The Six O’Clock Swill
There are several other reasons why New Zealand’s consumers have been slow to accept craft beer, but one of the most curious is a story that begins in the early part of the last century, when New Zealand narrowly avoided a national prohibition.
Like most English-speaking countries in the late 19th century, they had an active temperance movement agitating for prohibition. In New Zealand, supporters of this anti-alcohol movement were known as “wowsers.” Shortly before World War I, the country narrowly managed to escape that fate by a slim margin in a nationwide vote. Undeterred, the wowsers managed to get a “temporary measure” passed in 1917, using the war as an excuse, which prohibited the sale of alcohol after 6:00 p.m.
This created a condition known as “the six o’clock swill” because men (women were then not permitted in bars) would finish work at five and then spend the following hour swilling as much beer as they could. It was clear from the beginning that this measure not only did not reduce the consumption of alcohol, but actually made it worse. Men would arrive at the nearest bar directly from work, invariably on an empty stomach, order pitchers of beer and down them as fast as possible, often vomiting on the public bus on the way home an hour later. Arriving on their doorstep, many immediately passed out, spending no more time with their families than if they’d been at the bar all evening drinking at a more leisurely pace.
Despite this failure to achieve its goals, the six o’clock swill persisted in New Zealand for fifty years, and wasn’t abolished until 1967, when closing time was finally extended until ten o’clock. The legacy of those fifty years a demand for very light-bodied, sweet beer that could be consumed as quickly as possible. This style became known loosely as “New Zealand draught style” and it’s still the most popular type of beer in New Zealand today. It’s also less alcoholic than the average American beer, another throwback concession to concerns during World War II. Most Kiwi beers from large breweries are about four percent alcohol by volume, about one to one and a half percentage points lower than their American and European counterparts.
Even though over forty years have passed since the six o’clock swill was abolished, its effects are still being felt in the average Kiwi’s preference for a beer with as little discernible body or flavor as possible, lighter, sweeter, less hoppy and even lower in alcohol than American premium lager.
Another problem with consumer acceptance appears simply to be quality control. New Zealand’s craft beer scene is arguably where the U.S. market was 15-20 years ago, but with a greater incidence of basic problems. Some believe this is part and parcel of the dispersal of New Zealand’s population, which has made people less willing to share problems and help one another as an industry. One of the reasons that so many American microbreweries were successful is undoubtedly the willingness of brewers to help one another out with problem solving and sharing their experience and technical expertise.
Band of Brewers
This may also help to explain why it took twenty-five years for the small brewers of New Zealand to form a brewer’s guild, which happened just two years ago, in 2006. One of the first things the new guild did was buy out the Brew NZ Festival from the big breweries. It was once the country’s largest national beer festival, but had fallen on difficult times.
In September, the guild will host the event for a third time, held each year in Wellington at the southern tip of the North Island, putting it in roughly the center of the country. The two-day event includes professional judging, an awards banquet, beer and health seminars, educational seminars—especially on beer and food pairings by well-known chefs—and three public tasting sessions. The goal is to elevate the status of beer in New Zealand and attract both female as well as male attendees. One of the sponsors, David Cryer (from Cryer Malt), looks at the event as an opportunity. “We want to create a world-class event celebrating New Zealand beer.”
“Things are definitely improving,” Luke Nicholas offered, and the efforts of the guild do seem to be paying off. Nicholas is the vice chairman of the new brewer’s guild, and is also one of New Zealand beer’s biggest cheerleaders and supporters. A Kiwi native, he’s been involved with beer for most of his life, discovering American microbreweries while working for an exporter who sold strawberries to the U.S. market. He spent several years in California, and worked for the San Francisco-based online beer portal, realbeer.com, before launching New Zealand’s own Real Beer New Zealand (www.realbeer.co.nz).
He also founded SOBA, The Society of Beer Advocates (www.soba.org.nz), an organization dedicated to building awareness of better beer throughout New Zealand. And he’s the former head brewer at Steam Brewing, a production brewery that makes beer for the Cock & Bull chain of tavern brewpubs. He won many awards for his beers during his tenure there, and continues to market his own line, Epic Beer, brewed at the Steam Brewery, although he’ll likely be moving production shortly.
It’s also impossible to tell the full story of New Zealand Brewing without mentioning their locally grown hops and barley. It’s the rare country that can grow all of the ingredients it needs to make beer, especially organically. But because of the islands’ isolated history, no natural pests developed, making it remarkably feasible to grow hops and barley without pesticides. Many craft brewers have seized on this fact to create beers, using both organic and local ingredients. At one time, organically grown New Zealand hops accounted for 80% of all organic hops sold worldwide.