Tap King: Beer of the Future or Frothy Fail?
He’d come in from mowing the lawns or painting the fence or cleaning the gutters and slowly drink a beer, listening to the call coming in from Trentham racecourse northeast of Wellington. As a treat, he’d offer my brothers and I tiny sips off the top. It was like a small teaser to manhood.
Nostalgia. What a bitch. It means I’m standing here at Lion’s brewing headquarters in Sydney’s west, listening to a bunch of clipped Kiwi accents and getting all gooey and shit. Never mind that Lion is now owned by Kirin Holdings – a massive Japanese company and (as of 2010, Google tells me) the seventh largest producer of beer in the world. And those offerings of beer from my dad were likely less a favour than a ploy to remove the foam from the top. That guy! What an arsehole.
I’m decked out in a high-vis vest and steel-capped boots. I look like a tool. Next to me is a whole bunch of other media types from around the country. Thankfully, they all look like tools also. Lion’s brewing development director Peter David stands in front of us, passing around hops. They smell disgusting. I’m never going to drink beer again.
The occasion is a special preview of Tap King, Lion’s new home draught system that’s been trickling into your local bottle shops over the past couple of months. Any investment in a new product requires a lot of nerve by a major producer, but up until today I’d perhaps underestimated exactly how much weight Lion were throwing behind this curious product.
The Australian Hotels Association weren’t so coy – when news of the system started leaking in March they were losing their collective shit over how much Tap King might eat into their business and, I dunno, tear asunder the fragile fabric of Australia’s precious beer barn culture.
Earlier in the day, Lion Marketing Director Matt Tapper had explained the reaction with a mixture of mild bemusement and respectful concern for what are some of his largest customers. And you have to agree with the guy. This is hardly a replacement for going down to the local neon-lined monstrosity and drinking yourself into oblivion. Tap King – and the clever/funny/masturbatory marketing campaign illustrates this somewhat – is much more a complement to the home drinking experience than a challenge to the might of the hoteliers.
But enough about that. Earlier in the morning we’d all met at Lion’s HQ on Sydney’s York Street – a bunch of journalists and bloggers – before jumping on a mini bus to travel out to the Lion-owned Tooheys brewery in Lidcombe. Unsurprisingly, the place turned out to be stupidly large. Acres of concrete and brick and steel. Do they really need all this space? But then you notice all the different beers lying about, each ready to be transported to its traditional home market. It’s hard not to get caught up in man’s quest to bend nature to his will. I mean, fuck craft beer.
We’re led to a small conference room in the back corner of the facility that has a view of a giant brew house. There, marketing manager Josh Gaudry takes the lead. Gaudry is short-ish and dapper, a personable 30-something with squared-off wire frames that I’m not sure are a hangover from the last fad or the leading edge of a new one. He admitted to me this morning while waiting for the bus that he’s never seen a project like Tap King before, but the way he presents you’re left with the impression that it’s his baby. Or that he’s at least been left holding the baby. Or something.
He shows us a time-lapse video of the conversion of a car park into the Tap King production line (it looks like Breaking Bad!), and then the product itself (black, cylindrical, key lines, hipster-beardo diamond shapes). Gaudry’s pumped about the product in his own quiet way, talking in affectionate tones about the design and in particular a retractable drip tray, which he pushes in and out like a kid pumping a Fisher Price cash register.
But beyond its looks (Gaudry’s rapturous, I’m not so sure), Tap King’s killer app is its internals – in particular a tiny CO2 gas chamber sitting inside each 3.2 litre PET bottle that plugs into the back of the device. It differs from almost anything else available on the market, which is either gassed separately or not gassed at all after it leaves the brewery. And unlike that Heineken keg you drink in the backyard and then throw at your friends, a Tap King PET can sit in your fridge for twenty-one days before spoiling. Good fucking work, Josh (and Visy, who developed and eventually patented the system. Here it is, because nerd time).
After we all sit around listening to Gaudry and eating some sweet pastries, Fiona Harrington, the brewer in charge of Tap King’s Lidcombe operation, takes us across the premises – pointing out lots of shiny capital equipment along the way – and up to where the PET bottles are finalised and packaged. This turns out to be a little useless, because we can’t really hear anything she’s saying over the noise, but it’s fun to geek out watching the bottles getting filled and packaged into their dual box sets. It’s like a grown man’s Christmas windows. It’s also a gas watching the staff on edge as the production line suffers its inevitable screw-ups. Poor dudebros.
Everything is new and expensive looking. I have this recurring instinct to ask, “So, you’re serious about this?” And, of course, the more we see the more ridiculous that question would be. One of the guys on the line stops the boxing machine and lifts the sides so we can get some photos (even Lion’s assembly line workers are media pros) before hitting a big green button, production kicking back in and 4X Gold being boxed furiously. It’s great. I want to work in a brewery now.
The seventh floor of Lion’s York Street headquarters is pretty much a pub in an office building. Tap handles sprout from a generously stocked bar, while a couple of giant flatscreens cycle through silent news reports. Outside, an inviting, open terrace overlooks George Street. It’s ludicrous, but terrific. How does anyone get any work done here?
It’s time to try the product ourselves. Which involves hanging out here back in the city and eating a buttload of nachos. But first, Gaudry and David gather us around a television. They want to show us the marketing. By now, the duo have the wind at their tails and give us a look that says, “You think that Carlton Draught ad was funny?!” before asking someone to hit ‘play’.
The Lionel Richie advert is funny – kudos to Gaudry for pulling it off (and to Richie, who these days seems in no doubt about how much of a nutjob he was in the ‘80s) – but expensive beer ads seem a little out of place in these post-GFC, craft beer-dominated times. Should they (and Fosters, on the other hand) be spending that amount of cash? I’m not so sure.
Then it’s the product itself, three or four Tap Kings are lined up on a dry bar and each of us invited to have a go at pouring a James Squire Golden Ale. Some blogger steps up first and – ha! – totally cans it. Everyone laughs. Soon enough, though, we’re all pouring like pros. The device itself feels surprisingly solid, and makes a strangely spooky whistling noise as it fills your glass. And unlike your typical beer tap in a typical Australian pub, you can throttle the pour slightly.
And you know what? The resultant beer does feel like the real deal. Then again, maybe I’m just happy to have a drink in my hand.
Tap King: TheVine Road Test
Trying out the product at Lion was cool, but TheVine likes to keep its real-o-meter in the red zone. So, the following night, we took Tap King to a mate’s place.
Josh, Dan and Pat are typical men in their early 30s. None are married. None have kids. None own a house. So not typical at all, really, and maybe not Lion’s target market with Tap King. But they get excited about getting drunk, so I guess they’ll have to do.
I call Josh and tell him about Tap King. “Oh. Word. How long you in town for?” he says. Josh obviously didn’t read the script about being impressed. What he does do is offer the use of the Tiki bar in his Surry Hills backyard. Utmost player.
Still, Josh’s ambivalent response was perhaps indicative of the night to follow. Tap King is available for Tooheys Extra Dry, New, Hahn Super Dry, Boags Premium and XXXX Gold (ha yeah WTF), but once again we’re rocking with the Squire Golden Ale.
First of all, installation is easy. I guess the true measure of such a device is if a really drunk person could set it up, it’s OK. And I can say in no uncertain terms that you might have lost your wife, your family, your house and be rolling about in the gutter with your underpants on your head, and you’d still be able to get this working. Thumbs up, Lion. On the flipside, everyone – Gaudry, David, the extremely helpful PR people – told me to chill the PET bottle for at least eight hours before hooking it up. Which earlier set in motion the most complicated plan ever to drink some beer.
Dan: So it’s at my place and you want me to bring it to Josh’s place?
Me: I’ll pay for the cab.
Dan: Why’s it at my place?
Me: It needs eight hours to cool down.
Josh: Eight hours?
Dan: Eight hours?!
Josh: Can we stick it in the freezer?
Me: Maybe. Or maybe it might explode or something (note: it probably won’t explode). But it’s too big anyway.
Josh: Eight hours?
Dan: Eight hours?!
Eight hours? Jesus Christ. In fairness to Lion, Tap King is made to sit in your home, not be dragged to your mate’s place. Still, pro tip: if you’re copping a casual PET on the way home on a Friday night, make sure it’s refrigerated.
After we set it up, source an on odd collection of glasses and talk about a summer re-thatch of the Tiki bar, it’s time to get busy. It should be said right now that my friends are arseholes – they couldn’t pour a beer to save themselves. Still, their attempts are disconcerting. For the first fifteen minutes they might as well be tossing ice cream in the top. Which is fine – they’re jerks – but a bartender at your local pub has the luxury of pitching out anything he screws up. With Tap King, you have eleven standard drinks, so, like cheap bastards, we’re looking to make it count.
But halfway through the bottle everyone seems to have more or less gotten the hang of it. The James Squire is still coming out frothy, but it’s beginning to suggest sophistication rather than inebriated incompetence. And to our taste buds it’s a little better than the Squire that comes out of a bottle.
Eventually, the Tap King’s spirit whistling turns to a croak, the dispenser running dry. We swear at it a bit before sitting down to discuss. So…
Looks cool in the fridge.
Chicks will dig it more than stubbies.*
Novelty value. Impress your friends.
The environment yo.
* It was later decided that this theory is total bullshit.
Time taken to cool down. Eight fucking hours?! Fuck.
Action not particularly intuitive (I’m not sure I agreed with this one. Like I said, arseholes)
Too small for a group drink.
You can’t tell how much beer is left.
Dan perhaps had the most to say, theorising that the concept doesn’t work for mainstream beers: “I can understand why you would want to take home a growler of a favourite pumpkin-mega-hop-IPA-winter-whatever craft beer that's only available on tap at your local hipster bar,” he says. “But if you want a James Squire you can get one anywhere in much more convenient units without all this messing around.”
And that’s probably fair. You wonder if the niche is large enough for this – for starters it’s not any cheaper than the same beer by the carton (although the head unit is refreshingly – ha! – affordable). It’s ingenious, but for the most part in terms of its construction and implementation. And this is no half-hearted gimmick. Lion have invested heavily in the product.
You can’t help but want Tap King to succeed, even if it feels a bit like wanting Betamax to succeed. Or electric cars. Just because it’s an innovation, doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to buy it. Is this going to make a dent in the business of the hoteliers? Azif. Is it going to replace bottled beer? Not a chance. So everyone can chill the fuck out. But some might wonder what exactly is the point then.
Matt Shea (@mrmatches)
Disclaimer: Lion covered Matt's travel and per diem costs for this story.