Monday, May 16, 2011

The Wig and Pen: Single-handedly Making Canberra Liveable Since 1994!

Okay, okay, I know - that was a cheap shot at Canberra, and I'm not proud of it.  It's just that it's so easy to do! 

Making fun of Canberra seems to be an Australian national past-time - at least, that was the impression I got in the months and weeks leading up to our trip.   Whenever folks (Australian or not) discovered that I would be going on an epic plane ride down under, they politely asked me whereabouts I would be going.  A fair question, and I responded honestly - a week in Canberra, some beach time in Brisbane, then to Sydney for a few days.  Generally speaking, most people were polite, but almost without exception, the listener would noticeably bristle at the mention of the nation's capital.   I sometimes didn't even get to mention the second and third destinations before being interrupted: "Canberra?  For a week?...*confused pause*... Do you have family there? Business?  Or is there some other excuse for visiting what would happen if plain Quaker Oats were to morph into a functioning city?"  Even when I was in Canberra, I still felt like I had to justify my being there.  It's like the town motto was "Canberra: We have to be here, what's your excuse?"  By the end of the trip I decided to skip the inevitable line of questioning.  When folks asked where we'd been so far, I just responded: "Canberra.  Visiting family.  For Easter weekend."  And that usually satisfied them, but even then I wasn't sure.

Part of the problem with Canberra is that its a planned capital, designed and build specifically to be the nation's capital.  In fact, Canberra owes its very existence to the fact that Sydney and Melbourne don't really like each other.  If you think of Australia like a mob boss (and I encourage you to do so!), Sydney and Melbourne would be like the feuding, spoiled bratty sons who spend all their free time squabbling over who gets to be in charge when daddy shuffles off.  Realizing that giving the responsibility to one son would lead to years of feuding and casual name-calling from the other, the wise old Don decided to skip the whole process and raise an orphan from scratch, eventually putting him in charge.   Now imagine this new orphan is kind of lame, very business-like, wears a suit all the time - if it were Mad Men, he would be far less like Don Draper and far more like that married guy with the bow tie and lollipop - and there you have Canberra in a nutshell.  So the city is new, clean, a bit boring and lacks an interesting history - couple that with the fact that it's the home of the nation's government, and thus the target of the nation's ire - and you'll pretty much understand why most Australians seem to be less than proud of their capital city.

But I'll say it without shame - I actually liked Canberra.  Now, I'll admit that if I were to actually live there, the city would probably get a bit boring after a while, and Canberra does have that worky-work-work feel that downtown Toronto does, but then again, most cities are pretty lame - it's only a select few that have anything interesting going on.   Canberra was clean, well-organized, quiet, had some lovely parks and gardens, and the people were generally quite friendly.  Because of the parliament buildings, national museums and galleries, Canberra nicely satisfied my need to see "official" things when I travel, freeing my conscience to visit the more kitschy, touristy attractions elsewhere.   And because I'm a history nerd, I quite enjoyed visiting Parliament and the other major governmental places, especially the War Museum and ANZAC memorial.  I could figure things out without too much problems, there seemed to be a lot of restaurants, bars, and a pretty damned big mall.  

And above all, Canberra has the Wig and Pen, and that's sufficient awesomeness to shore up any city's flagging reputation.  This place was awesome.

When I put forward the question to some Aussie beer-lovers online as to where I should partake in the finer ales in Canberra, the answer was loud and clear - the Wig and Pen, no question about it.   And dammit, they were right.   Founded in 1994 by a microbiologist by name of  Lachie McOmish, the Wig and Pen is a beer-lover's wet dream.   All the brews available on tap are made on site, and without exception, they were fantastic.  Four cask taps, three seasonals, about eight regular offerings, and three one-offs - all for about the same price you'd pay for a drab Australian lager down the street.
Brewing tuns visible in the back window.

The place is a real anomaly in the neighborhood, tucked away in a generic shopping building near nowhere in particular and surrounded by office buildings of an officious and governmental nature.  Not where you'd expect to find a brewpub, at any rate, but fortunately, it was only two blocks from my apartment so it was a real treat.

It has a lovely green English pub exterior with patio seating for about 20, and a small, cozy interior for about 80-100.  It also had the kind of atmosphere I like: simple seating arrangement, wood-paneled bar area, friendly beer-loving patrons.  And no TV that I could see - this was a social spot to be sure.  I went both times in the afternoon and it only really felt crowded around 5ish, which is understandable.  Brewing equipment is visible from your table if you sit near the back, as we did.

The bartending staff were quite friendly (a bit of an anomaly in Australia as well), and were quite willing to let you think your selection over without feeling slowed down.  They also handled an uncooperative cask tap with equal patience.  The day bartender was quite affable, and enjoyed talking brews and footy with me. I met the brewmaster, Richard, for a quick moment, and found him to be the pinnacle of Australian modesty and self-deprecation, as he only hoped that I was able to find "something in the lineup I could drink." I assured him I certainly had.
A snifter of Bob's Armpit.

The lineup is quite diverse, ranging from English real ale, Koelsch, wild ale and oatmeal stout.  Not a pedestrian brew in the bunch, and generally speaking all of which are very well-brewed.   I personally recommend their Lazy Days cask ale, Velvet Cream Stout (which tasted a great deal like McAuslan Oatmeal Stout), Bob's Armpit (a lambic-wild ale one-off concoction) and the Kamberra Koelsch. Tucked away I could see a fine little Australian and Belgian bottled collection as well.

Certainly the place to hit up in Canberra, the Wig and Pen was one of the real highlights of my trip.  Great home-brewed selection, friendly atmosphere, the Wig and Pen is a real exception from the general city-wide trend of crowded pubs full of Australian macros and Guinness. A real refuge for those who love craft brews.  A bit pricey, but only slightly more so than the other places around town; consider what you're getting quality-wise on tap, and I think an extra dollar a pint is more than acceptable.  My only suggestion for the pub is that there be some sort of sampler option for folks like yours truly who just want to dive right in and try everything on the menu. 

So if you find yourself stuck in the city of Canberra, don't lose heart - a fantastic brewpub is right around the corner that will certainly make your trip worthwhile.

Cheers to the Wig and Pen!

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