Twitterstorm Postscript

Very quickly... we're told that the somewhat controversial post that I put out earlier in the week has had unintended consequences in the form of (and I quote because I'm going by hints in tweets) "hassling", "harassing", "threats of violence", "putting them on a hit list". Oh and, incredibly, some kind of phone harassment.

Reactions like this are unequivocally rejected as legitimate support for the point I was trying to make. In fact they're the antithesis of the point I was trying to make and it beggars belief that this statement is even necessary. The whole post was a request (in vain) for an explanation. Not retribution.

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Calling Out: Giovanni Tiso

Dear Giovanni Tiso,

I don’t believe we’ve met and if we did I remember nothing about it (sorry). But you’ve seen fit on at least two occasions to insult me, my staff, my fellow investors and our customers at Hashigo Zake on twitter. On both occasions it was a day or so before I realised which is just as well because I have been known to react impulsively to slurs like these. Instead a couple of people bothered to defend me and my business and I’m grateful to them.

But it’s becoming a pattern and I’m not blessed with the kind of tolerance and patience that it takes to ignore insults like these, so I thought it’s time I said something.

Now I know next to nothing about you, except what you’ve chosen to say about me and my staff and customers. So that’s all that this piece is about – your words about us.

So here we go. Back in December 2012 there was a conversation on twitter that went like this:


The conversation continued…

So… the gist of your complaint seems to be that my co-owners, staff and customers are pretentious gits who promote some kind of conformity while pretentiously pretending to be something else and harbouring people known as “hipsters”.

Now I generally need help with the hipster thing. I was out of New Zealand for a few years between 2005 and 2008, and it seemed that in my absence a new insult was invented. In the years since I haven’t been given or been able to deduce a definition. So Giovanni, why don’t you humour me and propose a robust definition of hipster? Because for now all I can tell is that it’s a word that says more about the lack of imagination and intellectual rigour of its user than its target.

And the conforming (or “confirming”?) thing. Hmm… maybe it’s time I told you a story about the origins of Hashigo Zake. 

You see I’m a big fan of beer - particularly (but not exclusively) interesting and imaginative interpretations of the beverage. Over a long period I became incredibly frustrated and disillusioned with bars in New Zealand that denied their consumers the chance to drink those versions of the beverage because the big breweries had a stranglehold on market access. To put it simply – they have, for decades, been paying incentives to the outlets NOT to serve the products of alternative suppliers. As well as being frustrated as a consumer I consider that a disgraceful and unethical business practice.

So the original and driving motivation for setting up Hashigo Zake was to create an outlet where alternatives to the products of those big bullying breweries could be served. And with some like-minded people we got started. Now my investors and I came from outside the hospitality industry. So we also felt motivated to question a lot of the practices of the hospitality industry that annoyed us. Practices such as spending large amounts on a gimmicky fit-out; drowning out the conversation of customers with thumping music; not being forthcoming with information such as drinks prices and glass sizes; recruiting staff with little product knowledge and paying them the minimum wage. We turned these frustrations into components of the total offering that was Hashigo Zake. We set up in a location that many critics thought was a graveyard. And I gave up a lucrative career to start a business that even our supporters thought was doomed.

So now… please explain… in what way are we guilty of conformity?

Your next accusation was snobbery:

So here we go… you don’t like our certificate. The “Certificate of Heineken-Free Status” that I whipped up in an hour or so one afternoon and put in a $2 frame by our door. Maybe I’m guilty of pride here but I am delighted with what our satirical certificate says. To us Heineken embodies everything that’s wrong with industrial brewing. It’s an unremarkable product whose manufacturer uses expensive marketing and sheer market power to coax apathetic consumers into buying. We want to send a signal to potential customers (and that product’s maker) that we have contempt for, in particular, their methods, and to some extent, their product.

If you don’t find it funny, good for you. I’m not a professional comedian. If you think it makes me/us snobs, that’s a big call, but for now let’s just put that down as name-calling and move on.

So what else did you have to say…




Now we’re getting a little firmer. You wanted to accuse us of charging $22 a drink. So can you clarify one thing here… did you really think we charge $22 a drink or was this hyperbole? Because, you know… one or two of the drinks on our long, long list will cost that much. Several percent of them. So maybe you meant this literally, in which case you’re just being selective to the point of being wilfully misleading. Or were you being hyperbolic? Because if you were, kindly put a zero on the end. There are impressionable people out there who could think this inane comment was somehow vaguely near reality.

But let’s talk about prices, value and what have you because it seems to be a recurring theme. Just yesterday you came up with this:

So here we go then – you think we’re expensive. You think our business model is to cash in on idiots who just want to buy the most expensive beer. Based on what exactly? Now of course I am going to deny this. 

Because it’s bullshit.

But there’s more going on here. We serve products that we like and that we think deserve to be offered to willing customers. And who’d have thought – those products cost more. And yes, having paid more for our raw goods we are failing to re-sell them at prices equal to those of more cheaply sourced goods. Step forward, Giovanni, and accept your Ig Nobel prize for Economics.

But here’s what really upsets me as a business person trying to make a living selling goods that are inherently more expensive than other similar (but arguably inferior) goods in the market. In order to remain competitive with the purveyors of those (arguably) inferior goods, we have to accept lower margins than other businesses do. I guess you don’t bother to look into the wholesale prices of the goods we sell before making your sweeping assertions. If we priced the beer we serve in accordance with the way a typical CBD bar does, then maybe your $22 quip might actually count for something.

So let me spell it out for you – a 200% markup on drinks is standard for an inner city bar in New Zealand. We mark ours up less. Often much less. Oh and we serve them in glasses that are larger than just about every other bar, but I guess you didn’t get that far with your research.

So Giovanni, how about you come clean? What is your problem? Do you just like calling people names? Do you have a problem with beer? Or the category of beer sometimes known as craft? Or do you just have a colossal inverted snobbery complex? Or is it something trivial like the name of our business or our décor (assuming you’ve ever set foot at Hashigo Zake)?

In the meantime, how about you stay away from the baseless, snide, cheap, derogatory chipping away at something that you just don’t happen to be into?

Dominic Kelly
Co-Owner
Hashigo Zake


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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