The author of a fascinating new book tells Charlotte Muru-Lanning how the story of beer is intertwined with the history of Aotearoa.
This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.
At least once a week, I’m lured to my local beer spot. The beer is reliably excellent and they serve the only thing I want with my pint: a bag of chips with dip. It tends to be humming with other people who live in the same in-between part of town. The staff are the best and importantly, earn a living wage too. The only issue I have is that it’s poorly positioned for afternoon sun, but my loyalty remains for all those other reasons. Though it’s a ritual, I have to admit I hadn’t thought much about these casual visits to Garage Project Kingsland until I picked up a copy of Continuous Ferment, a book released this week on the story of New Zealanders and beer.
Written by professor of history and proctor at Lincoln University Greg Ryan, the book is a fascinating look into New Zealand’s social history. The story of beer has been deeply intertwined with the history of Aotearoa, from early settlers, to the six o’clock swill, to the rule of Lion and DB, to the rise of craft beer, and now zero-alcohol options. While once entirely intertwined with Pākehā male identity, the world of beer is changing, slowly but surely.
I spoke to Ryan about what it means to look at the history of beer, the relationship between food and beer, and why it’s not all just about getting sloshed.
Food and drink have traditionally been marginalised in the telling of history, but what do you think is the power of looking at history through the lens of these everyday activities?
People all over the world have been doing really interesting research around food and drink but it is a bit of a sidelined thing. Sometimes people forget about the day-to-day stuff like, why were people eating what they were eating? Why were they drinking what were they drinking? And when and where were they doing that? Those things sometimes do get a bit marginalised from some of the bigger stories. It’s always a really useful way into people because actually, what happened in the past happened in colour, and there was all sorts of life to it. What we tend to see sometimes is a bit of a bit of a black and white emphasis on some of the biggest things, but not the day to day.
Have there been similar instances of people writing on the history of beer?
Some. Although the big ones overseas tend to be histories of that [country’s] brewing industry. I was madly trying to take on a bit of everything in a way, because there have also been plenty of books overseas about the prohibition movement and drink problems. So much of our alcohol history has been written in terms of big campaigns by prohibitionists and major political movements to get rid of it. I was really conscious of trying to look at the industry and a bit of the economic history, but also to get into some of those debates about the way beer was perceived by the drinkers. To me, the whole beer thing is a lot more than just the industry. It’s the consumers, it’s the politics as well.
Does looking at history through this lens of beer reveal stories that might otherwise be ignored?
It does. You can find people in terms of their births and deaths and marriages and other details and who they work for. But then you scratch your head and think, “what were you doing every night given that there was no radio, no television, no recorded music, no electricity?” What were people doing for some of those ordinary forms of recreation? We know where sporting events happened and we know when some of the great public meetings happened but this was an opportunity to think a little bit beyond that. I haven’t entirely got the answer, but you get some of the snippets.
Why specifically beer, rather than a broader focus on alcohol?
Initially my personal interest was beer. When I was starting to look at this, the beer scene was changing, but I was very conscious that beer was the main drink. In terms of alcohol, beer has been the dominant alcohol. And it was the one that always figured most prominently in the imagery around alcohol in New Zealand – beer was part of the New Zealand cliche as well.
Historically, what has the place of food been in our beer-drinking culture, especially in pubs?
This is what I regard as one of the failed prohibitions. From the 1880s, there was this whole mentality of separating everything out from alcohol: “you’re not allowed to dance in pubs any more”. And progressively, “you can’t feed them too much because they’ll want to stay there”. But it really was this concerted campaign to try and put alcohol in a little box separate from other things. It was a very conscious kind of separating – drinking as this thing that is done by itself, preferably behind frosted glass and away from the children rather than being something that’s just a normal part of eating, drinking and socialising.
The book is quite explicit in its emphasis on the nuance of historic debates around prohibition and alcohol. Do you think this kind of history might have a place within contemporary debates around drinking culture?
I would hope so. I’m not on a crusade though. The current alcohol debate frustrates me. It’s not nuanced, people talk about alcohol as if it’s this single thing. Beer is not gin or RTDs. So if we’re going to have an alcohol debate, let’s have a discussion about what people are drinking now that they weren’t before. History could make a useful contribution to informing some of the contemporary debate. There is a long history of people saying let’s encourage beer as a counter to pernicious spirits – they were saying that in the 19th century quite regularly. As well, some of the attempts to curb alcohol consumption over the years just didn’t work and created more problems than what they were trying to solve. I will not disagree with anybody that there is certainly an amount of alcohol harm around the place that needs to be addressed. But how do you quantify conviviality, the value that a bunch of people went out and had a nice time with people they hadn’t seen for a while?