The idea of the Charming Squire has been around for years and Queensland is the last state to get a Squire-themed pub. At one point, it might have been at M&A in the Valley, now home to Papa Jacks and Mighty Mighty, but as of about July last year, Lion had locked in a spot on Grey Street at the northern end of South Bank.
It turns out the spot was an enormous tenancy in the recently expanded Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre. Seriously, it takes like five minutes to walk the length of this place which includes a small cafe, restaurant, bar, upstairs brewery and more seating than you can poke a stick at. It puts every other “craft” beer bar in town into perspective. The operators describe it as:
With the grandeur of high ceilings and minimalist finishes, the interior design and architecture will evoke a sense of organic and raw craftsmanship.
That’s the interior in a very wanky nutshell, although it neglects to mention the omnipresent James Squire branding. My friends noticed a few defects in the finishes and fixtures which I didn’t pick up on because the place is huge. The Charming Squire is Westfield to every other beer bar in town’s corner shop, not just in size but also in staff numbers and homeliness. Fortunately, the menu is comparable to any other pub and the food came out in a reasonable time, given the quantity of patrons. The Charming Squire also has the distinction of being the only place in Brisbane that serves half decent beer with a properly functioning air conditioning system*.
Speaking of the operators, the structure behinds the scenes is very much like a collab. The Mantle Group – otherwise known as the Pig ‘N’ Whistle chain of pubs and Jimmy’s on the Mall – run the place. Lion have put up branding, some money and the brewhouse kit, even though what gets made in the brewhouse isn’t an official “James Squire” beer (refer Ale of a Time’s discussion of the similar situation at the Portland Hotel in Melbourne).
James Squire’s Beers
It’s been a while since I worked through the Jimmy Squeak (I’m trying to start a thing – is it working?) range. One of my formative beer experiences involved a James Squire beer tasting at the Story Bridge Hotel in 2012. It was truly an eye opening experience. Who knew you could mix chocolate cake with dark beer?
So I was intrigued by the prospect of sitting down and working my way through the full range again. Would there be any surprises or would they just be a slightly less terrible industrial beer? Turns out, it was a mixed affair.
Without going into too much detail, the Hop Thief American Pale Ale (6) and The Constable Copper Ale have a good deal going for them, the former showing some signs of late addition American hops and the latter mid-strength but full flavoured with the characteristic fruitiness of mild beers. It just so happens that these were two that I hadn’t had before – no preconceived notions to work with.
The Jack of Spades Porter, which was recently given the nod in a blind tasting conducted by the Crafty Pint, is another decent selection but very much drier than most porter drinkers would be used to. The Nine Tails Amber Ale is still sufficiently malty – it was always my favourite – to penetrate the fog of a nine-beer session but the body remains lacking when compared to what I normally drink. The Stowaway IPA is nowhere near as piercingly bitter as I recall but that’s more due to my palate lupulin shifting than anything else.
150 Lashes Pale Ale, The Chancer Golden Ale and
Sundowner Lager Going Once Galaxy Ale are all cut from the same cloth, being sweet, to the point of cloying in the Golden Ale’s case, dry finishing, low bodied, pale and low bitterness. I didn’t get to try the lager, having worked my way through nine of the ten beer options, but the house-made “Galaxy Ale” was basically a marginally nicer 150 Lashes with Galaxy hops.
And the Four Wives Pilsner? Who can remember?
While there are a few quite drinkable beers, the real reason I won’t be frequenting the Charming Squire often is that James Squire beers get pretty boring pretty quickly. Even halfway through a session, when my senses are dulled to the point of numbness and despite the a wide range of styles, it’s obvious that the beers are made to the same template: hops for bitterness and limited aroma; always sweet with a dry finish; and make sure there’s some sugar in there because they won’t know what to do with a full bodied beer. Your only other options are bottled beers that Lion has imported or brewed under licence. I imagine most of our readers would prefer a bit more variety.
For the record, half pints are $5 and pints $9. Tomahawk, just down the street, charges $9 for 395mL of standard strength beer, going up to $14 if it’s imported.
Craft vs crafty
Reader and beer enthusiast, BeermasterDave paid a visit to the Charming Squire the day before I did. Not a blogger, he nonetheless took to scribbling down a quick note about James Squire and had this to say:
Yes the beer is faux craft, pretending to be something to the masses that it clearly isn’t, but you know what? I don’t care. Not one bit. Yes there are many awesome places now in brisbane [sic – because I assume it was written on a phone], especially in the craft beer scene, but I will definitely be back to the charming squire to sample some of that golden ale that got me hooked on good tasting beer all those years ago.
The first James Squire branded beer was released in 1998. This pre-dates the establishment of most prominent “craft” breweries. For example, Holgate opened in 1999, Feral Brewing got off the ground in 2002, Moo Brew in 2005, Burleigh Brewing started in 2007 and in 2008, Stone & Wood, McLaren Vale and 4 Pines.
There are only a handful of “craft” breweries established before then that are still around: Coopers (1862), Lord Nelson (1986), Grand Ridge (1989), Bootleg (1994), Mountain Goat (1997) and Matso’s (1997). That’s not an exhaustive list but it is a lot shorter than the other one.
I feel there’s a meme floating around that Lion has this brand to tap into the craft beer market. Look again at the dates and tell me who established what market in this country. James Squire was, and always has been, crooking a finger and inviting the industrial swill drinkers over for something a bit different, a bit fancier, a bit better than what they’ve been drinking. As much as I loathe the term gateway beer, that’s exactly what James Squire is now, but that concept only works when there’s something on the other side of the gate. For a long time for many people, James Squire was the gateway and the greener grass in one beer.
Granted, the Squire range is not particularly interesting and definitely shows its heritage in the way the beers are constructed but the Australian small-scale beer market exists, at least in part, because Lion dumped a pile of cash into making, marketing and selling James Squire.
So Dave’s right not to give a fuck what you think. You don’t have to like the beer but the hipsters who screw their noses up at the big conglomerate making “faux-craft” beer should at least acknowledge the dates, instead of donning ideological blinkers and being total beer wankers about the whole thing.
Before people go to lynch me for defending the multi-national brewer again, if the pub and most of the beers aren’t poop, the James Squire story is a big steaming pile of poop. You can read Pete Mitcham’s more questioning and Glen Humpries’ outright takedowns. I’m not going to defend that because it’s bullshit. But is it really that different to the dribble written on the side of bottles coming out of most small breweries? Or the notion that craft brewers are artistes who don’t care about money? Or any of the insanely stupefying marketing gimmicks we’ve seen over the years (e.g. 1000 IBUs of hops, 99-can packs, beer made with moon dust)?
That’s two sides of the same coin in my mind.
The Charming Squire
- Is big, pretty and well located
- Has lots of branding and some input from Lion Co
- Is well run with a decent menu
- Has a range of pedestrian but sessionable beers
- Said beers pre-date most of the “craft” beer industry
*Some of my colleagues were involved in the design of the Charming Squire.