By Chris Schacht
Strong Ale in Queenstown
As a young traveler, few things intimidated me more than a know-it-all Englishman my age.
My friend and I met two of them at a bar in Queenstown, New Zealand. They invited us to a game of billiards and immediately began dominating us with their knowledge of the world (they'd been traveling for most of the last year) and their bar game skills. The Kiwis use British-style billiards tables with the smaller pockets, not the big American pockets that make shots easy, a fact our new friends were quick to point out to us. They pointed out a lot of things to us, in sharp, passive-aggressive stabs that came too quick for an easy retort. Comments about history, war, even what side of the street we drove on, flew by us with little more than my sad, indignant huffing in response. As much as we didn't want to be, we really were dumb, slow Americans.
After three or four games, my friend and I were ready to slink off and find somewhere we wouldn't feel pathetic and insulted. The Brits tried to keep us around, presumably to beat up on us more, but we found our way out of that sports bar and into a mysterious, tucked away pub.
It was a small, cottage-looking building a block or two off the main drag. There was a small sign announcing its business as a brew pub, but nothing flashy. Inside the ceilings were low, with a front room and a side room. In the side room, locals gave us flat, unwelcoming looks. The bartender, standing behind the bar in the empty front room, wasn't any friendlier.
There were the standard beers you find in a Commonwealth country: a lager, a stout, an ESB. But also, a tap that simply said "strong ale." It was a new style to us, and we'd been paying attention. New Zealand was already a wonderland of beer, especially for the clueless young American traveler. The country's distance from the great beer producers of the world meant imports were prohibitively expensive, especially at the time when most of the breweries were founded. That meant a whole new world of beer to explore, from breweries all over both islands.
"Are you driving anywhere?" the bartender asked, after we'd both ordered the strong ale. We assured him we were within walking distance of our hostel. "Then you can have one, but just one," he said. Instead of making us upset, the allure of the beer grew, and I felt a swell of gratitude to the bartender for giving us those glasses of copper-colored beer at all.
In retrospect, it was likely just a standard English Strong Ale, with rich, rounded fruity flavors that have become more common in beer, especially in America. But back then it was an eye-opener. It was the first time I realized beer could be more than a drink, more than sustenance, more than flavor; beer could be a kind of revelation. I'm not sure I've ever savored a beverage more than that one. We both left that last sip at the bottom of our glasses for as long as we could, willing to talk about anything, even our poor pool-playing skills, so long as it meant this new thing wasn't over. There was so much we hadn't experienced. The Englishmen had made that seem like a problem. The English-style beer made it a promise.