MediaSeptember 14, 2017

How a student magazine’s booze reviews became a social media hit


Critic Te Arohi, the official magazine of the Otago University Student Association, has found itself a hit with Critic Booze Reviews, featuring reviews of the cheapest alcohol available. Sam Brooks interviews the prolific and heroic reviewer ‘Swilliams Shakesbeer’.

“Shitty alcohol, shitty reviews.”

The first is undoubtedly true. The second, less so.

The reviews, written under the inventive pseudonym Swilliam Shakesbeer, are literary and straight-up; it’s like reading the New Yorker after spilling a Double Brown all over it. Here are some of his gems:

“Canterbury Cream is like the best boyfriend you could ask for: sweet, gentle, always making you feel better about yourself, and making every other girl in the room jealous.”

“If that douchebag that dropped out of your high school in year 11, wears a Monster Energy trucker cap everywhere, has ‘tribal’ tattoos despite being whiter than John Key in a snowstorm, and whose Facebook profile picture is a lowered Hilux, were an alcoholic drink, he would be a Billy Mav.”

“It’s hard to review Speight’s. It has so much meaning to so many people. It was the first beer my father ever gave me. It’s the beer that has fuelled Scarfies for generations. Would I say it’s the tastiest beer in the world? No. But it’s the beer that makes me think of home, that calms my fears, that I know will always be there for me.”

It’s a classic part of student culture – how do we drink as much as possible while spending as little of our meagre student allowance as possible? Critic’s Booze Reviews taps into that, and does so unpretentiously. As a aficianado of cheap alcohol myself, I wanted to talk to Shakesbeer about why he does this, why his reviews have been a hit, and what’s special about cheap (and bad) alcohol.

An incredibly photorealistic depiction of Swilliam Shakesbeer.

Sam Brooks: So, the reviews are great. As someone who likes both a deal and bad alcohol, they’re bloody hilarious. What gave you the idea to review alcohol?

Swilliam Shakesbeer: Writing for Critic, we’re all about connecting with our readers, and there’s nothing more quintessentially scarfie than shitty, cheap alcohol. We felt like it was basically a public service, our readers needed to know how to make their choices. Just basic journalistic integrity, giving the people what they need.

You guys have a huge following on Facebook as well – well over fifteen thousand. Did it catch on immediately or was it kind of like a slow burn?

We’ve been publishing the reviews in the magazine for almost a year now, and my editor suggested I made a Facebook page. I posted for a couple weeks but it didn’t really catch on – it languished at about a hundred likes – then suddenly it took off out of nowhere, A bunch of people in Gisborne apparently took great offence to my criticism of Purple Goanna, and started making a big deal out of it, and suddenly it had reached over 100,000 people.

In fairness, Purple Goanna is foul. I remember I bought some for my 21st birthday as kind of a joke, and I think I’m still trying to process it through my system.

I’ve never been brave and/or stupid enough to try it on my own, so reviewing a whole box of them was a very eye-opening experience. I don’t think I’ll be going back. My body would probably immediately reject that poison.

What’s the worst thing you’ve had to review for the feature?

The worst I’ve ever done was easily El Diablo Super Strong Brew. It’s a 12% lager that comes on 500ml cans for $4 a piece. It’s basically just Corona with two shots of vodka in it. I’ve never had a beer that burns like tequila before. El Diablo is an appropriate name, because only the devil could take something as beautiful as beer and turn it into that atrocity.

I don’t drink beer, but even that sounds like an abomination. Do people actually buy and drink that stuff?

Sadism and masochism isn’t just for the bedroom, it applies to other areas of life too apparently.

The ‘abomination’ El Diablo Super Strong Brew.

And on that note, there’s like a definite pleasure to finding an alcohol that balances your budget while still being nice. I figure it’s much harder with wine than it is with RTDs, beers and spirits, which is what you tend to review. Have you figured out the trick to balancing those two things?

I’m a huge fan of doing a 50/50 mix of goon and Lift. It’s hard to get cheaper than goon – I wrote an investigative feature earlier this year trying to find the cheapest alcohol in Dunedin for dollars per standard drink. Mystic Ridge wine goon is pretty much always the go to on that scale. It tastes like dirty kitchen water, but if you mix it well it you can get buggered on a budget.

The terrifying drink I developed for myself a few years ago, which is maybe a bit classier than goon and lift – but not by much – is a mixture of cheap red wine, vodka, sprite and orange juice. It gets you properly gone in about two glasses. My friends have learned to run the other way when it comes up in conversation.

Have people reached out to you to be reviewed at all? And what has the other kind of community’s, such as it is, response been?

The OUSA charter doesn’t allow us to promote alcohol brands, so even if someone reached out we wouldn’t be able to unfortunately. That being said, we’re basically doing free advertising for the local bottle shops. One place was selling expired Valumba goons for under 50c a standard, and apparently sold out of their entire stock within an hour and a half of us posting the review on Facebook.

That’s terrifying.

In terms of community response, it’s been huge. I’ve had a couple hundred people messages the page asking for a review of their favorite bevvy – Cody’s and Lion Brown have been the most requested. And I’ve had a handful of angry messages from bogans who were personally offended that I didn’t absolutely love Billy Mavericks

Is there anything that you’re looking forward to reviewing?

I’ve been asked to write some genuine craft beer reviews for Pursuit of Hoppiness, so that’s going to be interesting. Wakachangi also has a special place in my heart, I’m really keen to do that, but it’s important that I do it right. Leigh Hart is a great New Zealander, and I wouldn’t want to do anything to upset him.

Do you have any aspirations to move onto more expensive and fancier alcohol? Or is there a passion you have for the cheaper things in life, or at least alcohol?

I love a craft beer, but it’s so hard to justify when Southern Gold is on the shelf next to it for 1/3 the price. I want to own a home someday, so I can’t be throwing my money around on smashed avocados and Emersons Pilsner.

Fair, fair. And last question: What’s your usual go-to when you’re not reviewing?

Speights will always have a special place in my heart. It’s the first beer my dad ever gave me. It’s been responsible for some of the best nights of my life and the best friends I’ve ever had. At the end of the day, alcohol is about more than just taste, its about what it means to you in your heart. Sure, people can reject your favorite drink and tell you it tastes like a bleached arsehole, but what matters it how it makes you feel.

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