Written by John Williams
Much like punk in the late seventies, when a new wave of young upstarts ripped up the rule book and moved into the mainstream with an intoxicating brand of music and fashion, brewers up and down the country have been experimenting in garages and sheds before bursting onto the scene with bold flavours, crazy names and innovative branding. For them, there are no rules. Everything’s on the table. And people are beginning to listen.
The result is that craft beer has well and truly landed in our pubs, bars and bottle shops, and it’s here to stay. The Lion Nathan DB duopoly has been rattled and the days of having only bland, mass-produced beers to choose from are long behind us. Praise be.
To continue the musical metaphor, walking into specialist beer shop Bottle Stop is like walking into your favourite record store back in the day, except that the alphabetically ordered rows of record bins have been replaced by equally well-organised beer fridges. And that friendly guy behind the counter, the one who’s right up to date with all the latest releases, and who’s always got something new and interesting for you to try? He’s still there. In Bottle Stop, that guy is Rich Yong.
“Long story short,” says Rich, as he encourages me to try one of his latest guest beers from the row of taps behind him, “is that I was an aspiring musician in a band with my brother, but got to a point where I thought, if I haven’t made it by the time I reach 30, then I’ve really got to get myself a proper job.”
At this point, Rich was living in the UK and was just beginning to get into the beer culture over there. “It all started with a beer I’d got into… Doom Bar Bitter from Sharp’s, a Cornwall-based brewery. I saw a job advertised with them, and I went for it,” he says. What Rich didn’t realise was that Sharp’s was owned by Molson Coors, a huge, super-corporate brewery, and his job involved travelling around the country trying to persuade pub landlords to swap out Fosters for Carling – neither of which could be remotely considered a connoisseur’s choice of beer.
“It wasn’t what I was expecting. There was no soul in it. I lasted five months,” he says. However, during that time he started really getting into the beer scene. “I emailed a few breweries and Camden Town Brewery got back to me saying, ‘Great timing, we’re actually looking for someone, come along for a chat’. They called me that night and offered me the job… and the rest, as they say, is history.”
After six years at Camden Town Brewery, Rich started to think about moving back home, with one of the biggest drivers being that he wanted to bring up his two-year-old boy in New Zealand. As luck would have it, Wellington-based brewery Garage Project was looking for someone to be its export sales manager. “They were the only brewery I wanted to work for in New Zealand, and thankfully they gave me the job,” he says.
“Garage are great. They’re not afraid to do things differently and push the boundaries. They don’t give a toss what anybody else thinks, which in some ways is why they’ve been so successful, not only in New Zealand, but all around the world. With the beers they make, it’s all about the experience of drinking Garage Project beer… like their Yuzu Rising Sun, a two-part pour with red and yellow beer that doesn’t mix in, and looks like a Tequila Sunrise. Then there’s the Two Tap Flat White that looks exactly like a flat white and you can do latte art on it.”
When Rich first came back, he says he was surprised by how many local beers there were. He remembers walking into a Glengarry’s, but had no idea what was good and what wasn’t, so he walked out with a box of Lion Red! That said, Lion Red remains one of Rich’s favourite drops… “I was brought up out West,” he laughs.
Returning to his Glengarry story, he says that part of the reason he walked out with the box of Lion Red that day was that the person behind the counter had no idea about any of the beers he was selling, and that’s when he realised there was a huge gap in the market here for a specialist beer shop where you could go for advice and education, all in an unpretentious and friendly way.
The idea for Bottle Stop was born. Fate also intervened. “Unfortunately – or fortunately – whichever way you want to look at it, I got made redundant from Garage about six months ago, and that gave me the kick I needed to get this place started.”
“My wife came up with the name,” says Rich. “She woke up one morning and said, ‘What about Bottle Stop – the word bottle, with a full stop after it’. I said, ‘Yeah, I like it’, and started playing around with it. One of my good friends is a designer, and he came up with the stop sign octagon logo, which coincidentally works well with the different stages of beer manufacture.”
As for the location for his new shop, Rich says he was always aiming for Grey Lynn. He likes the vibe and feel of the area. Being tucked away in a side street behind Ponsonby Road wasn’t his first choice of location, but the size was perfect. “It’s still a bit undiscovered around here, but give it a couple of years, and it will be humming. My landlord is pretty amazing and was really into my idea. He’s into beer, too,” he says.
Bottle Shop opened its doors at 5 Vinegar Lane in mid-November, at first just selling takeaway beers. Since then, Rich now has his ‘on licence’, so he can become a small bar where people can taste and drink beer on site, and start his Beer 101 education classes.
“People say to me all the time, I love drinking beer, but I don’t know what this taste is, or what the difference is between this beer and that. Those are the exact people who I’m looking for to join my Beer 101 classes – people who want a basic knowledge and understanding of how beer is made, what the different flavours are, and why different beers taste like they do.”
Beer 101 involves tasting six to eight different styles of beer. And, much like wine tasting, you begin with the lighter flavours, before heading into the heavier, fuller-bodied varieties. “We always start with an easy-drinking lager,” explains Rich. “Then we move onto a pale ale, then an IPA (India Pale Ale), then throw in an amber ale or an ESB (Extra Special Bitter), before moving on to a wheat beer or Belgian-style beer. Next, there’s a sour-style beer to re-set the palette, then we end on a dark stout.”
From the hundreds of beers available, how does he decide which ones to sell in his shop, and are they all from New Zealand?
“Choosing the beer list was the hardest part of opening the shop. I thought it was going to be easy, but it wasn’t,” admits Rich. “It’s getting easier, though, because I can now see what’s popular and what’s not, then fine-tune the range to the tastes of my regular customers. Most of the beers are from New Zealand, but I’m not opposed to throwing the occasional international brew into the mix. Currently, it’s an 80-20 split in favour of local brews.”
“I also want to have space for some new and unusual beers, like Ora Ale, made by this guy Justin who’s got a full-time job doing something else, but brews this one beer made from Kawakawa. What he’s done is dialled up the Kawakawa and brought the hops right back, to give it a real strong and unique flavour. And it’s great.”
When it comes to naming his favourite tipple, Rich hesitates. “That’s a hard, hard question. It really depends on my mood, but I would say my favourite ‘style’ of beer is lager.""The majority of people misunderstand lagers, thinking they’re flavourless and are just there to smash compared to, say, an IPA. But it’s harder to make a beer that tastes clean and crisp, like a lager, than it is to make it taste flavourful. I’ve also said from the start that I’m going to have big bottles of Lion Red in my fridge – I’m just waiting for my account with Lion to come online. To this day, I still drink Lion Red. I’m from West Auckland. I grew up on it and will happily drink it,” he says.
Bottle Stop can be found at 5 Vinegar Lane, Grey Lynn. It’s open seven days a week, from midday until 8pm. Visit www.bottlestopbeer.co.nz