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No longer creatures of habit

Auckland’s summer “heatwave” (or was it the media’s summer heatwave) reminded of when I lived in Auckland as a teenager – long sleepless nights of little breeze and high humidity.

We moved around a lot when I was growing up because my father was in the Air Force and when we lived in Auckland (late 70s-early 80s) it was at the Hobsonville Air Force base.

It was a lonely existence in Auckland’s northwest corner in those days — all around the twin air bases of Hobsonville and Whenuapai was farmland. During those hot summers we hung out at two places — the base swimming pool and Catalina Bay, where we’d fish or sit on the rickety pier.

Changing landscape

Fast forward 40 years and Hobsonville is a high-density housing village with more amenities than we could have dreamed about. And the latest addition to the area — down at Catalina Bay — is the 1500sqm Little Creatures craft brewery and bar that opened in an old hangar on February 6.

I look at this development through a dual lens of sentimentality – for the fact I used to live in the area and for the fact Little Creatures Pale Ale was one of my fork-in-the-road beers that led me to drinking and writing about good beer. A friend in Perth introduced to me Little Creatures Pale Ale in 2002 and I was blown away by the hoppy goodness. So yeah, despite the fact it’s now fully-owned by Lion, which had a stake in the brewery from the get-go, Little Creatures has a place in my hoppy heart.

But I can also see where criticism could be directed at Lion for bringing a “foreign” beer to an already crowded market. Little Creatures, which started in Fremantle, Western Australia, almost 20 years ago, is being poured in hundreds of bars across the country often alongside Emerson’s and Panhead at Lion-contracted bars alongside.

Craft portfolio huge carrot

This portfolio is a huge carrot for Lion clients who might have thought of going independent in order to offer a broader range of beer to increasingly curious drinkers. That, in turn, makes it increasingly harder for independent, small breweries to access certain parts of the market that are tied to Lion, DB (Tuatara, Lagunitas, Monteith’s) or Independent (Boundary Road, Founders). And that stifles the diversity on which the entire craft beer revolution was based.

The flipside, I think, balances things. The fact is, the Little Creatures brewpub will bring good beer to a place where previously there was nothing, so it’s a great asset to that community and will introduce a whole raft of people to new tastes and many of them will explore further afield – a journey that will lead to other, independent, beers.

Hannah Webb Photography

And then there’s the community aspect.

Community crucial

The whole thing has a family-friendly buzz to it — a kids’ play area and all-day dining. Crikey, Lion has gone as far as appointing a  “community engagement manager”.  That might be a bit OTT and an excessively corporate approach to what others would describe as just being a nice, responsible neighbour … but it’s also what good beer is all about: local, regional, community-based establishments that encourage responsible drinking of flavoursome beer.

To me, the exemplar in this area is The Laboratory in Lincoln, just outside Christchurch.

Incentivised to build there post-earthquakes by the Selwyn District Council, the pub works hand-in-hand with the council to run events, screen movies, put on art exhibitions, host live music and run a farmer’s market.

“It’s a communal hub,” says proprietor Martin Bennett said. “People love it. Come in here on a Sunday and it’s packed with kids and families.”

When health professionals and moral crusaders talk about the social cost of alcohol, no one talks about the social capital gained in terms of bringing people together, social cohesion, connection, relaxation, creativity, stress reduction – all the things The Laboratory, and other community-based pubs, help cultivate.

The Port & Eagle featured earlier in this magazine is another example of the new direction for beer. Ditto Parrotdog’s space in Lyall Bay, McLeod’s Pizza Barn in Waipu, Godzone in Hawke’s Bay, The Asylum at Invercargill Brewery, Townshend’s at Toad Hall in Motueka, Brew Union in Palmerston North  … these and many more are examples pubs intricately linked to their community.

This focus on quality, local and responsible is the obverse of what the big breweries did in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Lion and DB used to buy up pubs willy-nilly in order to control outlets and territory — back then it was a race to pour as much rubbish beer down the throats of as many unthinking people as quickly as possible. The old duopoly encouraged problem and binge drinking by focusing on volume. They ruthlessly squashed competition – I think of it now as a brewery version of Mortal Engines! And their pubs were literally like the old hangar in which Little Creatures brewery is now based – cavernous, soulless places of industrial drinking.

Big beer responds to craft revolution

As much as critics might decry the big breweries foray into “craft” there’s also a lot to be said for the way the craft revolution has reframed the thinking a Big Beer.

Lion spent $20 million on the Little Creatures project, between the fitout and a 10-year lease, managing director Rory Glass told the New Zealand Herald, and it will employ about 100 staff. A second floor has also been added to the hangar that will be used as a shared working space. Nearby are restaurants, a cafe, and a popular farmer’s market. Locals will also be able to buy beer to take home —  a big deal for westies who often lack choice thanks to the licencing trusts that have a virtual monopoly on outlets and  where supermarkets are dry. Because Little Creatures are licenced through Customs & Excise they are allowed to sell beer.

All this is a good thing. Big Beer realises market is maturing – as the wine market did 30 years ago – and they need to mature with it.

My optimistic hope is that kids who go with their parents to places like Little Creatures, The Laboratory and other family-friendly pubs will witness responsible consumption of flavoursome and grow up learning that good beer is something special – not a commodity to be necked as fast possible.

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