By Michael Donaldson on Monday, August 21st, 2017 in News.
Here’s an extract from the opening chapter of Beer Nation – Another Round, which officially launches on August 23.
Beer is the national beverage of New Zealand. Excepting in the case of teetotallers, beer is used by all classes. But more especially, beer is the drink of the working man. The labourer working in the open air will at noon eat his dry dinner of bread and meat brought with him; and feel he has dined well if he can wash the food down with a pint of good colonial beer. This draught serves him instead of soup or pudding or other accessories to a good meal.
—New Zealand Herald, 1878
Even late in the nineteenth century, beer was still very much a food, which is how it had been regarded for most of its 10,000 years on earth. A food that makes you feel happy, of course, but sustenance nonetheless.
And note, there’s not a word about flavour – the malt character, the hop aromas, whether the beer is crisp or flabby, whether its colour is bright orange or burnished gold or dark as midnight; no mention of whether the head retains its fluffiness or rapidly fades to flat. Yet there is a reverence for our national drink; a respect for its inherent nobility, an understanding for the vital role it plays in the daily lives of humble workers toiling in a young country.
Fast forward almost a century and that same beer was all but spiritually dead – in the New Zealand of the 1950s and ’60s, beer had been reduced to an industrial product, a commodity manufactured at rapid speed thanks to a clever Kiwi invention; delivered to the masses, not in a bottle to accompany lunch, but in huge tankers from which it was dispensed into giant vats via something resembling a firehose and then served to men – blue- and white- collar alike. They had been conditioned to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in huge barns, shoving bland, cold, fizzy, caramel-coloured liquid down their throats at frighteningly fast speeds in order to be done and dusted with their drinking in time to get home for dinner. So much guzzling was done in the crowded hour between the end of work and dinner time it earned the moniker “six o’clock swill”.
While six o’clock closing was with us for a half-century – from World War One until just before the moon landing, the fast-drinking phenomena didn’t really take off until the boom years after World War Two but it remained ingrained in our cultural DNA until well after 1967, when closing hours were extended. It took another 10 years, it seemed, for New Zealanders to even start to slow down.
Beer consumption peaked in 1978, when total annual consumption peaked at just over 400 million litres, or 127 litres per person. That peak came two years after New Zealand’s brewing industry reached a perfect duopoly in 1976 thanks to Lion and DB, crushing all competition underfoot, and spent the best part of 40 years in decline.
The irony is that the year beer started its downward trend was the same year the foundations were laid for its return.
On 14 October 1978, US president Jimmy Carter signed bill H.R. 1337, which contained an amendment sponsored by veteran California senator Alan Cranston. That amendment created an exemption from taxation of beer brewed at home for personal or family use. Essentially, it lifted regulations imposed by prohibition laws over 50 years prior and created a home-brew boom in the US, which quite frankly changed the face of beer forever.
Like New Zealand, the US reached its own brewery nadir in the late 1970s. While New Zealand fell into a duopoly in 1976, the American situation was, in relative terms, much worse. In 1979, that country could count just 44 breweries – or one brewery for every 5 million people. In comparison, New Zealand’s two breweries served three million people, or one for every 1.5 million.
The law change enacted by Carter created a pathway from home brew to commercial craft-brewing to the point where the number of US brewers is now well over 4000, a figure that has doubled since 2012. There has been a similar explosion in New Zealand, where there are around 160 brew brands in 2017. Like the US, those numbers have approximately doubled since 2012. Bizarrely, the ratio of breweries to population in the US and New Zealand has stayed almost the same as it was in the late 1970s, which gives New Zealand three times as many breweries per person as the US, which of course raises the question of how many is too many and whether the industry faces some kind of rationalisation.
But beer is back. The industry is booming.
And it’s the rise of good beer – whether you want to call it craft, boutique, artisan, hyper-local, micro (if you must) or nano – which looks ready to lift the wider beer industry out of a slump. For the want of better term, what we call “craft” now has more than a foothold in the market: the data suggests up to a 20% share is an accurate measure of craft beer’s hold. Production of what Statistics NZ calls “strong beer” – over 5% – grew a whopping 17% in 2016 and shows no sign of abating. There’s also been a growth in premium beer, with the entire industry in New Zealand growing on the back of the buzz around craft. But that demand is bringing new pressures to bear: bigger breweries are in acquisition mode, smaller breweries are struggling to grow fast enough to meet demand, and when they grow they face struggles to get their product onto shelves and into bars as the bigger breweries retain control of outlets. Mid-size breweries with a strong presence in the retail sector face price pressures, which eat into margins and make it more difficult to reinvest in the growth required to satiate demand.
But there’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker. The flavour and quality are at an all-time high and craft beer love has moved from a sub-culture and towards mainstream appreciation.
The growing awareness of what good beer can, and should be, has brought a certain nobility to this ancient drop. It’s no longer a commodity designed to be guzzled at a liver-crushing rate.
It may no longer be a food, or a water substitute, but it has returned to its rightful place as one of the great gifts to the human race. It is worshipped fervently, as it was in millennia past. Poetry – or at least colourful beer blogs – are written in its name. Gatherings, of an almost religious nature, are held when special releases go on tap; reviews are posted on Untappd; online communities have blossomed.
Yet there’s still a hangover from the darkest days of blithe consumption, with alcohol harm and binge-drinking providing neo-prohibitionists with plenty of ammunition with which to stifle one’s beer love. And dissenting voices still worry about the financial clout of the big breweries and the return to the dark days of the duopoly.
To understand those concerns, we need to go on a journey through the past, to reveal the forces that drove beer towards bland uniformity – the lame legislation and bad business practices – and to appreciate the pioneers who prepared the toeholds for the creative men and women who have made twenty-first-century New Zealand beer world class.
If you liked what you’ve read you can buy the whole book, all 100,000 words of it at: