Drink yourself for bliss? The rise and fall of beer in New Zealand

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Drink yourself for bliss? The rise and fall of beer in New Zealand

In the corner of the pub past the fading portrait of David Lange, and the faded red banner declaring “United we Stand”. Past the sepia-toned newspaper clippings of miners gathered round mass graves and another with a front page headline declaring that the last ton had been dug. Past all of that, against the din of the cold and thick West Coast rain that seems to be getting colder and thicker, sits Russell Innes, grey moustache long since crept over his lip, black cap atop his head, a pint of beer resting in his paw, enjoying his semi-retirement.

He lifts his drink before telling a passer-through about his teenage years as a sawmiller earning more coin than his airport engineer father ever did. There was money, then, he says. Good money. It was enough for a young man to spend his disposable income on whatever drink he might care for. Back then it was Speights. Back then there weren’t many options.

When the wages fell away in forestry he worked as a fisherman because that was where the money was. Then the wages fell away again and you couldn’t do much about it.

In his words: “If you’ve got a boatload of fucking fish out there you can’t sit out there on the ocean for a fucking month and negotiate the fucking issue.”

So he went driving mining trucks up Paparoa mine, “doing the West Coast thing”, where you are perched on a trail with only a foot or so either side and a hundred foot drop off if you mess up.

“You’re running on your nerves,” Innes says. “You need a drink after that.”

The publican of the Formerly the Blackball Hilton, Phil Lemmon, takes his cue and pours Innes a Monteith’s. A Monteith’s because a while back the only place in town serving Speights on tap closed down.

“We turned him to the dark side,” Lemmon says, surrounded by history – of posters and photographs and newspapers, of life on the coast, of a time slowly surrendering to history – a time that Lemmon moved here to try to preserve.

“It’s the last piece of real New Zealand left,” he says.

Formerly the Blackball Hilton, Blackball.

Formerly the Blackball Hilton, Blackball. Photo: supplied

He grew up in that part of the country – out in the back blocks of the Hawke’s Bay where you knew your neighbour and they knew you. If you had a problem you could ask. If you had an issue, chances were you could find someone at your local with just the expertise. It’s that feeling, that longing that brought Lemmon down here from Auckland.

Once he was a truck driver. Now he is a publican overseeing an establishment that was once just called “The Hilton” until the international hotel chain cried foul. So the pub changed its name to “formerly” and they haven’t heard anything since.

It’s a longing to preserve something of the country that he sees as being diluted.

“It’s all been watered down,” he says. “That family attitude has gone.”

And with it goes the rural pub and the jobs that sustained it. The sorts of jobs that saw Blackball grow into a town of thousands and the home of workers’ rights. Then that population fell away when the work went away and the mines closed down.

Those pubs, says Lemmon, were once the heart of communities like these. They were once the heart of tiny townships all the way through the valley that is home to the Grey River. It begins somewhere up in the Southern Alps and continues on all the way onto Greymouth.

Ngahere, Mawheraiti, Taylorville and Dobson – they once all had those sort of pubs. Even though the Mawheraiti Hotel closed at Christmas, the only clues that this was once a hub for the valley farmers is a sign advertising Speights and a Sky Television dish already thick with moss. Now those communities have mothballed wooden buildings filled with the memories of a New Zealand gone by. It is likely that is all they ever will be. Because who would try to buy back that “then” piece of New Zealand now?

And with that piece slowly goes a piece of our culture, says Lemmon. The New Zealand that talked things through over a pint. The New Zealand that worked hard for a decent wage and had earned the right to drink some of it.

That New Zealand was male, it was working class, and it drank beer. Ever since Captain James Cook first brewed up a batch on the Endeavour in the Dusky Sound in 1773. It drank it through colonisation – as a British import that satiated the country’s white settlers who found themselves in a foreign land with higher wages and cheaper brew. It drank through the explosion of primary industry – mining, agriculture and fishing. It increasingly drank it through two world wars, through prohibition and 6 o’clock closing.

But then, around the mid 1970s, something happened. There was a high water mark when New Zealand’s beer consumption reached a peak and slowly began to fade away, dropping from 400 million litres in 1984 to 280 million litres last year. It dropped through voluntary unionisation, the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, and the birth of Jonah Lomu. Through the first appearance of Footrot Flats and beer advertisements that rammed home loyalty, fraternity and masculinity. It continued to drop all the way through to this moment in 2016 with Russell Innes sitting on a bar stool in front of a fridge offering dozens of alcoholic drinking options, sipping on his second pint of the early afternoon.

But the question Innes and Lemmon can’t quite answer, save for a craving for a different time in our history, is why?

 

It’s how we’re drinking

“This place is like a church,” Alex Biedermann says, inspecting the giant copper tanks in front of him. They sit like Byzantine cupolas inside a vast hall lined with hospital green tiles. Once there were dozens of workers in the old DB (formerly Dominion Breweries) brewhouse – turning wheels, adjusting dials and polishing that once gleaming metal.

“It’s a beautiful place,” he says.

These tanks once worked in the service of the type of beer which gained prominence in the mid 20th century. DB, along with its major competitor Lion (formerly New Zealand Breweries) brewed beer that was mass produced, largely homogenous and extraordinarily popular. It was sweet, brown and came delivered to pubs in 500 litre tanks.

As economic conditions improved after the Great Depression of 1927 there was an explosion of beer drinking. In 1933 we consumed only 25.5 litres of beer per person, but by 1957 it was 104 litres per person – a four fold increase.

Evening Post (Wellington, N.Z.). The Evening Post (Newspaper) :Photograph of people drinking at the Porirua Tavern. Ref: PADL-000185. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22348242

The Porirua Tavern on the last day of 6 o’clock closing, October 1967: Evening Post. Ref: PADL-000185. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22348242.

Those were the boom times for the beer industry. But now the copper in the old brewhouse is dull. The room in South Auckland is only a stop on a tour of what once was.

Bierdermann, a native German master brewer who trained in the oldest brewery in the world, is now DB’s Beer Ambassador, tasked with helping set up breweries, educating customers and taking the DB story to the public.

Bierdermann cannot understand the overall decline of beer consumption – even in his home country.

He is diplomatic when describing the beer that used to be created here in the old brewhouse. He concerns himself more with the purity of brewing – of creating the beer rather than worrying how to sell it.

Bierdermann describes brewing as the fusion of science and art.

“Most of the time it was not about a certain style or styles when I learned brewing. It was more about learning to make a perfect beer whatever it was in the end,” he says. “Any beer can be brewed perfectly.”

He walks through linoleum halls, past various incarnations of the beer that was once created and the advertisements that once tried to sell it.

“Today’s great drink,” one reads, a rosy faced besuited man holding up a frothy pint to the viewer. “The beer that everybody wants to drink.”

That beer was Waitemata. No one drinks it anymore. It doesn’t exist.

Bierdermann walks past black and white photographs depicting how beer used to be made. Men stand over vast wooden vats with pitchforks in hand.

“You can see brewing is really hands on work,” he says, before moving on to the future.

The new brewhouse is stainless steel. These tanks can make 12 brews a day, each of about 33,000 litres, and can run Tiger, Heineken and DB Export all effectively at the same time.

That production line process, which now pushes out 400,000 litres of beer a day from this site, is more modern, more mechanised, more sterile than the copper church of years gone by.

After brewing, the beer is held and fermented before being pushed out to the production line where 25,000 bottles are filled then shipped out across the country.

Sales of premium beers like Tiger and Heineken are holding steady. It is the “mainstream” beers – the ones that made up that huge majority of beer consumption for so long – that are causing concern. Their sales have plummeted, according to Nielsen data.

Mainstream beer (think Tui, Speights, Lion Red) is at 35% of “off premise” (like supermarkets or liquor stores) beer sales, compared to 44% five years ago. However premium beer has increased from 16% to 21% of all beer sales in the same time. Running alongside this trend is the craft beer market, which within industry’s figures includes Monteith’s and Mac’s along with more boutique brewers like Garage Project. Five years ago craft was 4% of the market – now it is 6%.

This has led beer executives to do some soul searching about how they can better understand what has happened. Because they can’t just stop producing a losing product. As an internal report produced for the industry says: “As consumers change, volume is shifting from ‘traditional’ market segments to more ‘modern’ market segments. There is risk associated with this as there is a lot of historic volume in these ‘traditional’ segments.”

In other words, even though mainstream beer consumption is on the decline, mass production gives large beer companies enough scale to create products that might break the long downward trend.

 

The death of bland: the slow decline of mainstream beer

The Brewers Association, the advocacy group made up of Lion, DB and Australian breweries, often put out materials flush with stats and infographics and timelines trying to make sense of it all, while pushing the vast good it says the beer industry does for the country. One such booklet is headlined: “The facts”. These are facts which do not bode well for beer.

“Alcohol consumption in New Zealand is trending down and is now at a 50 year low,” it reads. “We are now drinking at about the same levels as we were in 1961.”

But that does not tell the whole story. A graph on the following page shows the per capita consumption of all alcohol from 1961 to 2010. Beer once outstripped all other alcoholic beverages by a factor of five, about 6.5 litres of pure alcohol per person, per year. The proud amber line in the association’s booklet starts a mile apart from all others, and rises through the 1960s and into the mid 1970s. There it peaks. But then the line progressively trends down and down through the years, initially through oil crises and carless days, before settling almost exactly where wine consumption now sits – about 3 litres of pure alcohol per person, per year.

View of patrons and bar facilities, Wellington Working Men's Club.. Dominion post (Newspaper) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. . Ref: EP/1977/2627/5A-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23183845. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Patrons at Wellington Working Men’s Club, 1977. Dominion Post: Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1977/2627/5A-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23183845.

Since 1978 beer consumption has declined at an average of 2% each year for 37 years while wine consumption has doubled.

Doug Banks has felt every one of those drops.

The technical manager of DB started in beer during those peak years. He came from the food industry, working as a microbiologist, applying his expertise to eggs and pies. But he decided that what he saw in food scared him too much. He wanted a safer career path.

“You can’t poison anyone with beer.”

Since then he has seen almost all the breweries in the DB stable rebuilt. He saw the start of product diversification as early as the 1980s. He saw the evolution from corked bottles and crates to aluminum cans and screw tops.

Beer brewing has always been about development and evolution, but for a long time the monopoly on taste meant it didn’t really have to be. As soon as a new product seemed to segment the market, the other brewery would try to get supremacy in that area. “It was a very competitive environment,” Banks says.

But that has its issues. Marketing so many different products – DB alone sells 50-60 products, more than the entire market in the past – is costly. “It’s tough to get your return off the investment if you have to market all your beers… that wasn’t the case before.”

Then there were fewer beers, fewer ad campaigns.

Banks has jotted down notes why he thinks nobody drinks mainstream beer anymore. It is a blue biroed history of a changing market. “You’re seeing a proliferation of different drinks,” he says. “RTDs, water, energy drinks, new soft drinks – all competing for the same throat.” He cites drink driving laws, the rise of craft beer and a changing demographic of New Zealand.

Not every culture is a beer drinking one, Banks says. But there are similar internal crises going on in the beer markets of most western nations – even ones that drink at a much higher rate than New Zealand. America, Australia, Britain, even Biedermann’s Germany have experienced a downturn in their overall beer-drinking cultures. All have seen an increase in craft breweries.

New Zealand is a slave to those larger forces but it has also grown up with a unique history where drinking almost permeated the DNA. Has our DNA mutated?

 

Time, gentlemen: the six o’clock swill

A little over a decade ago Greg Ryan was at a Belgian train station, looking for a place to kill some time. He and his wife had done the battlefield tours of the Western Front – Ypres and Passchendaele – and were now on their way to their next stop. At most train stations Ryan had visited, the fare had usually been rather disappointing. There might be some sandwiches, some potato chips, some occasionally half-decent hot beverage. But here, at this train station, he was in awe of what he found. It was a beer bar – a high altar of Belgian creations. There were upwards of 40 such beverages on tap, ready for eager commuters to partake in.

He had a simple question: Why in somewhere like Belgium is there such a strong beer appreciation culture but back home in New Zealand it was so comparatively weak?

Ryan, the dean of the Faculty of Environment, Society and Design at Lincoln University, had always been interested in drinking. As a student himself it was Double Brown – cheap but cheerful beer. But even in his youth he found himself gravitating towards beer with more substance. Then, in his later life as an academic his research became more serious. He became a beer historian.

For a long time New Zealanders didn’t have any choice, Ryan says. At the turn of the 20th century there were about 100 breweries – one for every 5000 people. But by the time WWII broke out there were only 30.

Then in 1942 the Government followed the lead of Britain and Australia and forced brewers to lower their alcohol content. “You could scull one if you need to,” Ryan says. “After the war, beer consumption goes up and up. The beer is weaker, but there is more quantity.”

And after the war the drinking kept going as consumers adapted to the new brew and beer makers saw no reason to change. The pub, which women were prohibited from working at until 1967, became the place for those men who had returned from war to gather.

“These were generations of men who were shaped by experiences of two world wars,” Ryan says. “You don’t have music or dancing or food.”

Men, and a dog, in the Denniston Hotel. Pascoe, John Dobree, 1908-1972 :Photographic albums, prints and negatives. Ref: 1/4-001245-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22380772.

Men, and a dog, in the Denniston Hotel. Pascoe, John Dobree, 1908-1972 :Photographic albums, prints and negatives. Ref: 1/4-001245-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22380772.

In 1918, pubs were forced to close at 6pm thanks to a temperance movement which preached the evils of alcohol. Ironically, this legislation led to intense binging where beer was pumped out by hose to awaiting punters.

It was that same temperance movement that protested outside the Waitemata Brewery opening in 1929. They came to ask God to do “what man will not do”.

“We ask thee to turn this building into a flour mill, a woolen mill, a dairy factory or a church.”

God did none of these things. Instead the “6 o’clock’ swill”, as it was known, created a monster in New Zealand’s pub culture.

“Citizens drink, jowl by jowl like pigs at a trough, what they are given instead of what they want and like pigs gulp down more than the need of it while they can get it,” said one magistrate at a 1945 Royal Commission into the alcohol industry.

At the same commission barmen told of collecting dregs from customers’ glasses and pouring them back into a container that would again be sold to eager drinkers.

“One barman said it was not uncommon for bits of tobacco, flies and other items to come out of his tap,” writes Michael Donaldson in Beer Nation, his history of beer in New Zealand.

Donaldson argues that this way of drinking, which went on for 50 years – long after the death of the temperance movement that instigated it – normalised a type of drinking that became imbued in our culture.

“[The pub] was a kind of sanctuary of Kiwi men,” says historian Jock Phillips. “It was a reflection of strong and quite exclusive male culture.”

He goes into more detail of that sanctuary in his seminal work A Man’s Country: “A pub dimly lit, the sunlight and the outside world obscured by frosted windows, no chairs and a carpet of dark brown which served less as a decoration than a great sponge of slops… The beer itself seemed flat and watery and produced instantaneous results – belching, farting and pissing were important causes of mirth in the whole ritual.”

Phillips says New Zealanders have grown up since then. They have become more educated, the middle class has grown, the working class is not what it used to be and with all that comes a change. In 1967, 64% of New Zealanders voted to end 6 o’clock closing. But the damage was done and the two remaining breweries, Lion and DB, rode that wave as far as it would carry them.

 

Beer for the boys

Michael Hurst as a peroxide blonde, crew cutted, tartan shirted, black singlet wearing manly man. Hurst as “Mick” a reluctant karaoke singer at a bar being egged on by his fellow men and finally relenting, taking the microphone in his hand and singing enthusiastically into the camera: “You can keep your margaritas, your executive Irish stouts and doily Mexican beers with the fruit down the spout.”


The year was 1993 and advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi was looking to figure out how to make Lion Red, then one of the country’s most popular beers, less at the mercy of all those things that Mick was railing against.

Because New Zealanders did want all those things. They weren’t “red blooded” as the ad campaign implored them to be. Increasingly they wanted choice. Increasingly they were less loyal to brands. And they weren’t the type of consumer that Mick’s get up would have you believe. They weren’t the type of consumer that cared all that much about an earlier Lion Red campaign, which suggested that drinking their beer was “What it means to be a man”.

No, says Auckland-based ad man Stephen Lloyd, people (yes “people”, not just men) don’t want any of that. “They want choice … I think that it’s a social change in New Zealand from solidarity to individualism.”

And with choice comes an opportunity to develop tastes. Lloyd says he saw that with cigars, with coffee and with wine. “It’s happening with beer … it is that search for something different, I think it’s something very social within us.”

It is a desire for change and novelty that he says the beer industry may have missed. Certainly it is the industry’s long history of chasing of a certain kind of male New Zealander that has made it susceptible to criticism. Perhaps you can’t blame it.

“Beer is the national beverage of New Zealand,” said the New Zealand Herald in 1878. “Beer is the drink of the working man… this draught serves him instead of soup or pudding or other accessories to a good meal.”

Even the head of Lion Breweries, Doug Myers, had a patronising view of consumers of his product, describing the 18 to 25-year-olds that made up the bulk of beer drinkers as working class “losers”.

“They identify with sporting heroes,” Myers told the National Business Review. “They spend a lot of time talking about, dreaming about beer – supporting their beer against what the other guy drinks is what it’s all about.”

In a paper for Addiction Research and Theory, New Zealand researchers Dr Alison Towns, Phillip Chase and George Christie Parker surveyed the landscape of beer advertising that promoted a certain kind of male.

“A bloke having a good time with his mates … an acolyte, as player or spectator in the Kiwi religion, rugby… ‘Southern Man’ in a half-hearted, half-pissed search for the perfect woman … drinking an ‘extreme brewed’ beer while out in Ponsonby.”

They argued that this positioned beer drinking not as simply the marker of being a man but being a “New Zealand man” or an “Otago man,” or “Waikato man”.

“The national or regional masculine identity is defined by rural (men’s) lifestyles rather than urban (women’s) lifestyles.”

They stand out for other reasons – their blinding whiteness, their oozing heterosexuality, the blatant lack of any trace of indigenous culture. Where women are represented in these advertisements, they have been depersonalised or objectified, as in the massively popular Tui ads in the early 2000s, and form a peripheral part of the masculine environment.

One study found men were usually outdoors working or at a bar and in “cool, detached” relationships with women. Women, however, were “more likely to be portrayed as admiring onlookers or as objects of sexual desire”.

The irony is, while the beer industry was busy figuring out the sort of person who drank beer, that person was changing – and so were their options.

 

Craft beer: don’t call it a comeback

The entrance to the Stoke Brewery is aspirational. In gold leaf are the words “Huc Tendimus Omnes” below it. “We all strive for this,” it means.

If you head through the bar and pass by the packaging team busy shuffling bottles into boxes you will find the humble offices that are the nerve centre of the brewery that once birthed a new movement in beer drinking.

Many years ago this place in suburban Nelson was known as “Mac’s”. It was where former All Black Terry McCashin took on the big guys and started brewing a different kind of beer. It was the ’80s and it ushered in a new era of micro breweries.

Mac’s was sold to Lion Nathan in 1999, but 10 years later Terry’s son Dean and his wife Emma launched another beer from that same building.

Now Stoke is an established brand on the craft beer circuit and Emma is the president of the Brewers Guild, an association made up from everyone from the big beer companies like DB to operations run out of garages.

She is interested in the counter story to beer’s decline. She sees it whenever a new employee walks through the door. They are young, in their early 20s, and have often only ever drunk mainstream beers, Emma says. But at Stoke they get an allowance – a dozen beers a week for a full time worker.

“At the start they just take what they can get but very quickly they start dabbling – a pilsner or IPA and the next thing they can’t believe they were ever drinking the other stuff.”

The counter story, she says, is about people enjoying beer in moderation.

“In the news you will see a story about the harm of alcohol and there is always a bottle of beer. But is that fair?”

The wine industry, which grew exponentially during the 1980s and 1990s and drew many beer drinkers away from their usual beverage, has largely been immune to the negative attention of excessive alcohol consumption.

Craft beer represents an opportunity to reframe the narrative around the health effects of beer, as well as the sort of people who drink it. Industry research suggests those who buy craft beer are not necessarily beer connoisseurs, they are connoisseurs in general. They are the same sort of people who buy Lewis Road Creamery milk, which is held up as a success story of high end branding. The beer marketers say they are in this same business – getting people with money to spend it on something special.

Emma puts the growth in the craft market – up 35% last year, according to one report – down to accessibility.

“Even in most regional mainstream supermarkets there will be a core selection of craft beer. Once upon a time at that same store, the most craft you could get was Mac’s Gold.”

While she’s excited to see that sort of growth, she worries about its sustainability, given that New Zealand’s craft breweries doubled in number over the past couple of years. “Currently it’s been an easy market to access… but at some point there will be a saturation point.”

We may have achieved diversity on the shelves, but preliminary research into the New Zealanders who enjoy these sorts of beers shows a different trend.

Greg Ryan recently conducted surveys at New Zealand’s largest craft beer festival, Beervana. The idea was to discover who craft beer enthusiasts really are.

Ryan gave the survey job to a young Māori man who said he made a point of tracking down the only other Māori at the festival to ask why he came. “At least I thought he was Māori,” the surveyor said.

Whereas beer used to be the haven of the working class, these days craft beer is white and middle class.

 

Building a healthier beer

Ask anyone who’s woken up feeling like death after only a few craft beers – the newer brews can be surprisingly high in alcohol. At the other end of the spectrum is the growth in low alcohol and low-carb beer – a direct response to not only increasingly stringent drink drive laws but also to consumers who are more worried about their health.

The bigger beer companies have responded to, and are fueling, all three trends: craft beer, low-alcohol and low-carb. Lion bought craft beer stalwart Emerson’s and Panhead, while DB dominates low-carb beer with its Export 33 brand and has pushed aggressively into the low alcohol market.

They have also made inroads into a market that many see as one of the biggest factors in beer’s decline – RTDs. Michael Erceg’s Independent Liquor essentially created the category after noticing an odd discrepancy in the way excise tax was levied and exploiting it to the hilt. After launching in the mid-’90s, RTDs became an instant, runaway hit. With his emphasis on getting products to market at breakneck speed, and then aggressively marketing them in-store (rather than relying on flashy ad campaigns), Erceg revolutionised the local drinks market, leaving breweries scrambling. The RTDs he pioneered – Stinger, KGB, Vodka Cruiser and all the rest – remain the biggest growth sector in New Zealand’s alcohol consumption, trebling in volume since 1999.

“That has become the drink of initiation,” says Beer Nation’s Michael Donaldson. “It’s how you learn to drink these days. But they are so much higher alcohol, they can cause more damage.”

He says when he learned to drink there was only 4% alcohol beer.

“You filled yourself up with so much liquid you ended up throwing up before getting paralytic.”

The Postman's Leg, Auckland. Photo: supplied

The Postman’s Leg, Auckland. Photo: supplied

But while those might be the anecdotes of the early 2000s when RTDs were gaining a foothold, these days young people are generally drinking more responsibly.

According to the World Health Organisation, New Zealand is at 37th in the world for populations drinking more than six standard drinks in a single session – WHO’s definition of binge drinking – during a 30 day period. Only 4.5% of our 15-plus age group have partaken in such an activity, putting us below South Korea and above India in the rankings. Compare that to Austria or the Czech Republic, where 40% of the population has.

Deaths and injuries resulting from car crashes with alcohol as a factor are also both down about 10% from a decade ago.

Donaldson theorises that perhaps the drinking culture that we thought was so much part of a certain New Zealand – the working class, returned service, hard-drinking larrikin who was loyal to his mates and loyal to his beer – was just an illusion.

At the height of beer consumption during the 1950s and the 6 o’clock swill there was still government price fixing. “Beer was incredibly cheap and it was hard to jack up the price,” Donaldson says.

Beer was also much weaker while bars were redesigned to get rid of chairs. Glasses were only 5 ounces and able to be chugged down in one gulp. He says breweries, which licensing laws made likely to own the pubs in which their beer was sold, went out of their way to create an environment that encouraged the consumption of a huge amount of alcohol.

“Perhaps our drinking culture was artificially inflated all along. Maybe now we are just getting somewhere more normalised.”

 

Who killed the small town pub?

The Inangahua Arms is empty. The old hotel, that in a former life was named the Criterion, sits on the corner of the road that leads motorists onto Reefton’s main road.

There are old Reefton Rugby Club team photographs on the walls, there are flags with beer labels long since vanished from the market. There are leaderboards for the pub’s best darts players and a pool table in the corner with a cue resting against it. The television is switched on to a daytime soap opera and a blackboard declares the day’s specials.

A woman comes out and asks how she can help. I say I’m looking to speak to publicans who have been in the business for a long time. I say that I’m writing something about beer and think that they might have some insights into why we don’t drink it any more. A half smile comes across her face. She almost rolls her eyes.

“You’’ll want to speak to Murray,” she says.

The woman goes into a backroom and shortly after reemerges with a bear of a man. He lumbers out. Faded turquoise tattoos that blur into his skin run up his arms and thick white facial hair frame his tiny eyes.

“How can I help?” he says.

Murray Lee used to own this place. He owned it for 24 years, all the way from when it was just a shell of an old pub that had long been closed. It had no bartop, no restaurant, nothing. He came here with his wife and set it up. It was 1989 and they saw an opportunity in a small West Coast town that seemed to have plenty going for it and plenty of people who wanted to celebrate that with a drink.

It was a lot better back then, Lee says. The overheads weren’t as high.

“You didn’t have Sky TV and all that shit.”

Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen, Auckland. Photo: supplied

Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen, Auckland. Photo: supplied

The turnover wasn’t as impressive but you made more. The pub used to be a focal point of the community, Lee says. They held fundraisers and community events. It was good for Reefton and good to get people through the door. They don’t do that so much these days. But they bought a karaoke machine to try and offer something different.

Back when Lee first bought the place there were a lot more miners, a lot more jobs. There were such things as 5 o’clock drinkers whom they served out a 500 litre tanker. Just one type of beer, pumped in from trucks that visited the length of the Grey Valley. It was less complicated.

“It’s hard to keep up with people’s changing tastes now,” Lee says.

Then Canterbury Draught came on the market and people started liking that so Lee started serving it. Then the breweries started selling kegs, not tankers, so the next thing you know the tanker is dead and the pub is serving five kinds of beer.

There were such things as a group of men who used to come in at lunchtime every day. “It was just religion to them to drink between and 11 and 1,” Lee says. “They are all dead now.”

There are four pubs in Reefton that all compete with the local supermarkets. It’s a trend that Lee says killed the small town pub. “The young ones are half pissed when they get here now. The supermarkets are selling it cheaper than we can buy it.” The pub used to have an off license but it closed last year. It couldn’t compete.

There are other things that have killed the small town pub too, Lee says. Health and Safety laws, job losses, the collapse of the mining industry, drink driving laws and the cost of licensing. “With the downturn in drinking you’d think the Government would try and help.”

During the summer tourist season Lee says the business can get by. It’s the other eight months of the year he worries about. He worries a lot.

“They are long hard winters here and the downturn in dairying hasn’t helped.” That’s why this isn’t even his pub anymore. He passed it on to his daughter-in-law last year. He was ill. He’d had enough. Everything piled on top of the long-time publican and the brew he was selling.

“All publicans feel the same way – there comes a time when you have to say no.” That’s the way it’s gone with the pubs down the valley. It’s sad to see it happen, he says, but it’s inevitable.

Lee’s 500 litre tanker is still under the pub. He hasn’t used it in almost two decades but it’s too difficult to remove. So he leaves it there as the world moves on around it. That world which is drinking less but of more variety. That world which is no longer the realm of an artificial construct of a man. It is a world that reflects a certain type of diversity, that represents new communities and tries to listen to them rather than ramming sickly sweet brown brew down their throats. The 500 litre tanker is a symbol of the way things were. Now it is a slave to rusted times. And maybe that is just the way it should be.

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