A Love Letter For My Local

When I was a kid, one of the few grown-up TV shows that my Mum and Dad let me watch was Cheers.  The piano trill that signified the start of the opening credits was like a clarion call: from the four-corners of our home, we would all descend on the lounge, taking our seats just in time for the credits to reach their crescendo.  “You wanna go where people know | People are all the same”.  If I close my eyes and clear my mind, I can still hear the echoes of “NORM!” ringing in my ears – followed by my Dad laughing far too loudly at whatever corny joke Norm cracked as he took his seat at the bar.

Sitting on that couch, circa 1989 – nearly every gag shooting straight over my head, but feeling eminently grown-up nonetheless – I dreamed that one day I’d find my own Cheers.  A place where the barkeep was genuinely interested in the welfare of his (or her) patrons; and where freshly-drawn pints were delivered to thirsty customers by sliding them along the bar.  A place where everybody knew my name.  And they were always glad I came.

It may have taken the better part of three decades, but last year I finally found my Cheers.

Warkworth’s Tahi Bar is stowed behind the village’s main drag: it’s accessible from two alley ways, one of which houses the local barber shop.  For my Wellington comrades, Tahi has echoes of the Capital’s Little Beer Quarter – ever-so-slightly tucked-away from the hive, but greatly worth the marginal extra effort it takes to find it.

Walking into Tahi – past the steampunk sculptures, and the numerous branded umbrellas that remind you you’re in 8 Wired country – you’re almost guaranteed to be greeted by resident barkeep and Tahi co-owner Ian Marriott.  After ordering your pint from one of Tahi’s ever-changing taps, you’ll be tempted to head outside to catch the late afternoon sun: but my advice is to stay put.  Pull up a chair, park your tush, and take five minutes to chat to one of New Zealand’s finest publicans.

Ian started his working life as a music journo, and ended up working for Russell (Yes, That One) Crowe at his all-ages music venue on Auckland’s Symonds Street (Fun Fact: Russell Crowe was known as ‘Russ Le Roq’ in those days – Google it for instant hilarity).  The music and hospitality industry are inevitably intertwined, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Ian eventually found a gig behind the bar.  After working multiple venues in Auckland, London called: and it was there that he won a reputation as a no-nonsense bar manager who could clean-up the roughest of East End pubs with nothing more than a smile and street smarts.  Eventually, Ian moved out to Nottingham to manage real-ale pubs – and it was there that his passion for good beer was kindled.  After years of managing pubs for other people, Ian started to scheme about hitting-out on his own.

New Zealand eventually called Ian (and his new wife Silke) home; and after years of running alehouses in the UK, they were immediately despondent about the state of the local beer scene – particularly the range and quality of beers available from local pubs.  While visiting a friend who lived in the Warkworth area, the Marriotts discovered that a local defunct pub called Head Office was up for sale; and after much pondering, they decided that this was the place they were going to plant their flag.

It must take a lot of guts to open a bar: the margins aren’t great, the hours are shit, and the patrons can occasionally be total dick-faces.  However, I imagine it takes even more guts to open a craft beer bar in a Lion Red town – which Warkworth absolutely was when they opened in 2008.  That kind of intestinal fortitude is rare; but like all visionaries, Ian and Silke predicted that New Zealand’s rural beer scene was going to evolve exponentially – that the locals would soon wake up and realise that beer could be more than one-dimensional brown lager.

The rurality of Warkworth was an immense challenge in Tahi’s early days.  Ian tells the story of a large stone-faced biker-dude who strutted into the bar and ordered a Lion Red – and without saying a word, the barkeep took a glass, opened the cavity beneath the taps to remove the drip-tray, and filled the glass with stale dregs.  How Tahi made it out of that encounter completely un-arsoned, I’m not sure; but as it transpires, the biker-dude downed the dregs, said they were delicious, and has been coming in for a pint every Thursday since.

And that’s the essence of Ian’s ethos and principles: he is absolutely passionate about turning good people onto good beer.  He believes that an alehouse should be the hub of a community – perhaps a lesson learned from his time in the UK – and also that the relationship between a brewery and a pub should be symbiotic, with one helping the other.  Tahi was a freehouse from day-dot, before that was even a thing in New Zealand; when Emerson’s and Tuatara sold, the Marriotts stopped buying their products overnight.  Not for snobbish reasons – a large framed photo of Silke with Richard and George Emerson hangs proudly in their office – but because they despise the politics and historical actions of the big breweries.  When asking him about his decision to stop stocking both Emerson’s and Tuatara – he and Carl Vasta go way-back – Ian had this to say:

“I think of it this way: it’s like my sister married a guy that I really don’t like.  I still love her, but I’m just not going to see her as often anymore.”

I would be lying if I said it had been an easy ride: the primary reason that Ian’s always behind the bar is that, in a two-horse town, it’s tremendously difficult to find bar staff with a manager’s license that are prepared to work slightly-squiffy hours.  Ian also sets a high standard in terms of passion: any bar staff must be as nuts about good beer as he is.  Anyone less would stick out like a sore thumb, and the regulars that prop-up Tahi wouldn’t stand for it.  So after months (building now to years) of advertisements that remain unanswered, Ian is left to perpetually hold the fort.  There’s something exceptionally gratifying about ordering a pint and putting my cash directly in the pocket of the proprietor; however, I’d much sooner have Ian spend more time with his daughter.

Since 2008, Ian and Silke have been doing the right thing for the right reasons – serving good beer, from good places, to good people.  But like a great pint, all good things must eventually come to an end – and with their ten-year anniversary just around the corner, Ian and Silke are finally calling time on Tahi.  They’re upping-sticks and moving to Silke’s homeland – and Ian is champing at the bit for a crack at the German beer scene.  They’ve put Tahi on the market – their Trade Me advert has netted some enquiries, but none from like-minded folk – and depending on how long it takes to settle a sale, Ian and Silke aim to start their new adventure early next year.

There’s little doubt that the Northern beer scene will be immensely poorer for their loss; but the Marriotts are leaving behind much more than steampunk paraphernalia and a snappy bar name.  They’re leaving behind a blueprint for others to follow: evidence that you can establish a craft beer bar in a rural town and not become immediately insolvent.  They’re leaving a legacy of challenging tradition and taking a punt on palate evolution – and while it hasn’t been an easy ride, they’ve made a solid fist of it.

For the sake of our local Warkwoth beer scene, I can only hope that Tahi’s keys end-up in the hands of someone with as much integrity and passion as the Marriotts.

www.brewhui.com | facebook.com/brewhui | Twitter: @jasegurney

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