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KaiJanuary 25, 2023

Why are overseas breweries still getting it so wrong when it comes to Māori?


The international beer industry has a passion for applying Māori words and imagery to its products. It also remains stubbornly ignorant of their meaning. 

The Italian craft beer brand Liquida has a new brew out called “Kia Ora”.

“It’s another stop in New Zealand for you to experience the explosion of New Zealand hops,” boasts their website, going on to say that the beer combines a trio of New Zealand grown hops – Riwaka, Motueka and Pacific Sunrise – resulting in a 5.6% Pacific IPA with notes of citrus and tropical fruits. 

And all contained inside a can depicting a head bearing the unmistakable curved lines and koru of tā moko.

It’s difficult to imagine a more inappropriate combination of Māori cultural references.

For one, the relationship between Māori and alcohol is a tenuous one – perhaps best illustrated by the most common word for alcohol in te reo Māori: waipiro, which translates to stinking water. Māori didn’t have alcohol before the arrival of Europeans and its proliferation since is often blamed for helping fuel negative stereotypes about Māori along with numerous social issues that didn’t exist before colonisation. 

Then, there’s the dubious nature of the specific words and imagery used on the can. The head, tā moko and phrase kia ora (which while commonly used in place of the word “hello” translates more literally to “be healthy”) each hold particular significance within te ao Māori. 

When it comes to the name, “calling a beer kia ora has a number of negative connotations for te reo Māori,” says Māori cultural advisor Karaitiana Taiuru (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Rārua). “Taking something that is in reference to health for a beer is definitely inappropriate,” he adds. 

Most egregious perhaps is that both the head and tā moko are considered especially tapu in te ao Māori and are respectively bound up in specific tikanga around their handling – particular things you should and shouldn’t do when they’re involved. Consequently, neither should be linked in this explicit way with food or beverages, especially alcohol, explains Taiuru.

Beer writer Denise Garland adds that “it’s as if the beer can itself is the head of a Māori person and so, to even be handling that and pulling that off the shelf, it is just so incredibly disrespectful. I cannot imagine that anyone would ever do that if they had a true understanding of just how offensive that is.”

This isn’t a story about one beer can though. Because when it comes to the use of Māori words and design in overseas beer marketing, this is hardly an isolated example. In fact, the world of craft beer is rife with pump clips, bottle labels and cans emblazoned with Māori words, designs and caricatures.

Type “Māori” into the search bar on beer tracking platform Untappd and you’ll be confronted by an astonishing number of results: 11,407 beers with the word included in their names at the time of writing. Meanwhile, the word “aroha” returns almost 2,000 beers and “haka” results in 17,000. While those numbers include homebrewers too, they don’t include all the appropriation of Māori imagery and designs, which is far more challenging to search. In 2019, Garland wrote on the prevalence of UK brewers describing their brews made with New Zealand hops as Māori pale ale. “The use of the word Māori to describe a style of beer in the UK is not only potentially confusing for consumers – considering there is no such thing as Māori beer – but it’s offensive too,” she wrote. 

Beer writer Denise Garland (Photo: Supplied)

So why are Māori words and designs so rampant in overseas beer marketing? 

In almost all cases of this kind of marketing that Garland has seen, the brewers are using New Zealand hop varieties. “I would say almost exclusively, every beer that has been named a Māori pale ale, named a Māori word of some sort or uses Māori imagery is using hops from New Zealand,” she says. (Liquida has another beer made with New Zealand hop varieties that’s named “Maori Passenger”.)

Imagery and words that refer to Māori are understandably seen as signifiers of New Zealand. However, “while there’s widespread understanding overseas that Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand, there’s little understanding about how important that is, in terms of an identity,” she says. In this way, brewers are likely making these marketing decisions under misguided rather than explicitly malicious intentions. 

In response to this lack of understanding, four years ago Taiuru and Garland, alongside beer expert Steph Coutts, published an online guide geared toward brewers in Aotearoa and overseas to help counter cultural appropriation within the industry. Unfortunately, in a fragmented industry, it’s been difficult to disseminate this advice. 

Because most of these culturally inappropriate brews are the result of New Zealand hops being sold overseas, Garland believes local hops suppliers could play a part in this process by helping to educate buyers. Taiuru agrees, and says, “it would be nice if they just had the guidelines available and cautioned overseas brewers about appropriation”.

Two UK breweries inappropriately using Māori images that Garland drew attention to in her 2019 article. (Photos: Supplied)

A spokesperson from Nelson-based hop supplier Hop Revolution said they were aware of the guide written by Garland and Taiuru. And while they don’t currently share the guidelines with their overseas buyers, “we do educate our customers on the inappropriate use of Māori culture on their products and promotions”. They also explained in an email that, while they always request promotional artwork approval from their distributors and brewer customers to help mitigate the risk, those requests aren’t always adhered to.

“Sharing a specific guideline as a condition of sale will not guarantee full compliance as hops [are] often being sold on, and traded between brewers. It is difficult to control [other] entities’ marketing and promotional material contractually,” they added. “A different solution will perhaps have to be worked on. We are open to suggestions, and happy to collaborate on better educating our customers.”

While our local beer industry has a much better understanding of cultural appropriation, there are instances of breweries in Aotearoa getting it wrong too. In 2016, New Zealand’s Birkenhead Brewing Company made a similar mistake, depicting tūpuna Hinemoa and Tūtānekai on their beer labels.

With this in mind, Garland says responsibility needs to be taken by the local industry as a whole when it comes to responding to offensive branding. “It’s really important we do something about this within our own community because we are not immune from making these mistakes ourselves.”

The concept of cultural appropriation is subject to heavy criticism, debate and, often, eye-rolls. Likely because it’s a term that’s been chronically misapplied and simplified. There are of course instances where elements of a culture truly are being embraced or celebrated by those outside it, but it doesn’t negate that in other cases, the opposite is true. “I’m of the view that people should use our culture to celebrate, and they should use it for branding purposes,” says Taiuru. “But in doing so they should actually consult Māori to make sure it’s not offensive.” 

No matter the intent, the consequences of repurposing fragments of a culture incorrectly work to dilute complex and interconnected practices, identities and beliefs into, say, a marketing strategy for a can of craft beer.

Liquida have been approached for comment.

Updated response from Liquida: “It was absolutely not our intention to cause [offense]. In our culture (in Italy) associating alcohol with sacred symbols does not create disturbance, so we have underestimated the problem. The product in question has already been completely sold only in Italy. In any case we undertake to modify the design on the label so as not to offend anyone. Responding to comments on instagram didn’t seem like the right place to discuss this topic.”

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