It’s been enlightening visiting my home town the last few days. Growing up, we always had a brewery which a very small number of locals supported and generally had rubbish beers. That brewery has changed over the last few years into West Coast Brewing. Fortunately enough I was able to sit down with the brewer Dave Kurth, and Fritz and Marie; two beer writers who happened to be passing through (http://beer.brewzone.com/) to sample the brews. I had a great afternoon. but it got me thinking about attitudes towards beer and breweries on both a local and global scale.
As most craft beer drinkers know, converting regular punters from well marketed macro lagers is, as my dad would say, like pushing shit up hill. The marketing for big beer is far too slick for brewers and beer geeks to contend with. One thing I have found fascinating is the stigma that West Coast Brewing seems to carry in this town is the embodiment of that attitude. I don’t want to talk about their history or the ‘small town politics’ that surrounds this brewery, but I will say, they have produced some questionable beers over the years. I wouldn’t have considered dropping in until I learned that Kurth, formally from Burleigh Brewing in Australia, had taken the reigns and was producing some very high quality brew. Also on a recent episode of NZ Craft Beer TV, Luke and Kelly raved about them, which is enough of a recommendation for anyone. You can see that here: http://nzcraftbeer.tv/episode-6-westport/
When I arrived home to my parents house, I phoned a good friend of mine and mentioned I was going to visit the brewery because I heard they had some great beers. He said (to paraphrase) “really? They aren’t any good are they?”. I suggested they are putting out some good beers lately and he mentioned he tried the lager recently and went straight to drinking red wine “so that tells you how good it is”. I suspected it didn’t really tell me how good it was… and I can tell you that he is definitely wrong. The West Coast Lager is a quality lager. Nice malt backbone and a slight lovely citrus finish. It’s spot on for a summer lager. Like all of the West Coast beers, the words clean and balanced are the best descriptors.
Fast forward to Christmas day. The day after my visit; and I was armed with 3 riggers (2 litre plastic bottles filled at the brewery for roughly $9.50 each). One lager, one pale ale and one American amber. I poured my uncle a pale. Probably not the best beer to ease most people in if they aren’t used to big hops. This beer is loaded with great kiwi hops. You can smell them as it’s poured and taste them, big fresh and bitter, in the glass. It was pretty clear he didn’t enjoy it when he went straight back to Heineken. It could easily become one of my go-to beers and was great with some spicy sausage before Christmas lunch, but to someone unused to big hops and bitterness, I can understand how it could be a little confronting. I’m sure if I was to try Surströmming in Finland I would find it repulsive, but given a few weeks of eating it I may find it amazing. Hops in beers are the same. A lot of craft converts have been bought over by hops, but an equal amount is turned off by them. It’s difficult for me as a fan of hops to not lecture people on why this beer is good. If there is one thing I love doing, it’s talking about the tastes and smells of beer… but no one wants to hear that during Christmas lunch in the hot Kiwi sun. I can’t begrudge anyone for that. Later in the day, my uncle remarked that I was the only person he knew in Westport who liked West Coast beers. That’s completely wrong of course… many locals were coming and going from the brewery filling their riggers throughout the previous day; but it does speak to the attitude that even more locals have about the brewery. I think it comes down to the aforementioned small town politics and big beer marketing. Add a big hoppy bitter pale ale to that, and my Uncle will probably never try their beers again. That’s a real shame and something just about every small town brewery in Australia and NZ is facing.
I heard Ben Kraus of Bridge Road Brewers give a talk a while back and he commented about people reacting very negatively during tastings at his brewery. Kraus suggested that virtually no one, outside of serious critics, would dream of doing the same at a wine tasting. The more I thought about it, the more interesting that idea seemed and I think it comes back to beer traditionally being a drink for the every day person and wine for the upper classes. Most ‘big brewery’ drinkers would consider themselves serious beer drinkers and what craft beer is offering is often a long way away from what they are used to… however wine is intimidating to many people. It has a long history. Everyone knows wine is a serious drink so they don’t want to turnaround and say one is rubbish. Beer however, well that’s a free-for-all. In this case, Bridge Road beer is one of the most consistent and well made in Australia, I don’t think that is even up for debate amongst beer fans, yet people are willing to tell the brewer otherwise; to his face. I can’t imagine that ever happening to a wine maker.
Ben told how he just laughs it off and tells the customer much they’ll hate the next one. And I can’t begrudge people like my uncle for not enjoying big hoppy pales from the local brewery. A big part of it is down to decades of big brewery monopoly; convincing us endlessly that their beer is what beer is. When you get every brewery in the world endlessly beating into us that their slight variation on bland beer is the finest product on earth while tying various perceptions into the brand, then people generally don’t know otherwise. I’ve had more than one person tell me recently how tasty Corona is. You can call Corona many things, but tasty is definitely not one of them. I would agree that it might be palatable on a very hot day, after you’ve added lemon to it… but tasty it is not.
If you were to ask a beer drinker what tastes they like about their beer of choice (and generally people have one domestic beer of choice and a handful of ‘imported’ beers they like), I suspect they would struggle to name one flavour. Again, that’s not their fault, and a couple of years ago, I would have been in the exact same boat.
This comes back to the struggles a small brewery has in a small town. Drinkers are fiercely brand loyal. I worked in a bar here a few years ago and people would often come in looking for an Export Gold. We didn’t have any but could offer another lager on tap… people would either go for a completely different beer or leave the pub all together (yes this actually happens). That tells me that people aren’t there for the taste, because Export Gold has none, but rather for marketing. Export Gold really did (I don’t know if it still does) a lot of marketing and they did it well. Well enough to create a legion of brand loyal fans.
This brings me back to West Coast Brewery. Years ago when it was called ‘Miners Brewery’ they had a dark lager. That was, and apparently still is, a top seller. From memory it tasted burnt. Like charcoal. Dave has had people asking why it no longer has that charcoal taste and whether or not it will return. To paraphrase him “that wasn’t a feature, that was a flaw” – but people had become accustomed to that and had attached their loyalty to it. These days, the West Coast Dark is a real treat. Soft in the mouth, dark roasted flavours, slightly sweet and just an all around pleasure to drink. Again, amongst the locals only those already attached to the brand are ever likely to know this and everyone else will continue to miss out.
So what does this all mean for West Coast Brewery and the thousands like it around the world? It means they have to just keep on brewing their beers to the standard they are doing. People are slowly changing. Good beer bars are popping up around the land and people are sitting up to take notice. I guess it’s up to fans to keep banging on and boring everyone with stories of hops and malt and ‘big barley wines’.
Speaking of barley wines (smooth segue!), I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peak of the upcoming West Coast version. It’s a long way from being done and is currently conditioning, but oh man it was tasting great already. It had a lovely long warming alcohol aftertaste that settled in very late. Perfect for a wet windy West Coast evening. I look forward to the finished product and everything else West Coast Brewery produces in the future.
Finally, Uncle John, if you read this, sorry for using you as a case study… I owe you a beer sometime and hopefully you’ll enjoy that one a bit more.