Service is Everything
Wednesday, 18 February 2009 10:57

The revelation that I love trying new beers probably ranks between “the Hurricanes are inconsistent” and “Paul Holmes loves to offer unsolicited advice” on the Surprise Scale.   If I see something new, the chances are that I will try it even if my beer senses are screaming that they have a bad feeling about the whole idea.

My beer senses are often right.  A number of New Zealand bars offer what they euphemistically call a ‘house beer’ - a beer which bears the pub’s name but is almost always just a generic lager from one of the big brewery.  It is cheaper and, I suppose, gives the illusion of drinking locally.

Not far from the ornate gates of the Malthouse is the Cambridge Hotel and they used to serve Cambridge Draught.  Naturally, I asked the bartender what the beer actually was.  He claimed they had a little brewery in the basement which made the beer especially and exclusively for them.  I asked if I could see the brewery.  His answer was “… no.”  There is more likelihood of finding George W Bush in a library than a hidden brewery under a historic hotel.

It is instructive to compare and contrast that exchange with pretty much the same conversation at the Pukemanu Tavern in Martinborough.  Now, it is not the flashiest place in Martinborough.  Truth be told, it wouldn’t even be the flashiest place in Ava but it has a certain old-school charm.  One travel website diplomatically calls the décor “somewhat spacious” which must be some sort of travel code for “last updated in the 1970s.”  Perhaps that travel writer could be press secretary for Winston Peters… if he still needed one.  Too soon?

The Pukemanu Tavern is the only place in the nation to have Pukemanu Draught on tap.  I was confident that this small town bar would not claim to have its own fermentation vessels hidden behind the (somewhat spacious) car park.  When asked what Pukemanu Draught was, the barman looked around conspiratorially and said “it’s actually Canterbury Draught but 50 cents a jug cheaper!” 

I much preferred his light-hearted approach to the unnecessary pretension and evasion surrounding the Cambridge house beer.  It may not have improved the beer but it certainly was better service.  For the record, neither of these beers is or ever will be available at the Malthouse. 

The art of serving beer may appear simple but there are many ways it can be messed up.  In San Diego, our server seemed completely unable to comprehend that I wanted a glass with my bottle of Ballast Point Big Eye IPA.  This is a massive, sprawling West Coast pale ale from San Diego Brewing which is over 6% and comes in a chunky 22 ounce bottle.  It is a beer which screams out for a good glass.

Drinking from the bottle deprives you of 30% of the flavour which is a felony with a beer this good.  A glass will also help you enjoy the big, juicy nose which is a highlight of the Big Eye IPA.  I asked for a glass twice but in the end I had to get up and find a plastic tumbler.  Even after all this, it was one of the best beers I tried in the States but the staff member seemed to think I should just chug it like Jake Heke.  Service can make all the difference.

The Malthouse will always offer you a glass.  If you are having a quality beer, then it is best to enjoy it properly.  Drinking a great beer out of a bottle is like driving the new Jaguar round town solely in first gear.  Everyone will be looking at you, certainly, but not for the right reasons. 

Another nice service technique is to offer drinkers small samples of tap beers so they can make up their mind before committing to a full glass.  From the customer’s perspective that is a fantastic idea.  No one wants to be stuck nursing a pint they don’t like.

The staff at the Malthouse understand beer and the people who like to drink beer.  They can steer even the most novice beer neophyte towards something with a bit of flavour and character.  One of the most frequently recommended beers, particularly to those just starting out on their beer journey, is Tuatara Pilsner (5%).  This is a big selling beer from New Zealand’s Champion Brewery of 2008, Wellington’s own Tuatara.  The brewery is seriously thinking about getting a website this year...

There has always been a strong connection between the Malthouse and Tuatara.  For many dark years, the Malthouse was one of the only places where it was possible to obtain Carl Vasta’s fine range of European style beers.  His Pilsner remains quite classical, a traditional dry, grassy, herbal nose and body but with a touch of citrus from the New Zealand hops.  It has good mid-palate depth before a firm, lingering finish.  This is the very definition of sessionable.

I often refer to it as a “training wheels” beer because mainstream drinkers can approach it without fear.  It shows that beer can have flavour without freaking people out with cardamom, cherries or a million units of bitterness.  In time, they may move or may not onto the more intense beers.  Until then, Tuatara Pilsner is always on tap to be enjoyed.

Cheers,

Neil Miller
Beer Writer
Real Beer New Zealand
Beer and Brewer Magazine

Links

Pukemanu Tavern - http://www.totaltravel.co.nz/travel/north-island/wellington/wairarapa/dining-bars/restaurants-cafes/pukemanu-tavern
Ballast Point Big Eye IPA - http://www.ballastpoint.com/beer.html
Tuatara - http://76.74.254.221/beer/tuatara-pilsner/14324/ 
Real Beer – http://www.realbeer.co.nz/blog/blog.html
Beer and Brewer Magazine - http://www.beerandbrewer.com/