Monday, November 13, 2023

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

CONTINUOUS FERMENT – A History of Beer and Brewing in New Zealand” by Greg Ryan (Auckland University Press, $NZ65); “BLOODALCOHOL – Ten Tales” by Michael Botur  (Next Chapter Press, $NZ40:75 paperback; also available in hardback)           


 There’s the strong possibility that New Zealand has been formed by beer as much as by wars, natural disasters, politics and racial differences. For well over two hundred years, beer has been one of the mainstays of New Zealand. In his lavishly-illustrated and scrupulously researched book Continuous Ferment, Greg Ryan makes this case convincingly. The title is a punning joke. In the 1950s, New Zealand was introduced to a new method of brewing beer known as “continuous fermentation”. But quite clearly Continuous Ferment refers to the way that the sale and consumption of beer has often courted controversy, and not just in the era when a large proportion of New Zealanders were calling for the prohibition of all alcoholic beverages. Greg Ryan has a prologue is which he reminds us of the essential ingredients for producing beer – clean water, grain [barley or other cereals], hops and yeast. He notes in his introduction that too often historians of beer in New Zealand have over-emphasised the era of prohibitionists and have overlooked the nature of brewing, style of production, tastes, and different types of beer produced in different parts of New Zealand. So his book proceeds to look at all these things, and not only the controversial ones.

In his opening chapters Ryan reminds us that beer has been with the human race for many thousands of years. For centuries in Europe, beer was considered an essential food, healthy and a necessity for any family. The first beer brewed in New Zealand was produced in Dusky Sound, in 1773, by members of Captain Cook’s crew, and was much appreciated by the captain. In England there was already a plethora of laws related to the licencing of public houses and when the first pakeha began to settle in New Zealand, most beer was imported here from Sydney. From the 1820s to the 1840s, Kororareka (Russell) was understood as the brawling, drinking centre of the consumption of alcohol by whalers and soldiers. But Ryan judiciously notes: “Accounts of alcoholic excess were numerous, although one always has to remember that most of them were written by those, such as missionaries, with a vested interest in emphasising depravity in the hope that it would prompt more British intervention in New Zealand.” (p. 11) Also, episodes of drunken brawling were mainly related to spirits (whisky, gin, brandy), not to honest beer. Ryan notes that some missionaries brewed their own home beer. The first official legislation related to alcohol came in 1841, with the Prohibition of Distillation Ordinance, intended to shut down the local stills that had been set up. In future, spirits could only be imported, not locally concocted. Beer was not the culprit, spirits were. In 1847 there was a Sale of Spirits to Natives Ordinance, banning the sale of spirits to Maori. Later, harsher laws closed down all distilleries. And the first Temperance Society targeted only spirits, not beer.  

Meanwhile, by the mid-1840s, licences began to be given to publicans, though only a very few women became publicans. By 1850, most beer was still imported, but there were eleven breweries in the North Island and four in the South Island. With the Otago goldrush in the 1860s, the statistics changed and there were more breweries in the South than in the North. By 1860 there were 47 breweries in New Zealand. But as Greg Ryan says: “Most breweries were small operations managed by the brewer and perhaps one or two employees.” (p.29) Even so, a few breweries were the origins of some labels that are still with us, such as Speights. In the 1850s, Thomas Hancock and John Scholes set up their Captain Cook Brewery, which remained a landmark in Auckland for well over a hundred years. Yet by 1871, when there were 69 breweries in New Zealand, over 90% of beer consumed was still imported from Australia and Britain, showing how small and local most breweries then were. And while Otago’s goldrush had attracted many brewers, most of them closed shop once the gold fields were worked out. It was at this time that Louis Ehrenfield and (later) the Davis family became prominent by establishing permanent industrial-style breweries. It was only in the mid-19th century that scientists determined that yeast was a living organism and its role in brewing was more precisely handled. Breweries and publicans faced many problems, not only from difficulties in licencing and supply, but in the frequency with which [wooden] pubs were burnt down and in the difficulty of getting non-contaminated pure water. There were controversies about the adulteration of beer, the difficulty in obtaining hops and the use of sugar in the brewing. Nevertheless, the 1870s was when brewers enhanced their status by inaugurating competitions. Says Greg Ryan: “By the end of the 1870s every brewery of significance, and some others besides, was adorning its advertisements with references to prizes of one sort of another , and hotels were similarly keen to stress to patrons that they had prize-winning beer on tap.” (p.76)

Successive governments attempted to tax beer and finally imposed duty. It was in the 1880s that prohibitionist sentiments began to grow in New Zealand, and by the 1890s eminent parliamentarians were either promoting prohibition (such as Robert Stout) or loudly opposing it (such as “King Dick” Richard Seddon). It was Seddon who managed to make a law that said three-fifths of any electorate had to vote for prohibition before an area could go “dry” (that is, ban the sale of liquor). Prohibitionists were required to win 60% of the vote in a national referendum before alcoholic drinks could be outlawed.

By the 1890s, there was a rapid decline in the number of breweries to New Zealand. There were 102 in 1891; 85 in 1896; and only 56 in 1911. More breweries were becoming centralised and industrialised, putting an end to the many (almost) “cottage industry” small breweries – although Greg Ryan does note that in some rural areas there was great local loyalty to the smaller local brewers. Increasingly hotels and pubs became “tied” to one of the brands of the bigger breweries  - that is, giving customer only beer of one brand. In this era too, there was the growth of trade unions becoming part of the story of beer. In Wellington there was formed a Brewers, Bottlers, Bottle Washers and Aerated Water Employees Union. It joined the “Red Fed” Federation of Labour. In 1909, the president of the union was Michael Joseph Savage, a man who worked in a brewery and who much later became prime minister.

If there was a sort of revolution in the way breweries were run, there was another revolution in the making. Throughout the nineteenth century there had, in New Zealand, been only three types of beer available – ale, porter and stout. But in the early 1900s, lager was introduced. Says Ryan: “Perhaps the most significant embrace of European brewing science and expertise, if not apparent until sometime later, was the development of New Zealand’s first lager brewery under the guidance of a German, F. Metzler, and a Swiss, Conrad Breutsch, which opened in 1900.” (p.116) Ale still dominated, but over the years lager (made to German and Swiss formulas) became the most consumed variety of beer in New Zealand. At the same time, most hops ceased to be imported, but were now largely grown in Nelson.

As Greg Ryan says at the beginning of Chapter 6, “In many respects, the first two decades of the twentieth century were the most critical in the history of beer and brewing in New Zealand. The industry was fighting for survival as support for prohibition swelled. The anti-liquor vote peaked at 55.8 per cent in 1911, nearing the 60 per cent threshold needed for success. Prohibition nearly won in December 1919, when only a simple majority was required to turn New Zealand dry. While the conventional portrayal of this period is of a tide of prohibition that nearly succeeded, it is equally valid to ask why some people voted against it. The brewers in particular deployed a range of strategies to boost their own standing with the public and put obstacles in the way of the prohibition campaign… [yet] during the dramatic upheaval of the Great War, [the liquor industry ] was forced to make concessions in the licencing laws.” (p.122) Appealing to “efficiency” in time of war, law was passed making it illegal for a pub to stay open after 6 p.m. (Though in many rural areas this was ignored until the 1940s.) Six o’clock closing persisted until 1967. There was an increase in the number of “dry” districts and 141 hotels were shut down, even though prohibitionists still had to win three-fifths of the vote in a local area. This shows that there was obviously a majority of New Zealanders who favoured either temperance or prohibition. A degree of sectarianism came into this. On the whole, Anglicans and Catholics opposed prohibition, while Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists promoted it. [This is of course a generalisation – there were a few Anglicans and Catholics who supported prohibition, such as the Catholic Bishop of Auckland Henry William Cleary.]

At this time, too, there were what would now be seen as extremely paternalistic – to wit, laws restricting the sale of liquor to Maori. And after the First World War was over, pubs were closed down for many months because of the so-called “Spanish ‘flu” pandemic. When, in 1919, there was a general referendum on alcohol, the Prohibitionists lost. It has often been suggested that this was because soldiers returning from the war tipped the balance against Prohibition. Ryan argues otherwise, saying that it had more to do with different approaches now being taken by anti-prohibitionists. Although there was still a large proportion of New Zealanders who favoured Prohibition, their numbers began to dwindle in the 1920s, partly because the American experiment in Prohibition was working out so badly.  Even so, for decades general elections always included on ballots an option to vote for Continuance [leaving things as they were], Public Ownership [nationalising the whole booze industry] or Prohibition. As fewer and fewer people voted for Prohibition, this option became a farce until it was abolished in 1988, much to the chagrin of the “Alliance” which still promoted the lost cause.

The 1920s to the 1940s were the time of mergers of breweries, competition between breweries, and the world depression.  In 1923, ten breweries combined in Wellington as New Zealand Breweries (NZB – much later becoming Lion Breweries), which meant that rather than having “tied” hotels, many different brands under NZB could be consumed in the same pub. On the West Coast of the South Island, brewers combined as Westland Breweries Ltd. In Auckland, Dominion Breweries (DB) was set up in 1931 by William Coutts and Henry Kelliher, and by the mid-1940s, DB produced 40% of Auckland’s beer. It was in the 1940s that some journalists and pundits (such as John A. Lee) said that the ruling Labour Party was corrupt because it did secret deals with brewers to stay in power. (In his enjoyable, but often inaccurate, book Grog’s Own Country, Conrad Bollinger made the same accusation.)

During the Second World War, there were no additional severe laws about opening hours, and canteens selling beer were provided to the armed forces. However, beer was made weaker, having less alcoholic kick to it. Greg Ryan says that the notorious “six o’clock swill”, where men drank themselves silly in the one hour they had to drink after leaving work, did not begin when six o’clock closing began. Rather, it began in the Second World War when men had to drink more and more of the new weak beer before they reached an alcoholic kick. ‘Twas weakened beer that made men stagger out of pubs and vomit on the pavements. Thankfully, after the war was over, beer was restored to its more potent strength… but men had acquired the habit of drinking too much anyway and the “six o’clock swill” continued. In 1949, there was a referendum about closing hours, but most New Zealanders still voted for six o’clock closing.

In the 1950s there were many closures or take-overs of breweries, and New Zealand was gradually facing a duopoly of DB and NZB (Red Lion). In that same decade, Morton Coutts pioneered the use of continuous fermentation, which meant that more beer could be produced more quickly. By 1960, 85% of New Zealand beer was the product of  continuous fermentation. Not that this necessarily enhanced the nature of the product. Overseas visitors were very critical of barn-like pubs and the men standing up at the bar rather than being seated in a civilised way when they gulped down their swill. They also criticised the ridiculous opening hours and the feeble quality of most New Zealand beer.

Only in the early 1960s did things improve. Prime minister Walter Nash’s 1958 so-called “Black Budget”, which increased the price of beer and cigarettes, had created a backlash, leading eventually to 10 o’clock closing being brought in the 1967. Barmaids, who had been banished from pubs decades earlier, were once again allowed to serve in pubs [See on this blog Susan Upton’s engrossing Wanted: A Beautiful Barmaid for the history of bermaids in
New Zealand.] In 1961, after much lobbying, restaurants were at last allowed to serve liquor with meals. Brewers and publicans tried to smarten up their image. DB attempted to market a new brand of lager called Lucky Lager, but it did not catch on and the label was soon dropped.  A lager was marketed as Steineker, but the name had to be withdrawn when the long-established Dutch brewery Heineken objected that it sounded too much like their name; and the New Zealand beer had to be marketed as Steinlager. Pubs added entertainment, usually in the form of music which became the norm but which was not appreciated by all drinkers. The 1960s was when beer was first sold in cans was well as in bottles. With the dominance of DB and Lion, there were still complaints about the lack of beer diversity. The fact was, however, that the proportion of New Zealand beer-drinkers was falling. New Zealand had long been the 5th largest beer-drinking country per capita in the world . By the 1990s it was only the 10th largest beer-drinking country per capita in the world. The fact was that other types of alcoholic beverages were on the rise, wine in particular. Vineyards were being established in Blenheim, Hawkes Bay, Nelson and other sites. Soon wine became, and stayed, the liquor of choice for dinner parties, family celebrations, wedding receptions and other occasions. Generations were becoming aware of the grades, types and vintages of wine. Beer was, however, still the most commonly consumed drink.

Time moved on. By the 1980s, licenced restaurants were allowed to stay open late into the night. By 1990, beer cans could be sold in supermarkets and the drinking age was lowered to 18. There was the growing popularity of “craft beers”, brewed by very small breweries and inspired by European and British niche beers. Even so, among beer-drinkers those who drink craft beers are very much the minority. Greg Ryan comments: “New Zealand followed the global trend to small breweries from the 1980s and had nearly 60 by the turn of the century. In very broad terms these developments can be seen as part of the global ‘artisan’ movement reacting against corporate capitalism generally and neo-liberal upheaval in particular. Everything from the slow food movement to farmers’ markets to promoting local produce and traditions in bread, cheese, chocolate and olive oil, among many others, emphasised ‘authentic’ alternatives to the homogeneity of industrial mass production.”  (p.288)

By this stage, there are many objections to the way mainstream beer (DB and Lion) is marketed. Beer advertisements are still very macho and often regarded as sexist with their depictions of a men’s-only world and all those images of Rugby players and All Black stars. There are also, in the 1990s and early 2000s, many worries about teenagers getting drunk in public spaces and causing general rowdyism. Ryan closes discussing new rates of taxation levied out of beer and in his epilogue he suggests, depressingly, that the world-wide degeneration of the quality of fresh water may create a huge challenge for brewers. Yet he is sure some form of beer with endure.

It would be unfair not to applaud, along with Ryan’s polished text, the many illustrations, sometimes straight portraiture, sometimes showing the workings of breweries, sometimes satirical, sometimes partisan in their wowser-versus-boozer phase, sometimes even idyllic. They bring to life older eras.

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Growing ultimately out of gothic novels and grand guignol, horror stories are very much an acquired taste, but they do have a large audience. Michael Botur should know. He has so far written seven collections of short stories, mostly dealing with the bizarre and the horrific, as well as two novels. His latest production is Bloodalcohol – Ten Tales. You are fairly warned what you are in for by the front-cover image, a young woman happily splattered in blood. All ten stories of Bloodalcohol are set in quite specific New Zealand locations, ranging from Christchurch, through Auckland and up to the far North. Characters who are drawn into horror are New Zealand types – delinquent school children, ambitious wealthy back-to-nature-ists, people who take too many drugs, holidaying rovers etc. But nearly all face the unexpected and are eventually horrified, destroyed or [in one story at least] capable of dealing with eerie menace. Some of Botur’s tales take some time to come to the boil while we wait for the Hammer Horror denouement. But there’s no shame in this. After all, it was Bram Stoker who, in his novel Dracula, took an age to introduce his dark anti-hero, knowing full well that long anticipation leads to anxious reader tension.  Botur knows this too.

            So what of the specific stories? It’s never my task to give away unexpected endings, which would spoil each story. But here is roughly what Bloodalcohol contains. The title story “Bloodalcohol” has a South Island journey as told by a sort of pimp (a very hip young woman) for an elder man who is hungry for blood. A vampire forsooth. Three stories – “Butterfly Tongue”, “Lossboys” and “Influencer” – have people plagued by malign ghosts, in all cases the ghosts being destructive teenagers. In “The Beast Released” a man and a young boy go into the deep New Zealand bush to see where a plane crashed, and something happens more horrific that we expect. In “Luke’s Lesson” a boy goes crazy and runs berserk after imbibing the most fundamentalist version of Christianity. Some stories do not involve the occult or supernatural. As I read them “Weeks in the Woolshed” simply shows us how nasty human beings can be to one another; “Racing Hearts” is a matter of horror created by over-indulgence in illicit drugs; and, although it certainly has its creepy moments, “Starving” is the least like a horror story in its tale of an over-ambitious performer on the Auckland scene who makes his mark in very questionable ways. In Botur’s most polished story, “We Created a Country”, wherein wealthy fools try to make their version of a desirable place in rural Northland, the main characters are not destroyed by fantastic creatures but by nature itself – and a very real animal.

            What particularly interests me in Botur’s prose is his use of ambiguity. In some stories we are not sure if the horror tale deals with “real” events, or is a delusion created in the narrator’s head. This is particularly true of “Butterfly Tongue” which is told by an angst-filled, angry teenaged girl. Is this unreliable narration or does she meet a real final monstrosity? In “Lossboys”, the destructive adolescent ghosts might just as well be delusions conjured up by a mother after her young son dies. But it is still unnerving. It’s a little like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw where we can either believe that two children are demonically possessed OR that the whole tale reflects the neuroses of the nanny who is supposedly shielding them as well as telling the tale.

            I like Botur’s style and enjoyed most of his stories, especially the nuanced ones. But be aware, as I said at the beginning of this brief review, horror stories are an acquired taste. Like blood.

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