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Beer Review: Coopers XPA (spoiler: boiled shite)

costaAn iconic Australian brewer, Coopers have launched a new beer. This is of considerable excitement to me, and here’s a quick list of launches that are far, far worse.

The launch of a P!nk album
The launch of the Costa Concordia
The launch of Paris Hilton’s eponymous perfume
The launch of an Exocet missile
The launch of AFLX
The launch of Shane Warne’s new wig
The launch of an all you can eat tofu diner.

That’ll do for now.

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I’m in a suburban Adelaide pub. It’s called the Highway, and is stylised as HWY. Some would argue that for the HWY, this is where style ends. It’s actually pronounced “Hur- wah- yee” and emits exactly the sound you’ll make when paying for a drink here.

It’s one of those maddening pubs that insists on using those ridiculous glasses that are well short of being pints, yet they charge you as if they’re Jeroboams of lager.

Maybe it’s called the Highway because in the Lounge Bar and accompanying deck, highway robbery is the business plan. I often feel in there as if I’ve been personally served by Ned Kelly masquerading as a twenty-something arts/law drop out called Charlotte whose boyfriend plays footy for an Old Collegians club.

You know the one.nedWith all these crimes temporarily excused I’m in the Sports Bar seeking a Coopers XPA, largely as there’s nowhere closer to home with this on tap. As sports bars go this one is fine with screens showing golf, cricket replays and the thoroughbreds from Hawkesbury and Quirindi. On the other side there’s a mega-wall of betting screens and some burly high-vis blokes.

As is law in this country there’s that one cove in the bar, sans hygiene and base-level socialisation who, despite the early hour, has already been here too long. Wandering about aimlessly he invariably glances and blinks at me, and wobbles over as in his fuddled head it’s time for a chat. Oh, here he comes.

No use putting my head down and avoiding eye-contact. It must be my deodorant. Well, at least his fly is up and on his upper thigh he’s not sporting a dinner-plate sized pee mark.

He belongs to another era, particularly the one before the Highway was renovated when, even around 5 bells on a Friday, the front bar was as dark as a Thai cave and a grizzled and aproned butcher squatted at a table, sold cubes of cheese and slices of mettwurst and handed over your happy hour tucker on actual butchers’ paper. This was before butchers’ paper was hijacked by every clueless conference convenor and it became a toxic weed along with housekeeping, plenaries and parking lots.

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The Coopers XPA?

Colossally disappointing. Taking a spot adjacent to the bar with my undersized, overpriced glass, I took a sip. Nothing on the front palate. Pause. Nothing on the middle palate. Another awkward pause. Expecting a late rush of taste and flavour and Coopers yum from the back palate I still found nothing.

I acknowledge that at 5.2% it is more Ali than featherweight, but the XPA seems to have pipe-cleaners for arms, and not guns.

Old mate Puggy then joined me, and instantly confirmed my dismal analysis. We had been promised a lumpy V8, like a Brock Commodore, all throaty and snarling up a country straight, but instead were piloting an insipid sedan. With bald tyres.

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The previous Coopers release was Session Ale, and it was sun and joy and tropics. A golden splash of fun, and reggae straight in ya gob. It has proved to be a hit, like a Beatles’ tune from their Rubber Soul era.

Coopers XPA is the song that came 17th in Eurovision 1987, but without the charm, longevity and ridiculous applause from the irradiated Ukrainians.

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Pub Review: Hotel Victor, Victor Harbor

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Iconic Australian cricketer, leviathan punter, beer inhaler and former Rothmans enthusiast Doug Walters famously said, “When in Victor Harbor be sure to swing by the Hotel Victor. It’s really good.”

Actually, he didn’t say this, and I just made it up.

Doug is a fabulously cool cat, and once went to bed in Perth well after dawn and well-oiled before mere hours later, going out to bat for his country. He possesses a remarkably mild temper, but I wonder what even he’d make of the Hotel Victor.

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The boys and I were in town and as the Tuesday sun was setting, all autumnal and fetching, we suddenly had a dinner dilemma. I won’t say it was poor planning on my behalf but our holiday cabin menu read: half a raw sausage, two bread crusts and nine grapes.

Among the safest beer choices in this land of plenty is Coopers Pale Ale, but happily sat in the front bar and peering across the park, my first sip was, as they say in beverage circles, putrid. Mmm. Something not right here. All metallic edges and prodding screwdrivers, and not the fruity, plentiful palate so richly celebrated.

Eleven patient slurps later I cleared my poisoned throat and rasped at the innkeeper, “Excuse me, young man with the hipster beard, my ale is poorly.” He replaced it, but the second was equally miserable. It lay in the glass like a sad, Liverpudlian puddle.

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Occasionally, the first beers poured daily from a keg can be, as Doug himself describes, a little sharp. However, this was beer o’clock in Victor Harbor during the splendid guts of school holidays. There were punters nursing cups all over the boozer. I was no pioneer.

A pub unable to provide a crisp gargle is like a frisky pup not wanting to reproduce with your bare leg: inexplicable.

We should’ve decamped to the fish ‘n’ chippery, but I persevered with the cold-eyed application of the Never Dead.

I’d a discount meal voucher and was singular in my wish to redeem it. “No, you can’t use it in here, only in the bistro,” announced the pig-tailed girl with cheerful senselessness. “What difference does it make?” I blinked. “Do the meals not come from the same kitchen? How can it matter where we sit?”

She blinked back.

In the apparently magical bistro with the boys gawping at their devices I ordered, but the pub again gave the rude finger. “Sorry, you can’t use this coupon for kids’ meals, only adult ones.”

I was tempted to use Aunt Edna’s favourite expression, the elegant and timeless, Fuck me.

I was getting extra good at loosing arguments, and my will to live was about to drown itself in my rancid ale, so naturally I continued. “But the discount here is ten bucks. Should I return, and buy the adult-only lobster and save thirty dollars? Would that be better for you?”

Hotel Victor 3, me 0.

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I admit my roast beef was terrific. Tender, exquisitely flavoursome and a treat to eat. The carvery vegetables were also delicious; especially the cauliflower, although as Aunt Edna used to suggest, “If you somehow manage to fuck up cauliflower we’re all in deep shit.” She had a shocking mouth, Aunt Edna.

Upon arrival we were promised water and glasses, but the four wait staff were so stressed attending to the excessive, punishing demands of the six other diners that this didn’t happen. Mercifully, humans are only 60% water so replenishing with H2O wasn’t important, and at no stage were we in significant biological danger.

They were also busy dwelling on Doug Walters’ famous century made entirely in the final session at the WACA in 1974. He bought it up with a six off the day’s last ball.

For the Hotel Victor to have also hit a six off their last delivery would’ve required free Coopers Sparkling Ales for me, and buckets of chocolate ice-cream for both Alex and Max.

The wait staff (yes, we’re still waiting) were consumed by their own ridiculous rules for acceptance of vouchers; an unwavering commitment to shagging up the country’s finest keg beer; and avoiding minimal levels of table service and so, with eyes shut, flopping about at the crease like a wounded sea mammal, and failing to offer a cricket shot, were bowled middle stump.

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Pub Review: Sir John Franklin, Kapunda

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Noted navy man and Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin contributes his name to this Kapunda boozer which is neither especially naval nor Arctic given the town’s dusty location in the driest state in the driest continent. I doubt this old mucker ever enjoyed a Cooper Sparkling Ale. But let’s not quibble over these minor details.

Franklin had a distinguished career before he untimely extinguished in remote Canada from starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning, and scurvy. And, I suspect, from an overly long and grim death certificate.

This should have come as no surprise to him given that his 1819 expedition ended with most of his party expiring following unpleasant cannibalism, or a shoddy diet of lichen and their own footwear. This gained Franklin the nickname of, “the man who ate his boots” which must have been somewhat embarrassing for him at barbeques and footy club progressive dinners.

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Sir John Franklin, in happier times

Happily, neither fellow diners nor Blundstones are on the menu today at this grand old pub. Although on a recent post-cricket visit (I was probably there long enough to have been described for tax purposes as a lodger) I chose not to dine (I was afraid of getting parmigiana on my new cricket whites) while fellow guests Matt Ryan and Fergie Higgins spoke well of the meals and, as grandma would have liked, left nothing on their plates.

To provide some entirely unnecessary, indulgent context the balcony of the Sir John Franklin was the first place I saw and heard that most distinctive 1980’s artefact: the ghetto blaster. A ridiculously enormous silver affair, it was owned by one of the Hutton brothers, whose father George was the publican when I was in high school.

As various HQ Holdens and Valiants warbled up and down the Main Street we supplied the soundtrack which, of course, was the masterful 1980 compilation cassette Full Boar. My affections were torn between Mi Sex and their tune, “Computer Games” and Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”. I’m still not into yoga and I have half a brain.

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The front bar features Sky Channel and a TAB, both of which were splendidly embraced on our recent visit by esteemed former local Chris Hayward while he waited patiently for his similarly veteran-statused cricket colleagues. Of course, his investments were accompanied by a schooner of West End Draught, although tragically this didn’t enhance his returns.

I’m thrilled to report that this space within the pub is more than adequate for the compulsory spoofy tournament, or two. The bar stools are ergonomically perfect for this, and for competitors who use the Paul White stand as you play technique, the carpet is forgiving and offers suitable support for those tense moments when you’re in a final against Goose Mickan and you’re holding none, but have called five.

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Built in 1849, the pub has a social club and my research staff tells me that among the office-bearers are former Kapunda Football Club trainer Peter Wenke (no-one ran the magic towel out to the half-back flank with more grace) who in a surprise to your correspondent, was in this very bar late Saturday morning. I continue to love the notion of the pub social club that affords its members a sense of ownership and decidedly human investment. But that’s enough reflection upon the role of social capital in contemporary Australian watering-holes.

Finally, on a personal note I must mention the superb bag-minding service run by the pub. If, like me, you left a small Auskick backpack (borrowed from your son Max) by the bar prior to rambling home late Saturday evening to the Clare Road digs of your mate Woodsy, then the most excellent staff will take care of it until you collect it, sheepishly, Sunday morning. My cricketing colleague Stef can also vouch for this wonderful facility.

So, next time you’re in Kapunda, there’s much to enjoy in my favourite pub named for a British explorer who perished in Canada from a greedy, rather excessive mix of starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning and scurvy.

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Pub Review: The Cumberland, Glanville

Plenty of room for you and yours in the beer garden

I had one final chance to visit a pub down the Port. I was offered plenty of advice.

“The Largs Pier is a beautiful old building.”

“The British is nicely renovated.”

“The Port Dock Brewery is good fun.”

But, for the moment, no to all of these.

A colleague said, “I reckon you’d find the Cumberland interesting.”

And so last Tuesday afternoon we ventured over the bridge, with Cruickshank’s Beach among the pylons, along Semaphore Road and then towards Glanville Railway Station which eases past the window.

There it was. The Cumberland, or as all such pubs must be known, The Cumby.

Australia is a vast country with many modern and featureless suburbs bigger than European cities. This is why the Port is terrific. Jump in your jalopy and in five minutes you can drive through Port Adelaide, Birkenhead, Semaphore, Exeter and Glanville where the geography is intricate and brutal, welcoming and rich.

Oh dear

Certainly in Britain there’s a whole realm of interest in pubs located by railway stations. Oodles of websites are dedicated to this genre alone.

Sauntering into the front bar the six patrons all ceased their conversations and took us in. If a honky tonk pianist had been banging the ivories he, too, would’ve stopped suddenly.

The publican, Michael Parker, or The Rev as most call him, was friendly and helpful, especially when chaperoning my friend, JB, through the forest of cider choices.

We ventured out the back to the beer garden’s large lawn and sheltered benches, but it was barren, save for a Port Power flag hanging flaccidly in an upstairs window. Sometimes, having too much space to yourselves is unappealing so on we explored.

Next we came across the live music room with its blackened stage. In recent months it has hosted the legendary Kevin Borich Express, and while I must confess to a personal connection, the magnificently-monikered Don Morrison’s Raging Thirst (I’m friends with Don’s sister Claire). I reckon Tim Rogers and Tex Perkins would both go well in the Raging Thirst.

Punters can watch the world go by

Sitting on our stools out the front of the Cumby the mis en scene of sky, battered earth and noiseless trains sliding in and out of the railyard was a compelling palette. It was natural, industrial and human.

The triangular patch had formerly been a carpark for the Holdens, Fords and Valiants. Now in the newish, glass-walled space there was a luckless incident involving a wonky table, JB’s elbow, Bob’s pint and his cream trousers. But in the maritime atmosphere his strides dried quickly. Perhaps they’re from Fletcher Jones.

And as friends for over thirty years we all moved on, although it gave rise to the ancient philosophical question: What’s worse than someone spilling a drink on you? Answer: Someone spilling your own drink on you. This aside, we enjoyed a lively interval in the bright afternoon, and then scarpered.

Such is the dynamic psycho-geography of the Port that last week’s destination, the Lord Exmouth, while technically a compact suburb away, is only 220 metres to the west. But the Cumby’s atmosphere is different, and in our often homogenised world, this diversity is to be celebrated.

So, if you’ve a raging thirst, or you want to hear one, then this pub is right there. And, should you wish, you can catch a train.  

And be there too.

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Pub Review: Lord Exmouth Hotel, Exeter

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Among the minor benefits of my brief stint working nearly an hour from home at an architecturally-barren university campus is that my commute takes me through the rich and diverse pub destination of Port Adelaide and surrounds.

The Lord Exmouth is a corner pub just to the south of bustling and charismatic Semaphore Road where it sits on a suburban street. Its crooked front veranda, suggestive of the curious experiences promised within. For inside is a 1970’s museum.

Old mate Bob has a slender window between work and baseball commitments so agrees to meet for a brisk cup. It’s happy hour at this boozer, also known as the Monkey House, so-named as there’s dozens of toy monkeys crammed into the shelves above the bar. Of course it doesn’t matter why these are there, only that they are.

Bob gets a West End Draught and it’s only $3.50. This sets a happily nostalgic tone. My personal bravery has always been in question so I avoid his example and order a Coopers. The front bar is narrow and unlikely to have enjoyed any form of renovation since Gough strolled about Parliament House.

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There’s six or eight chaps in there too, and I’m sure this is exactly as they prefer it. They engage in banter about those who are here, and those who aren’t, with the easy familiarity of men who’ve invested many a regular hour, or three, in here.

Graham and Barbara Cox have run the place since the late 1970’s. It’s a family affair and their daughter is a flight attendant but can often be found behind the bar when she’s home. I wonder if she motions elegantly towards the doors, telling new patrons that, “In case of an emergency the exits are located here, and here.” And if she hands a punter a particularly astringent glass of, say, moselle, I also imagine she crisply urges that they, “Brace, brace.”

Our nostalgic theme continues when I mention to Bob that the pub was featured in the films Wolf Creek and Australian Rules. Taking in the interior with its authentic 1970’s decor and vaguely haunting mis en scene I can’t imagine either film’s art director had to do much in the way of preparation.

Graham lets us out the back to the cosy and welcoming beer garden. There’s a rectangle of lawn (dirt) and like Mick Taylor himself, some weathered tables are scattered about. Each table has multiple fliers advertising the pub’s Christmas Eve festivities and I suggest to Bob, “That’s you sorted then.” But he seems uncertain.

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Now both helplessly trapped in our 1970’s youth we speak of the Kapunda Cricket Club; currently keen to attract former players to its struggling third team. Our comebacks to this formative outfit are probably more imagined than real, but it’s victimless to dream. West End Draught can do this to unsuspecting men.

Our beers drained we wander back through the bar where Terry is being ribbed in his inexcusable absence and we move out into the Wednesday afternoon. We’ve spent the previous half an hour so deep in the past that I’m surprised there’s not a HQ Holden and a brown Torana awaiting us.

I’m also shocked that I’m not twenty pounds lighter and sporting a mullet.

The Lord Exmouth is another excellent pub discovery, down at the Port.

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Pub Review: The Birkenhead Tavern, Port Adelaide

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It sits alone.

At once alluring but also brazen like a Bond villain. Under twilight it could be in a Hitchcock movie, dominating the landscape as the Bates Motel does its Californian corner. Although if painted in pastel yellow and pink the façade’s symmetry might be reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film, provided Bill Murray was in laconic shot.

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The cinematic concept of mis en scene describes the artistic arrangement of the background, props, lighting etc on a film set, and is relevant here. Making a westward crossing of the eponymous bridge there’s no adjacent buildings, and the dusty car park surrounds it like a dry moat. I’m immediately struck by the frontier psychology at play.

Architecturally, the context is that the only pub on the Port River, the Birkenhead Tavern, is itself utterly decontextualized.

It’s a remarkable site (and sight).

In the Riverview bar I’m agog at the water and blue light. The panoramic sweep includes the river, red lighthouse, Dolphin Explorer cruising ferry (unfortunately not captained by Flipper), and idle sheds and docks.

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A fierce southerly rushes the river past at a decent clip. Occasionally, king tides flood the pub forcing it to stand amid the lapping waves like a rebellious Atlantis.

On this, my biennial visit, I’m at a table in the racing corner, but looking out. The bar’s busy with burly high-vis chaps and retirees and burly high-vis retiree chaps. It’s Happy Hour and I order a Pale Ale ($5.50).

Suddenly, there’s scattered outbursts as a roughie gets up in the last at Queanbeyan. A wizened, skinny bloke barks, “It’s won at $97!” This spurs further eruptions, but these are only monologues from embittered punters. There’s no conversation, just forlorn observation.

“I can’t bloody believe it,” a bearded fellow accuses his West End Draught stubby.

“You’re joking,” murmurs another to an uncaring, inattentive divinity.

Pubs can be solitary spaces, especially for the fiscally anguished.

In the Port’s narrative this boozer has been a compelling character, since the days when it was a local for workers who caught the ferry across the river after work, and also when the upstairs light was flicked on and off signalling that the constabulary should slip in the darkened door for their nocturnal beer.

Publicans and wallopers have long shared murky relationships, as at least locally, policing the Port and guarding against illegal trading is traditionally thirsty work. Beyond an arresting location and a clutch of exotic punters what does the Birkenhead Tavern offer?

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A poster tells me there’s live music with an endless line of Sunday strummers, many of whom, of course, are called Josh. On the front lawns eager anglers can seduce bream and mulloway but there’s no outdoor sink at the pub to gut your catch.

Meanwhile the pub’s website features multiple photos of Port Power footballers but as these are without a caption, I’m unsure if they’re on the menu with chips, coleslaw and complimentary garlic bread, or that you might simply enjoy one with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

Unsurprisingly, the cuisine is described as pub, and I also note steak and ale pie on the special’s (sic) board, reminding me of when our newlywedded friends Brett and Trish were in Dublin, and Steak and Guinness pie was on offer. Ever polite, Brett asked the bar staff, “So, what’s in the Steak and Guinness pie?”

The young Irish fellow gazed at, and perhaps beyond Brett, and tonelessly mumbled, “Steak,” and blinking once, added, “Guinness.”

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Pub Review: The Exeter, Adelaide

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The beer is fresh and cold, if unspectacular. Coopers features, but otherwise it has a decidedly pedestrian array of beer taps. And the food’s fine although I can’t recall an amazing meal I’ve had in its quirky beer garden.

Ultimately, none of these matter when deconstructing Adelaide’s mighty Exeter Hotel.

Some pubs offer accessibility as their key attraction. A vital yet drearily utilitarian function when you get home after a tough day on the hamster wheel and realise you forgot to take out the chops to defrost, so you barrel down to your local for some cheap schnitzels.

This is not the raison d’être of the X.

Set amidships at 246 Rundle Street in the city’s East End alongside the restaurants, cafes and retailers, a visit to this peerless boozer can set you on the road to Damascus, or at least Kent Town.

Beyond the usual, but still praiseworthy self-promotion of “No Pokies!” the X also positions itself by quietly announcing that pub crawls (Adelaide Uni Engineers: they’re lookin’ at you!), buck’s and hen’s nights and misshapen birthdayers younger than 21 can look elsewhere to celebrate.

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This is a pub that knows its mind. It won’t listen to an hour of AM radio talkback, or watch Q&A and suddenly change its view. It’s a pub that wins the toss on a muggy day, ignores the hectoring of its opening bowlers, and decides to bat.

Just like it always does.

The front bar of the Exeter is an Adelaidean experience par excellence but the grungy microcosm within is removed from the monolithic culture of the day: there’s no which school did you attend? Crows or Port? Mix or Nova? Fruchocs or FUIC? Nonsense you might encounter at other more nakedly aspirational pubs.

Indeed, this incongruity is most welcome and isn’t incompatible with the genteel surrounds: it’s an earthy compulsion. The X, in roaring, bursting flight with its eclectic denizens, is more Soho or Camden Town or Hammersmith pub. As a point of difference, it’s wholly life-affirming.

If the Exeter didn’t exist, it would be necessary to build it.

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Decades back our mate Chris was emigrating to Queensland to work for a software company. So, to mark this, we dined on curry and Kingfisher lager, and then galloped across to the Exeter.

Dawn’s closer than dusk. Only Nick and I remained, our Doc Martins moored to the floorboards. He’s from a farm in Shea-Oak Log. Years ago, we saw the Rolling Stones at Footy Park.

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As always, we navigated travel and bands and film, and our discussion arrived at Harper Lee’s autobiographical masterpiece, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Over and through our Coopers, we pondered the novel’s last lines, and admired their uncomplicated elegance. They’re among the finest words printed. After the rush of the climax, we’re left with a painterly scene, a world profoundly restored by the love of Atticus

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He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

This is why I love the Exeter.

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Among my favourite writers is the Adelaide Hills-based wine scribe Philip White. Early in my career a highlight was opening Wednesday’s Advertiser in the English faculty office with my then boss and old mate Digby. We’d devour Whitey’s column and belly-laugh and nod. He’s a magnificent author, and naturally, his articles were not about grog, but stories. People, places, events both happy and poignant.

Some years later I finally met Whitey in the Exeter. We yarned at length about much including the account he wrote of the Darwin Stubby Drinking Competition held, of course, at the Humpty Doo pub.

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“I loved the character at the centre of that story, Dave Gaston”, I stated.

Whitey replied. “Yeah, I reckon I compared him to Mick Jagger saying he’d ‘carefree elegance.’”

“You did. And it was great that while Dave won the prize you put a twist in the tail.”

“It was true,” the plonk critic nodded, “The quickest Darwin Stubby guzzler on the day was Norman. A Brahman bull.”

This is why I love the Exeter.

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So, the X can be curmudgeonly. But safely within its ageless walls- check out the TOURIST DIES OF THIRST newspaper billboard behind the bar- you’ll be at this town’s ragged, charming heart and in a place of conversation and character and cheer.

It’s that most rare of locations: the destination pub.

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