Friday 23 October 2009

What the XXXX?

When I was in Brisbane in early 2008, I felt a XXXX Brewery Tour coming on. No, it’s not filthy - XXXX, or Fourex, is Queensland’s most famous beer.

After the tour, I spoke with bar manager and tour guide Matt Meng about the attraction of beer, big machinery, tours, and why people like them mixed up together...

TR: Why do you think people come on these tours?

MM: XXXX is such a Queensland institution... and you can see the big red Xs on top of the building pretty much all the time. You think Queensland, you think XXXX, so people just want to come and see where it comes from.

TR: What part of the tour do you think people find most interesting?

MM: When the bottling line’s going, the river of beer as we like to call it, that’s usually where we get the oohs and ahs. But people really do enjoy the History Room, to see the history behind the Castlemaine and Perkins brewery and how the two came together.

TR: It is quite impressive, the whole river of beer.

MM: From what I’ve heard of other brewery tours, especially overseas, you don’t always get into the working side. At some breweries you just go to the old part of the brewery and see pictures. Here you can go into the site itself and see it being made first hand, all the way from the empty bottles being brought up, to being filled and put into the cartons and onto the back of a truck. The whole broad spectrum of beer.

TR: You might drink a beer or two at home, but you can’t quite visualise how much beer is made per hour here.

MM: Exactly. They’re filling 2400 bottles a minute; over an eight hour shift, that’s over a million bottles.

TR: How did you get into this line of work?

MM: I was actually poached, I guess, in a way. I finished university a couple of years ago and I’ve just been travelling, and I was working on a boat for Tangalooma. The people who run the brewery were on it at the time, I was working the bar there, and they said “Are you looking for some work?” And I said “Yes.” They said “Come on in,” so I did.

TR: So you’ve gone from being a barman to bar manager?

MM: I’ve been doing hospitality for a while, got me through university. So I had experience. I’d just finished up doing some labouring work, which got me overseas again, and I was looking for something else and sort fell into it, in the right place at the right time.

TR: It goes to show that you should never say working in a bar is dead end work, because it helped you get into this.

MM: Exactly. It’s great for now. I’m saving up some money to go overseas again. It’s a lot of fun.

TR: Do you drink much beer yourself?

MM: I do. I do love my beer, that’s why it’s a dream job. I tell all my friends back down in Victoria that I work for XXXX Brewery, and they’re all “Well, that’s the dream job for you, and you’re the envy of all the blokes down here.”

TR: Do you get any funny stories or odd comments on the tours?

MM: There’s a myth that there’s a direct tap from here to the Suncorp Stadium. So a couple of people have asked “Where’s the line that goes to the stadium?” and I’m like, “I wish I knew because I live around here.”

TR: Why are people so interested in beer?

MM: I don’t know. I guess it’s a global language. It’s … I’m not really sure.

TR: Beer is something you do find everywhere.

MM: Exactly, and there’s always a good story to be told over a beer, and it’s good to sit down and have a chat. It’s fantastic especially when you’re travelling, as most people are who come through here. They just want to sit down and have a bit of a yarn, and there’s a XXXX to go with it.

TR: The whole social lubricant?

MM: Exactly.

Classic XXXX Brewery Tours operate from Monday to Saturday, from the XXXX Ale House Visitor Centre, corner Black & Paten Streets, Milton, Brisbane. Adult $22 adult, concession $20. Bookings: (07) 3361 7597.

Matt Meng has now moved on from his job at the XXXX Brewery, but presumably still loves beer. Tim Richards received complimentary admission to the Classic XXXX Brewery Tour, and he’ll have a XXXX Gold.

Friday 16 October 2009

Signs and Portents: Poland 3

Gone to Hel and back? Or just dying for a pie in the most unlikely of places? This week I continue my survey of curious signs encountered on a Lonely Planet assignment through Poland in the depths of winter in 2006...

1. There’s nothing like that nice Mr Shakespeare to encourage confidence in an English language school... though you might wonder whether Poles are really motivated to speak just like the Bard.

Interestingly, the great playwright used to be styled as 'Szekspir' in Poland, though the original spelling of his name is usually used now. Szkoła języków obcych means 'school of foreign language', by the way, and this example was in the beautiful Main Town of Gdańsk.

The Bard was pleased that his passing mention of Poland in Hamlet had been noticed by the right people.

2. Don’t ever say something will only happen on 'a cold day in hell' if you’re heading to northern Poland. For on the end of a long sandy peninsula north of Gdańsk lies the attractive village of Hel. And when I was there in March 2006, it was very cold indeed. Still, how many people can say they’ve been to Hel and back - and saw a Baltic grey seal in an aquarium on the way?

The tourism bureau wondered why its “Go to Hel” campaign was failing to bring in the visitors.

3. No, this scary metallic fish seen in Hel wasn’t an aquatic offshoot of the robots in the Terminator movie series. It was actually a warning about maritime pollution - the sign reads 'Don't litter the sea'. It was also a tribute, I felt, to the surrealism endemic in Polish poster art.

Newly-released papers revealed that Poland’s former communist rulers had attempted to construct an artificial dolphin for their Socialist World amusement park.

4. This bumper sticker belonged to Gdynia businesswoman Beata Zielińska, a former Adelaide resident who had taken the secret of Australian meat pies back to her homeland and manufactured them to be sold to Polish schoolkids. The sticker reads 'The pie is good and cheap'. Quite right.

The EU was willing to approve manufacture of the Aussie meat pie, but drew the line at Vegemite.

5. This starkly evocative sign was one of many stencilled onto the giant concrete ruins of the bunkers at Wilczy Szaniec, better known in German as Wolfsschanze or in English as Wolf’s Lair. This hidden complex in the East Prussia region of Germany (now the Masuria region of northeast Poland) was Hitler’s wartime HQ from which he directed Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

It’s supremely ironic, I think, that the Führer's nerve centre, where he spent almost all the remaining years of WWII, is now deep within Polish territory. If you’re going to visit the ruins by the way, I couldn’t think of a more atmospheric time to do so than the midst of winter, when the broken concrete blocks and surrounding vegetation are thickly covered by snow.

Von Stauffenberg intended to show the Führer exactly how he felt about him with a surprise novelty gift.

More intriguing signs and portents to come...

Friday 9 October 2009

The Business End 1: LAX-SYD on V Australia

I’ve only been upgraded to international Business Class on two occasions. The first was on a flight from Perth to Bandar Seri Begawan in 1992; and as Royal Brunei Airlines didn’t serve alcohol on its flights, there wasn’t much popping of champagne corks.

The second time was two weeks ago from Los Angeles to Sydney, when Virgin's new airline V Australia bumped our media group up to Business.

Now, given that my trips in international Business apparently only happen every 17 years, and I could never afford to pay for it myself, this seems a good opportunity to share the secrets of the pointy end with my fellow travellers, via a review of Biz Class.

Is it really worth all that extra cash? This is what I thought...


It’s funny the tiny bits of excitement that being in Business Class can bring, even before finding your seat: having a single-digit row number on your boarding card, for example, or being asked to turn left inside the aircraft door instead of right.

That is, once you’ve made it through check-in. V Australia (I'll call them V from now on) takes off from Terminal 3 at LAX. It’s hard to sing the praises of Terminal 3 - it’s a long, dingy concrete box (like all the LAX terminals I saw), and particularly poorly signposted.

V’s check-in, through no fault of their own, is squeezed into a fairly cramped area at the front of the terminal, and it’s a bit messy and straggling even if you’re in the Biz Class queue.

However, boarding pass secured, I had access to the Alaska Airlines lounge. One of the attendants there said that Alaska would be moving out in due course, presumably giving V free rein to redesign the place. The lounge was comfortable but not lavish; no hot food, but a selection of salad, cheese and crackers, and a full bar.

Chatting about the merits of Montana and North Dakota, we got into conversation with some of our fellow passengers, who were just the type of Australian travellers those states want to attract - people who’ve done the USA’s big cities and want to try something new.


The first thing that strikes you in the Business Class cabin is the space. And I mean spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace. Seats are arranged in a widely spaced 2-3-2 configuration, with two metres clearance between you and the seatback in front. It’s a long way to reach for your inflight mag, but who cares? After years of Economy travel, it’s exhilarating just to be able to move around freely.

Behind a bulkhead at the rear of the cabin is a full-sized bar (see the image above, supplied by V). It’s a curved counter with four fixed barstools which swivel beneath it for safety when not being used. There’s a long shallow depression in the bar surface to rest glasses in, and a shelf of spirits and mixers against the bulkhead.

Staff will pour you a drink on request through the flight - though I did notice the bottles had disappeared by breakfast time the next morning, probably a sensible precaution against people overdoing it.


The seat is what you’re largely paying the big bucks for in Biz Class. It was distinctly roomier than the Premium Economy Class one I'd flown from Sydney in, but not phenomenally so - it was still fairly snug for my (admittedly broad) shoulders. The surface of the seat was firm but not uncomfortable, something I’ve noticed on all the 777s I’ve flown on recently.

Boeing makes a big deal of how much lighter these aircraft are, and therefore more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly, so I suspect the designers have thinned out the padding in the seats as well. It’s probably better for your back to have firm support, in any case.

The only flaw concerned tall people. The seat contains a broad, thick headrest which can be pushed up a little higher; but not high enough for everyone. For anyone over about 180cm (6 feet) tall, the headrest pushes into the back of your shoulders, an uncomfortable situation that could be remedied by the airline making the extension longer or removable. I stuffed the area with pillows to try to make it easier to deal with, or reclined the seat in order to slump down and avoid it.

When it’s time for sleep, the seat is folded down by a flight attendant into a flat bed with a sheet and blanket, and a privacy divider between you and your neighbour. When the lights are dimmed, a starfield appears as pinpricks of light on the ceiling. It’s a firm bed, but it’s definitely possible to get a few hours’ sleep on it, a huge advantage over Economy Class squeeziness.


V had the advantage of fitting these aircraft out from scratch, so the entertainment system is fantastic, definitely the highlight of the flight. It’s the first aircraft entertainment system I’ve encountered with wide screens, which makes a big difference to the movie viewing experience.

What’s even more exciting is the gaming experience. I’ve never bothered much with onboard games before, as the systems running them are usually painfully slow and it’s just not worth the hassle. V’s system, however, is fast and responsive, and there’s a broad selection of games beyond the usual Tetris and solitaire.

I spent hours playing Texas draw poker with a bunch of virtual opponents, which was great fun. It was just the sort of compulsive, absorbing distraction I want on a long flight.

You can even play some games with other passengers on the flight, which is a great idea and adds to the “fun” V marketing image. There’s also a chat room in which passengers can talk, though I didn’t encounter anyone else there the few times I logged in. I can’t see that feature lasting, frankly - all it’ll take is one embarrassing discussion hitting the media and it’ll be withdrawn. But what the hell, there are always the games.

There was one small flaw with the entertainment system, one shared by most airlines - the movie offering was too narrow for my tastes, with a big emphasis on Hollywood flicks. There were only three films I fancied watching - Milk, The Boat That Rocked and The Young Victoria (oh look, Jim Broadbent in period costume again) - and even they were arthouse-lite.

Given the system's presumably large capacity, I’d like to see a wider range of material, including more arthouse movies - if you’re paying for the premium class, it’d be nice to have some premium quality movies to watch. And I don’t know why airlines don’t serve up more TV series. On a 14 hour flight, it’d be great to have a six-part British comedy series - Beautiful People, The Robinsons or No Heroics, for example - to watch over the course of the journey.


I wasn’t blown away by the food - it was good without being spectacular, and presented attractively. To be honest, when you get on board a flight at midnight after snacking in the lounge, and having come from a domestic destination two timezones further on, all you want to do is sleep!


This was flawless. I don’t know if V pay their staff more than other airlines do, but they have a knack of employing people who are efficient, flexible, good-natured and clearly enjoy their jobs. As you’d expect, there’s a surplus of flight attendants in Biz Class; but on the trip over in Premium Economy I found the same helpful staff. Frankly, it was a relief to discover the flight attendants weren’t actually the slightly scary hyper-coiffed fembots depicted in V's TV ad featuring Sir Richard Branson...


You’d expect V’s Business Class to be good - and it was very good. Flaws like the short headrest will, I assume, be dealt with in due course; one of the attendants mentioned that adjustments were made to elements of the cabin from time to time, as the aircraft were still so new (and it's to V's credit that its staff were so open to constructive feedback). But of course the plentiful space and the opportunity to sleep on a flat bed were impressive.

I also found the flight attendants’ level of service to be excellent in both Business and Premium Economy.

But the real game-changer is V’s entertainment system, a huge asset on such a long flight in any class. I’d actually choose this airline over another if that was the main point of difference.


To give you a sense of proportion: when I wrote this piece, return Economy Class on V from Sydney to Los Angeles started from about A$1100; Premium Economy from A$2000; and Business Class from A$5000.

These are excellent when compared to the fares from a few years ago; even Premium Economy now is cheaper than Economy was then.

But is Business Class worth a few extra thousand dollars for a flat bed, quality headphones, fine service and the various other goodies? Only you can decide that.

I’d travel Business Class on V like a shot if I was made of money; but back in the real world, I’d definitely pay the extra bucks to go Premium Economy. With its own separate cabin and compact bar, and significant extra legroom over Economy, it might be the best compromise between price and comfort for most.

But Business Class was very very nice.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of and V Australia.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Tweeting in the USA

Glancing over the output of my Twitter feed for the past few weeks, I realised that, if I reversed the order of tweets, I’d have a neat microblog of my entire September trip to the USA.

So for those of you who aren’t on Twitter, because you haven’t got the time, are blocked by your workplace, or are still at point 2 in the 46 Stages of Twitter, here’s my American experience in bursts of 140 characters or fewer...

- In LA now - had a drink last night at one of the original Tiki bars, in El Segundo. Cool. 12:15 PM Sep 16th from web

- Had a leisurely walk from Hermosa Beach to Redondo Beach this morning in LA (also a hot dog). Hoping the sunlight will pre-empt jetlag. 12:16 PM Sep 16th from web

- First time in the USA, & many 'TV recognitions' in hotel: eg light switch flips up & toilet holds pool of water big enough to bathe a puppy! 12:23 PM Sep 16th from web

- Not that one would. Bathe a puppy there, I mean. 12:23 PM Sep 16th from web

- Stuck in Denver overnight after a flight was delayed and a connection was missed. Off to Montana (finally) today. 6:09 AM Sep 17th from web

- Just returned from riding a horse through a hilly forest in Montana. Brilliant experience: 9:59 PM Sep 17th from web

- We humans & horses loved it, but the ranch dogs enjoyed the ride most. They darted around through the forest keeping us safe from squirrels. 10:06 PM Sep 17th from web

- 3 things about US food/drink which I've found to be true: a) coffee is awful; b) portions are enormous; c) Montanan steaks are big & tasty. 10:22 PM Sep 18th from web

- And Americans are phenomenally easy to chat to, I get caught up in random conversations everywhere ("Oh, what's that accent?!"). 10:23 PM Sep 18th from web

- Oh, by the way, I think you should know I've been drinking Moose Drool: 10:23 PM Sep 18th from web

- How do Americans get to eat pie at all? Meal portions are so HUGE that dessert is impossible (currently full of Tex-Mex in Glendive, MT). 10:11 PM Sep 19th from web

- Explored fossil country @ Great Plains Dinosaur Museum. There's also a museum elsewhere run by creationists, rewriting dino history. Nutty! 10:27 PM Sep 19th from web

- Here's the link to the real dinosaur museum: Another good museum w great dino displays: 10:32 PM Sep 19th from web

- BTW it was 35 degrees Celcius today in Montana. 35! On 19 September! Climate change, anyone? 10:37 PM Sep 19th from web

- Clam chowder, dead skunks, lofty mountains, open roads & waffle mixture: is this Montana, USA... or Australia? 11:38 PM Sep 19th from web

- Now in Medora, N Dakota. Was privileged to see Sitting Bull's headdress taken from its museum case for transport to new home on reservation. 12:24 PM Sep 21st from web

- At dawn we headed into T Roosevelt National Park 4 animal spotting: saw elk, mule deer, wild horses... and buffalo! 12:28 PM Sep 21st from web

- Now in Bismarck, capital of North Dakota, named after you-know-who. Lots of German and Scandinavians settled here (anyone seen 'Fargo'?). 9:39 PM Sep 21st from web

- Came within a toucher of buying a pair of cowboy boots today before I remembered that high-arch boots hurt my feet, and sanity prevailed. 9:40 PM Sep 21st from web

- Medical ads on US TV are plain odd: "Take our new wonder drug! Disclaimer: May cause palpitations, ulcers, tics, shingles, stigmata & gas". 11:55 PM Sep 21st from web

- In hotel bar, and bar staff has put out hot food for people to nibble on for free while drinking. MORE FOOD! No-one could ever starve here. 6:09 PM Sep 22nd from web

- Had pumpkin pie for the 1st time yesterday. Was dubious as, well, it's a vegetable; but it was good. Also had apple pie like Mom makes. 3:48 PM Sep 23rd from web

- At LAX; just got bumped up to Business Class to Sydney on V Australia. Sweeeeet. In Alaska Airlines lounge now, chillin' out. 9:59 PM Sep 23rd from web

- What happened when I rode into the cowboy town of Medora, ND, as Sitting Bull's headdress prepared to depart? 11:09 AM Sep 25th from web

- Back home from the USA after four flights, a bus ride and a tram ride. And it was 12°C and drizzly to welcome me home. Nice one, Melbourne. 4:40 PM Sep 25th from web

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Montana Office of Tourism, North Dakota Tourism, and V Australia.