mls, an imperial pint is far too large for serving a strong beer in. At 474 mls, a US pint is a little more realistic. But there is something comforting about wrapping your hand around a sturdy pint glass, especially the US style that is made with thicker glass.” In general, if you want to thoroughly deconstruct what you’re tasting, a curved glass with space above the beer is going to help. In fact, a true enthusiast should have a different glass for almost every beer they enjoy, and the only faux pas worse than drinking from the bottle is the metallic taste of aluminium can.

Yeah Right!

For too long, the likes of Speights and Tui have permitted men a certain form of institutionalised sexism. Advertisements which objectify and commodify women are par for the course. Hyper-sexualised barmaids (never barmen, of course) bend over for the coldest beer at the back of the fridge, submitting to the archetypal hard-working, rugby-playing New Zealand bloke. Dominic rightly goes so far as to say that this branding actively discourages women from drinking the product. It’s a myth that beer is a man’s drink, but decades of sexist advertising has succeeded in telling women not to drink it. As Dominic says, “the fact that people agonise over this issue is proof that we’ve got a long, long way to go to undo the damage caused by the warped marketing of the big breweries.”

One beauty of craft beer is that it “doesn’t really have a stereotypical drinker.” Although Dominic doesn’t survey his customers, he knows that Hashigo Zake doesn’t get the kind of homogenised clientele that a bar might get when they define themselves with a gimmicky theme. “We may well have a more diverse clientele than any other bar in Wellington.”

Feeling the Buzz

This craft beer circuit can certainly have its effect on you that goes beyond the usual dizziness. After a week of visiting Hashigo Zake every evening, my wallet was decidedly thinner due to the $12 price tag on a pint. I also joined the Society Of Beer Advocates (SOBA), which gets you discounts at top quality establishments such as Hashigo Zake, organises events, and even has online forums where beer snobs can vent their fury at anything distasteful.

But would I rather have one really great brew or a
slab of crap? The choice is obvious. The craft beer habit is incredibly contagious.

This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2012.
Posted 5:14pm Sunday 15th July 2012 by Zane Pocock.