Week 6: A Hilarious Title With The Word Cock In It

Dates: 5th August – 11th August, 2013

Bar: Cock and Bull Botany, Auckland

Beer(s):

  1. Good-As-Gold Pilsner by Crafty Beggars (a.k.a. Lion Nathan) (Pint, ~$8)
  2. 1812, by Emerson’s (a.k.a. Lion Nathan) (Pint, ~$9)

Total: ~$17

This week the long school nights were spent entirely booze-free – all in an effort to save for a long-overdue holiday back in our Old Stomping Ground, East Auckland. Within a few hours of stepping off the plane – and having switched to holiday mode in record time – I was busy spending my hard-saved Beer Money at another Old Stomping Ground: Botany’s English-style pub, the Cock and Bull.

There was a time when a trip to the Cock and Bull more or less guaranteed delicious beer. Cock and Bull was a shining light in a mainstream jungle: a reasonably-large pub chain serving a tasty, diverse, award-winning range of craft beer at mainstream prices. What’s more, the beer was accompanied by more-than-decent pub-grub – an important String to the Bow when you (completely selflessly) need to convince your Mum that it’s the definitely the best option for Nana’s 84th Birthday get-together.

Over the years my favourite Cock and Bull tipples swung around a bit; the seasonal wit beer was refreshingly delicious (but regrettably called Dirty Blonde, which made ordering it an unnecessarily blokey ordeal); the hand-pulled English bitter Fuggles was equally num num, and always seemed more Genuinely British than the faux-English pub in which it was served.

But the crowning jewel in the Cock and Bull’s crown was indisputably Monk’s Habit – a Belgian-style abbey ale which was equal-parts a) ludicrously delicious and b) entirely out of place in a fake English pub on the outskirts of South Auckland. Out of place or not, Habit – served in a sexy little snifter, perfect for swirling, sniffing and trying to look contemplative – was the perfect antidote to an afternoon spent Christmas shopping against ones’ will.

It’s a cruel trick of our existence that we don’t realise just how effing good we have it until it’s too late – since it’s only the removal of the underappreciated that exposes us to the size of the void left in its absence. It’s with regret that I use the past-tense when talking about these genius beers, since as most beer geeks will know the Cock and Bull chain was purchased in 2012 by Nourish Group – a large hospitality conglomerate who have a supply agreement with Lion Breweries. Almost immediately, the outstanding, award-winning beer range – shaped and perfected by Craft Beer Royalty Ben Middlemiss and Luke Nicholas, and brewed en masse by the good folk at Steam Brewing Company – was sadly ousted and replaced by Lion taps.

I returned this week to my old haunt to find Blonde, Fuggles and Habit replaced by Mac’s, James Squire and Crafty Beggars. First-up, I decided to give Crafty Beggars a chance – if only to see why it’s got the Haters Hatin’. The tap badge left me none-the-wiser about which Beggar it was, and when I quizzed the bartender he gave a vacant stare and an equally vacant reply (“um, it’s kind of like Mac’s Gold”). Alarm bells resonating, I dove in – and a few sips in, I figured out that it was a pilsner (*pumps fist* BrewNZ Judge’s Table, here I come!!). In retrospect (and with some Googly assistance), I’ve figured out that it must have been the Good As Gold pilsner. The beer was okay, but I guess I’ve come to expect a little more from craft pilsner in terms of hop-forward flavours and aromas. I remember wondering why Lion bothered brewing an approachable middle-of-the-road effort with Hop Rocker already in their arsenal.

My main complaint is this: if I’m paying craft beer prices, I’m really looking for a flavourful, reasonably-complex but definitely not-samey beer experience. It’s not an unreasonable request: I just want the extra money that I’m handing over to be paying for extra malt, exotic hops or a brewer’s expensive storage programme – not because a room full of Brand Wankers (see Phil Cook’s blog entry for more in-depth analysis of THAT little chestnut) decided that this product was going to cost Exactly This Much a priori a brewer even sat down with a cuppa and contemplated a recipe.

I’m quite sure that Nourish Group’s decision to yank the Cock and Bull range of beers and install usurpers makes perfect sense from a short-term business perspective: obviously it’s cheaper to source beer from a mega-brewery like Lion. But the shift makes absolutely no sense from a consumer’s (and/or medium- to long-term business) perspective. Cock and Bull are now serving more-or-less identical beers to the other (only slightly exaggerated) 637 Lion-tied pubs that are within a two-kilometre radius. If you believe the hype, there’s a (*cough*) renaissance happening in the New Zealand craft beer scene, and quote-unquote craft is the only section of a dwindling beer market which is actually expanding. By pulling the Cock and Bull beers, Nourish Group have yanked their only point-of-difference – and left a massive craft beer vacuum in South and East Auckland, a region with more residents than Wellington.

For some reason, a certain NOFX song springs to mind – since it’s pretty clear to me that someone flopped a steamer in the gene pool.

My advice to anyone (non-beer geeks included) who finds themselves at a Cock and Bull: order whichever Emerson’s beer they have on tap. With Lion appropriating this legendary pioneer of the New Zealand craft beer industry last year, they’ve bought a craft beer pedigree that you just can’t create in a board room. I for one did my best to drain the 1812 keg at the Botany branch (the you’re-back-in-town-so-let-me-shout practice is mercifully alive and well in my family). 1812 is an India Pale Ale with mounds of hops and a strong malty backbone on which they hang. In short, it’s delicious – and in a world where a pint of meh is around $8 and a pint of Emerson’s is around $9, 1812 is outstanding value for money.

By the way, the pub-grub at the Cock and Bull was Excellent – which in light of the rest of this post is annoyingly anti-thematic.

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