Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Beer Word of the Year

Beer Without Borders announces that the Beer Word of the Year is Sessionable. It beat “Crowdfunding” and “Crisp!” into second and third place respectively. And it must be considered a worthy winner given that “session” was also a candidate and that there was a lot of late voting for “Crisp!”, which has only recently become the descriptor of choice for serious beer writers, thanks to the efforts of Dylan Jauslin.

A countback shows that the first person to nominate “sessionable” as Beer Word of the Year was none other than New Zealand’s foremost prophet of trends in the world of beer – Stu McKinlay. Stu wins a romantic lunch with the owner of Beer Without Borders.

We’d like to acknowledge the help of Hadyn Green in organising the voting and to Public Address’s Word of the Year for the inspiration.

Random End of Year Rant

From our point of view as retailers and distributors of local and imported beer, there have been significant changes this year in what the people that we sell to have been buying.

A lot of this has to do with the rise of Liberty and Panhead. It’s convenient to bracket them because the ties and similarities between the two are strong. Mike Neilson and Joe Wood are long-standing friends and there’s no doubt that they've talked a lot as they've simultaneously developed brewing companies that are quickly becoming giants. And while they took very different approaches to getting into business, they've made a lot of similar moves in the last year or so. Specifically that means producing a lot of beer in styles that are popular right now and putting them out in six packs at very competitive prices. It has worked for them for a few reasons – obviously their packaging and pricing have made them popular – but first and foremost their quality has been consistently very good.

Of course it would be ridiculous to suggest that no-one has achieved this before, and a lot of these comments also apply to ParrotDog and others, but the rate that they've grown (Panhead in particular) and won over customers may well be unprecedented in New Zealand. (Plus we sell their beer and have watched it close up.)

So we have literally had wholesale customers say to us that they now sell less of everything except Liberty and Panhead. Without getting too empirical, there seem to be a lot more people taking home six packs of Oh Brother Pale Ale or Quickchange XPA where they might have taken a mixed bag of different beers a year ago. It’s as if the early adopters of the last five years are settling down with a few staples and experimenting less.

Another trend – not unrelated to this rise of Panhead and Liberty – is that when it comes to certain styles, particularly US style hop bombs, local brewers have all but eliminated the gap between local and imported product. There are still reasons for buying some of the imports. For instance there is still no local answer to Sculpin. Plus there are plenty of styles where the gap is still fairly wide between the local and imported product. There are still styles that are barely made or consumed here. And even though there have been some very good local sours available for several years, they’re only just catching on here and there is lots of ground to make up.

The greatest challenge confronting up and coming local brewers remains access to market and it’s as bad as ever. The number of untied taps in bars that are available for small and independent brewers to sell into is barely growing. Although there have been a few new bars open up or become free of their big brewery contracts, there simply aren't enough of them and many of the benefits are undone with their taps being individually contracted to the “if you can’t beat them join” breweries. (I.e. breweries that make a payment - or bribe - to bars in exchange for them never putting anyone else’s beer on one or two particular taps.)

This lack of progress is alarming. It seems that the lure of becoming a destination bar and winning the admiration (and cash) of a city’s beer geeks aren’t enough to convince operators that they should walk away from the embrace of DB/Tiger/Heineken, Lion/Kirin or Woodstock/Asahi. There are a few possible explanations, starting with the unavoidable fact that, in general, the hospitality industry is terminally petty, conservative and visionless. Another is that Lion Nathan’s strategy of buying up the competition (i.e. Emersons) to patch the gaping holes in its portfolio is working.

What it means is that, in New Zealand, the ratio of free taps to independent breweries is probably lower than ever.

With so few taps available (and with many of those being dominated by certain fast-growing juggernauts) new brewers quickly resort to bottling. Now it has long been the case that when a New Zealand consumer tries a new beer or brewery, they’re probably drinking at home, from a bottle. This in itself is absurd and tragic and a staggering indictment of our hospitality industry. But the fact is that certain supermarkets and specialist bottle stores have been the saviour of many new local breweries. But as mentioned above, a number of consumers have recently been settling for six packs of some well priced, reliable, hoppy pale ale over experimentation. So if you’re a new brewer and you've made a lot of good beer, but it isn't in a six pack with “Liberty” or “Panhead” on it and it isn’t selling for around $22 a six pack, then you’re probably finding it surprisingly difficult to sell.

In other words, 2014 has seen more breweries competing in a market that is a lot less open than we believed. A correction is coming. Making some good beer isn't enough any more. A new brewery either needs a killer beer or exceptional branding. (Or both. Or very deep pockets.)

Returning to that issue of tied taps… (and at the risk of boring people who've heard it all before) it looked as though New Zealand’s small and independent brewers were given an early Christmas present a few weeks ago with news that the Commerce Commission are investigating the practice of tap contracts. This was unexpected news. It follows a similar announcement from Australia’s equivalent body a few months ago.

Now speaking as a legal lay person, it strikes me that the merits of this investigation pivot on one point. New Zealand’s competition law says that companies can’t engage in practices that limit competition. A single tap contract doesn't quite do that. But hundreds or thousands of them do exactly that. So I wonder how far the Commerce Commission wants to get into a debate over the net effect of multiple commercial actions.

Also, the practice of tap contracts has dozens of equivalents throughout our economy. I'm thinking, for instance, of mobile phone contracts. A finding against tap contracts could call into question the legality of practices employed all over our economy. The consequences could be mind-boggling. I also suspect that, once companies got over their shock and adapted, there could be a magnificent boost to competitiveness, efficiency and transparency.

(I guess there’s also the issue of whether the need for competition is satisfied by a duopoly. I think the experience of beer consumers tells us that the answer is emphatically no.)

But back to tap contracts. Will the Commerce Commission be bothered really getting into this can of worms? Let’s imagine how their investigation might work. They’ll take into account statements such as the one in the DominionPost article from Tuatara, who, apparently, deplore the practice. Then they might talk to outlets who have tap contracts. They might ask who the tap contracts are with. Often the answer will be “Tuatara”. At this point I wouldn't be surprised if they decide there are better uses for their time.

So yes, I'm touching on the vexed issue of the distinction between what might be called “single tap” contracts and “whole bar” contracts. When big breweries sign “whole bar” contracts, they would say that all they’re doing is entering into an arrangement with a single bar and that there are other bars and consumers aren't affected. Likewise I’m sure that the smaller breweries who sign single tap contracts would say that it’s just one tap (or two or three) and there are other taps and consumers still have choice. The fact is that stitching up any kind of exclusivity has an effect. And those effects quickly compound. I see it when I go into a bar that has auctioned off most or all of its taps one at a time. I get less choice as a consumer and I see other brewers seething with frustration because they’re struggling to sell their beer.

So there is only one outcome that I want with respect to tap contracts, but I’m not holding my breath for it. And that is that pretty much that any donation of product or cash from a supplier to an outlet that leads to the outlet preferring that supplier’s product should be considered anti-competitive and illegal.

As for other trends this year (forgive me if trotting these out feels a bit tedious)…

Cans…. Yes they have lots of benefits, some of which are vastly overstated. And don’t mention the bauxite mines. We’ve only had a few canned beers on our books and they haven’t set the world alight. Having said that we’re about to launch Modern Times which we expect to do well, although that has more to do with the beer than the packaging.

“Session” beer… consumers and brewers have all been saying these are a great idea for years, and the long awaited pale hoppy ones finally seem to have gained momentum in the last twelve months. This probably has a lot less to do with the new blood alcohol level for drivers than is claimed and more to do with a long-standing wish for hop-lovers to be able to indulge themselves without getting smashed. Personally I think that hops taste nicer in a boozy beer and that saisons, sours and stouts are better bets for sessionability.

Rant over. Have a great 2015.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cans and Bottles

Small and independent brewers in New Zealand, the US and other markets are suddenly embracing the aluminium can in a manner not completely unlike the way winemakers adopted screw caps a decade or so ago.

With wine it was pretty much all about quality. Corks were and are flawed. There may have been circumstances at play, such as improving consumer education about cork taint and maybe corks (or at least the ones being exported to the Pacific rim) were becoming less reliable. Or maybe winemakers were getting sloppy. But consumers received a clear benefit by the move to screw caps.

There were dissenters, and no doubt there still are a few. Most of that dissent was pretty flimsy and a lot of it came from the less fussy end of the market who cared more about the pop of the cork than the quality of the wine. On the other hand there were one or two reservations expressed about screw caps that had at least some scientific basis and those might still not be conclusively proven either way.

So now it's cans vs bottles. The arguments this time are a little different. There is a quality component to it, but that argument isn't nearly as one-sided as it was with screw caps. The main quality complaint with glass (light strike) simply doesn't matter if the product is handled correctly.

Broadly here they are:

  • Cans are lighter so use less energy to freight.
  • Cans are more easily recycled.
  • It's impossible for cans to let in light.

Laid out like that, it seems like a slam dunk. So what are the dissenting arguments?

  1. Bauxite mining (first stage of creating aluminium) is environmentally disastrous.
  2. Cans are lined with a plastic that includes probably carcenogenic BPA.
  3. Most aluminium cans that are collected for recycling in New Zealand are sent to Australia for recycling.

Oh, and there's the completely spurious “aesthetic” argument, which goes away as soon as a beer is poured into a glass, if not sooner.

What's needed is a thorough audit of environmental and financial costs for each option. Of course this is incredibly difficult. Some people in other geographies have had a crack (this article in Slate magazine seems a reasonable attempt) and have generally come to the conclusion that: (1) draft beer is best, (2) bottles are next best for sales to customers who are geographically close and (3) cans are better than bottles if long haul freight is involved.

What might be different in New Zealand? Well as a country with a lot of coastline you'd think that the raw ingredients for glass bottles must be pretty abundant. It looks as if most or all of our glass is created from sands collected from Parengarenga Harbour in Northland. From the lay person's point of view, it would appear that the raw material is just lying there waiting to be collected and is not in any danger of running out.

Meanwhile aluminium relies on bauxite from Australia. Here's what Lagunitas brewery have to say about bauxite mining. We bring bauxite to Tiwai Point and throw cheap electricity at it. Apparently the smelter pays one quarter what the rest of us do for their power. The Manapouri power station that generates electricity for Tiwai Point was one of the most controversial construction projects in New Zealand history on account of its impact on the environment. It seems the taxpayer also subsidises 90% of the smelter's carbon credits. When the smelter's operators threatened to close the whole operation down a few years ago, there was speculation that this would free up so much electricity generation that New Zealand would effectively be flooded with cheap electricity (although I'm told that there isn't enough capacity in our transmission network to bring that electricity to the North Island in the short term). In the end we used extra taxpayer money to persuade them to stay open until well after this year's election.

In other words, we seem to create aluminium in New Zealand as one giant, taxpayer funded work scheme with possibly huge environmental costs.

Then there's reuse and recycling. This is where aluminium should be the big winner. Except that we aren't quite as good at recycling aluminium as we are glass, but only by 48% compared to 50%. But it's the recycling process where aluminium is much better, using a fraction of the energy that went into production to be recycled. There seems to be one anomaly in the whole thing though – most of our used aluminium gets sent to Australia and recycling only contributes a tiny portion to the production at Tiwai Point.

What I don't understand here is why we went from reusing glass to recycling it. You would think that cleaning a bottle would use a fraction of the energy needed to crush or melt it then reconstitute one. Does the glass weaken over time? Did drinks producers insist on having unique bottles? Reuse lives on in the old fashioned flagon (a.k.a. growler), although that has been superceded partly by the more modest rigger, which has the same benefit of reuse.

But I really would like to know what stops us having a bottle collection network that drink makers source their bottles from. I suspect it comes down to quality, but maybe a bit of determination would solve that. It's good enough for home brewers after all. It would be interesting to see one of our local breweries experiment with crediting customers for returning bottles.

Finally there's the BPA thing. Getting into really tricky science here, so I'm not going to pretend to know what's best. Do New Zealand made cans even have the same lining as foreign ones? I know I'm not going to risk eating beer-can chicken any time soon.

There's a case for saying that the current fashion for the can needs a big injection of scepticism. Or maybe these reservations will go up in smoke in the light of some really good facts and figures. Comments welcome.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Single Bottle Nonsense

Four years after Geoff Palmer and the Law Commission set about dismantling the 1989 Sale of Liquor Act, the full horror of their agenda is finally dawning on those affected. I'm thinking in particular about the current storm on social networking over proposed bans on single bottle sales in certain cities.

Now it should be pointed out that the complaints might be a tiny bit misguided. What I believe these councils are proposing are that bans on single bottle sales be put in their set of discretionary conditions that they might then impose at will on individual licensees. So these aren't necessarily blanket bans. But I don't think that that nuance detracts from the stupidity of the measure.

Some beer drinkers are also taking the proposed bans personally since they don't seem to apply to wine. They would do well to note that in the Auckland case the council are actually talking about an exemption for "hand crafted beer", which is full of problems in its own right, but might be taken as a concession to beer lovers.

Now we in Wellington went through our own ordeal with the drafting of a Local Alcohol Policy last year. The first draft proposed much earlier closing times for bars and off-licences. The council's hearings into the matter were inundated with written and oral submissions and they watered the measures down a lot. In particular there was a plan to create a designated nightlife ghetto that would be entitled to later closing times. Some of us in the craft beer bar business were pretty riled about this and I made written and oral submissions, along with one or two others, pointing out the folly of this plan, with respect to the evolution of Wellington's nightlife and little things like messing with property values and rent. When the revised policy was released the council's press release said "The proposal to introduce entertainment precincts was not supported. We don’t want to stifle some of the niche character venues that might fall outside an arbitrary boundary, such as some of Wellington’s burgeoning craft beer bars." In other words, we influenced the outcome.

So for fuck's sake, stop whingeing on facebook and start talking to your local council!

Secondly... I forced myself to sit through submissions to the Wellington Council from local representatives of the respective associations of hospitality and supermarkets. It was ugly. A common theme from both of them was "alcohol abuse is their fault, not ours". It's a wonder that the council chose to overlook the pettiness of their finger pointing and accept the underlying message that arbitrarily shortening licensing hours is a daft way to try and change people's behaviour. So I was a little disappointed that the Brewers Guild indulged in a little finger pointing of their own by saying "regulators... should spend the energy enforcing retailer responsibility...".

In my experience the best way to talk councils out of these silly and arbitrary provisions is to draw attention to their flaws as regulations and the lack of understanding of the issue that's behind them. Maybe they were toying with me, but when I raised the subject of Paul Christoffel's thesis with the Wellington Council they seemed genuinely surprised and interested. (The thesis roundly debunks the availability theory that is behind the new Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act.) On the other hand, I expect that they sit through "it's not fair" complaints every day.

If I were an Aucklander, I would suggest to the Auckland council that this proposed discretionary condition is discriminatory:
licensee must not sell single units of mainstream beer, cider or RTDs in less than 445ml packaging. Boutique and handcrafted beer and cider are exempt from this provision.
To me, it's the rich tut-tutting the poor about their drinking.

And this one is basically a subsidy for the wine industry:
shots, shooters, high strength mixed drinks with more than 45mls is spirits/liqueur in one serve, beer with more than 6% ABV, and RTDs with more than 6%ABV must not be sold or supplied at the following times: within the last hour of closing for premises open till 1am or 2am; and within the last 2 hours before closing for premises open after 2am.
What are discriminatory social engineering and protection for wineries doing in a local alcohol policy?

So the gist of this rant is a plea. Please everyone stop wringing your hands about the single bottle sales thing. Instead, get your facts about the law and local alcohol policies straight along with all the other provisions of the disastrous Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act of 2012, not to mention Paul Christoffel's thesis, and make rational submissions to councils that debunk the nonsense that is going on here.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Twitterstorm Postscript

Very quickly... we're told that the somewhat controversial post that I put out earlier in the week has had unintended consequences in the form of (and I quote because I'm going by hints in tweets) "hassling", "harassing", "threats of violence", "putting them on a hit list". Oh and, incredibly, some kind of phone harassment.

Reactions like this are unequivocally rejected as legitimate support for the point I was trying to make. In fact they're the antithesis of the point I was trying to make and it beggars belief that this statement is even necessary. The whole post was a request (in vain) for an explanation. Not retribution.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Calling Out: Giovanni Tiso

Dear Giovanni Tiso,

I don’t believe we’ve met and if we did I remember nothing about it (sorry). But you’ve seen fit on at least two occasions to insult me, my staff, my fellow investors and our customers at Hashigo Zake on twitter. On both occasions it was a day or so before I realised which is just as well because I have been known to react impulsively to slurs like these. Instead a couple of people bothered to defend me and my business and I’m grateful to them.

But it’s becoming a pattern and I’m not blessed with the kind of tolerance and patience that it takes to ignore insults like these, so I thought it’s time I said something.

Now I know next to nothing about you, except what you’ve chosen to say about me and my staff and customers. So that’s all that this piece is about – your words about us.

So here we go. Back in December 2012 there was a conversation on twitter that went like this:

The conversation continued…

So… the gist of your complaint seems to be that my co-owners, staff and customers are pretentious gits who promote some kind of conformity while pretentiously pretending to be something else and harbouring people known as “hipsters”.

Now I generally need help with the hipster thing. I was out of New Zealand for a few years between 2005 and 2008, and it seemed that in my absence a new insult was invented. In the years since I haven’t been given or been able to deduce a definition. So Giovanni, why don’t you humour me and propose a robust definition of hipster? Because for now all I can tell is that it’s a word that says more about the lack of imagination and intellectual rigour of its user than its target.

And the conforming (or “confirming”?) thing. Hmm… maybe it’s time I told you a story about the origins of Hashigo Zake. 

You see I’m a big fan of beer - particularly (but not exclusively) interesting and imaginative interpretations of the beverage. Over a long period I became incredibly frustrated and disillusioned with bars in New Zealand that denied their consumers the chance to drink those versions of the beverage because the big breweries had a stranglehold on market access. To put it simply – they have, for decades, been paying incentives to the outlets NOT to serve the products of alternative suppliers. As well as being frustrated as a consumer I consider that a disgraceful and unethical business practice.

So the original and driving motivation for setting up Hashigo Zake was to create an outlet where alternatives to the products of those big bullying breweries could be served. And with some like-minded people we got started. Now my investors and I came from outside the hospitality industry. So we also felt motivated to question a lot of the practices of the hospitality industry that annoyed us. Practices such as spending large amounts on a gimmicky fit-out; drowning out the conversation of customers with thumping music; not being forthcoming with information such as drinks prices and glass sizes; recruiting staff with little product knowledge and paying them the minimum wage. We turned these frustrations into components of the total offering that was Hashigo Zake. We set up in a location that many critics thought was a graveyard. And I gave up a lucrative career to start a business that even our supporters thought was doomed.

So now… please explain… in what way are we guilty of conformity?

Your next accusation was snobbery:

So here we go… you don’t like our certificate. The “Certificate of Heineken-Free Status” that I whipped up in an hour or so one afternoon and put in a $2 frame by our door. Maybe I’m guilty of pride here but I am delighted with what our satirical certificate says. To us Heineken embodies everything that’s wrong with industrial brewing. It’s an unremarkable product whose manufacturer uses expensive marketing and sheer market power to coax apathetic consumers into buying. We want to send a signal to potential customers (and that product’s maker) that we have contempt for, in particular, their methods, and to some extent, their product.

If you don’t find it funny, good for you. I’m not a professional comedian. If you think it makes me/us snobs, that’s a big call, but for now let’s just put that down as name-calling and move on.

So what else did you have to say…

Now we’re getting a little firmer. You wanted to accuse us of charging $22 a drink. So can you clarify one thing here… did you really think we charge $22 a drink or was this hyperbole? Because, you know… one or two of the drinks on our long, long list will cost that much. Several percent of them. So maybe you meant this literally, in which case you’re just being selective to the point of being wilfully misleading. Or were you being hyperbolic? Because if you were, kindly put a zero on the end. There are impressionable people out there who could think this inane comment was somehow vaguely near reality.

But let’s talk about prices, value and what have you because it seems to be a recurring theme. Just yesterday you came up with this:

So here we go then – you think we’re expensive. You think our business model is to cash in on idiots who just want to buy the most expensive beer. Based on what exactly? Now of course I am going to deny this. 

Because it’s bullshit.

But there’s more going on here. We serve products that we like and that we think deserve to be offered to willing customers. And who’d have thought – those products cost more. And yes, having paid more for our raw goods we are failing to re-sell them at prices equal to those of more cheaply sourced goods. Step forward, Giovanni, and accept your Ig Nobel prize for Economics.

But here’s what really upsets me as a business person trying to make a living selling goods that are inherently more expensive than other similar (but arguably inferior) goods in the market. In order to remain competitive with the purveyors of those (arguably) inferior goods, we have to accept lower margins than other businesses do. I guess you don’t bother to look into the wholesale prices of the goods we sell before making your sweeping assertions. If we priced the beer we serve in accordance with the way a typical CBD bar does, then maybe your $22 quip might actually count for something.

So let me spell it out for you – a 200% markup on drinks is standard for an inner city bar in New Zealand. We mark ours up less. Often much less. Oh and we serve them in glasses that are larger than just about every other bar, but I guess you didn’t get that far with your research.

So Giovanni, how about you come clean? What is your problem? Do you just like calling people names? Do you have a problem with beer? Or the category of beer sometimes known as craft? Or do you just have a colossal inverted snobbery complex? Or is it something trivial like the name of our business or our décor (assuming you’ve ever set foot at Hashigo Zake)?

In the meantime, how about you stay away from the baseless, snide, cheap, derogatory chipping away at something that you just don’t happen to be into?

Dominic Kelly
Hashigo Zake

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bringing Back The Fear

I recently applied to renew Hashigo Zake’s on licence. Although the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 doesn’t come into effect until December 18, we have been in a transition phase and the application process takes into account certain provisions of the new act. So it included a “CPTED checklist” that we had never been required to fill in before. (To see it, scroll to page 8 here.) We have to answer yes or no to assertions such as:

Area behind the bar is raised to improve visibility
Premises is laid out so staff can monitor patrons at all times
There are no obstructions within the bar causing blind spots
CCTV is installed
Patrons are aware of the CCTV system

(Fortunately for Hashigo Zake, at a recent briefing to the Wellington hospitality industry it was implied that the standards being tested for here wouldn’t be applied to renewal applications, just new applications.)

So what does this tell us about how authorities envisage licensed premises operating under the Sale and Supply of Liquor Act 2012? I was reminded of the panopticon, a design conceived in the 18th century for institutions such as prisons, asylums and day care facilities. The concept was of a design that ensured that all inmates could be observed from a single point and while the staff at that single point might only be looking in one direction at a time, the inmates had to assume that they were being watched at all time and would moderate their behaviour accordingly.

The idea that bars are going to be required to be laid out like an 18th century prison is chilling enough. It’s also dazzlingly stupid. In a busy bar, staff behind the bar don’t waste their time peering over the heads of customers to look for intoxicated customers, half of whom – statistically - will have their backs to the bar anyway. There’s a far more effective way. It’s called collecting glasses. At Hashigo Zake, like most bars, every corner of our premises is visited every five minutes or so by a member of staff. The fact that we have things called rooms, which it seems will be an automatic fail in the brave new world, doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to our ability to monitor what is going on.

But early indications are that bar staff are expected to transition from dispensers of drinks, good service and advice to a kind of detention monitor. And bars will be required to resemble crèches.

So when and why did New Zealand become so afraid of alcohol and drinkers? Actually that’s the wrong question because the answer is the 19th century. When and why did our fear of alcohol come back with such ferocity?

Now that’s a complicated question. Maybe this will help: the Ministry of Justice just released the findings of a survey into the perceptions of crime among the public of New Zealand. It showed that people’s perception of rates of crime were completely at odds with reality. Official statistics show that crime is at a 33-year low but the majority of respondents were convinced it was rising. Someone (the media are deemed to be the culprits in this case) is exaggerating the problem and misleading the public.

Could there be a similar effect with alcohol abuse? That some party or parties, for whatever reason, are overstating New Zealand’s problems with alcohol abuse?

From Geoffrey Palmer’s Law Commission report of 2010 to the expert witnesses at the Wellington City Council’s hearings in 2013 into its own Local Alcohol Policy, New Zealand came about as close as it ever will to unanimous agreement on a topic – that something new and terrible called bingedrinkingculture has emerged and needs to be tackled. And our collective penance is the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 and its upcoming, accompanying Local Alcohol Policies.

But what is the compelling evidence of said bingedrinkingculture that has made this new flood of measures necessary? Let’s see. Here’s a graph from within the aforementioned Law Commission report: 
It shows that alcohol consumption fell steadily from the late ‘70s until around 1999. That includes the year 1989, when that year’s Sale of Liquor Act rationalised and, generally, liberalised our liquor laws. The figures rose again in 1999, when we stopped prosecuting 18 and 19 year olds for purchasing alcohol. It’s hardly a surprise that removing the threat of prosecution for a chunk of the population led to a rise in consumption. Now this graph is obviously a little out of date, but we can tell from here that the trend since this graph was plotted has been downward.

In other words, nothing to see here. Consumption of alcohol over the last thirty to forty years has fallen. 

Perhaps there’s something more specific going on, other than just overall consumption. That is certainly the message we’ve been fed for years now :- the problem isn’t simply alcohol and the silent majority of responsible users, it’s the bingedrinkingculture. Somewhere, out there, some portion of our society is drinking alcohol by the binge-full, in ways that are new and disturbing and a crisis for all of us. And that portion of society is, specifically, the kids.

Take this report for example. There are few specific, measurable facts from Dr Paul Quigley of Wellington Hospital or Sergeant Andrew Kowalczyk about what makes the current bingedrinkingculture different. It’s the intent that’s different, apparently. Dr Quigley says “now, they intended to get smashed, to get wasted.” Sgt Kowalczyk says “where you used to sit around, and you’d drink over a jug of beer, and you’d talk about the races, now it’s like, especially the youth, ‘let’s get pissed as quick as possible’”. 

With all due respect to these sincere and knowledgeable people, but did they sleep through the last fifty years? How much collective amnesia do we have as a society? At secondary school in the 80s friends of mine would do exactly what Dr Quigley and Sgt Kowalczyk complain about with exactly the same bleak, nihilistic attitude. Then when we got to university we were mocked by our elders for being amateurs.

As far as I can tell, the only empirical measure that researchers have to quantify the elusive bingedrinkingculture among youth are surveys. That’s right – all we know about the drinking habits of our troubled youth is what they tell us. (“So, teen survey respondent, here’s your first question: How often do you and your mates get wasted?”) Unless and until the actual alcohol intake of the respondents is accurately recorded the absolute numbers coming out of the surveys are worthless. 

But I will accept that the trends over successive surveys (provided their methodologies are consistent) can tell us something. So what do they tell us? Well according to the Ministry of Health, between the 2005/6 survey and the 2011/12 survey, rates of “hazardous drinking” in New Zealand fell. But why should that be a surprise? We know from Statistics New Zealand that alcohol consumption in the same period dropped. So it is entirely consistent and predictable that so-called “hazardous drinking” should have dropped.

Parenthetically, is this a good time to question the Ministry’s use of the term “hazardous drinking”? It seems that teetotallers have a lower life expectancy than moderate drinkers of alcohol. D’oh, I’m sorry I got that wrong. Teetotallers have a lower life expectancy than moderate and heavy drinkers of alcohol. So while I’m sure that by “hazardous drinkers” they meant “heavy drinkers”, maybe they should consider inverting their terminology.

But to diminish the orthodoxy that bingedrinkingculture is here, it’s a problem and it’s a new problem is to overlook the elephant in the room:- Courtenay Place at 3am on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Yes it’s a vile time and place and it leaves me demoralised as it does just about anyone I know. It’s a symbol of the one fact that almost no-one can disagree on :- that a number of people in our society become very ugly when drunk.

Thirty years ago we definitely didn’t have whole precincts in our cities like Courtenay Place where drinking, yelling, staggering, snogging and vomiting went on well into the next morning. The bars weren’t generally open late enough and not that many people stayed in town after midnight. But if alcohol consumption has fallen over the same period, where have all these hordes of late night revellers come from and who was doing their share of alcohol consumption previously?

The answer, I suggest, is the suburbs. In fact it’s the only explanation that makes any sense, given that per capita alcohol consumption peaked in New Zealand in the late 70s, in the era of 10pm closing. Back then parties often started when the pub closed and depended on revellers arriving with multi-packs of beer or wine. And many would stay until they consumed the stash that they’d brought with them.

The Christchurch earthquake demonstrated what happens when our cities lose their nightlife. In the year or so immediately following the Christchurch earthquake complaints to the Christchurch City Council about noise from suburban parties soared. In the last year, as the city’s nightlife recovered they’ve fallen again.

New Zealanders do not lose their resourcefulness when someone hides the drinks. My father, coincidentally, recently told me how he and his friends planned for their annual Old Boys Ball in the 50s. It was generally held in the evening at an unlicensed cabaret. So during the afternoon patrons individually dropped in at the venue to leave a hip flask of something distilled in a locker, to access later. Then they’d take crates of beer to someone’s home and refresh themselves in advance. Pre-loading and side-loading:– anyone claiming that they’re a recent invention is delusional.

Hoarding alcohol is a rational response to restrictions on availability. And buying in bulk has the advantage of being a money saver. It’s also far more likely to lead to over-consumption. A patron at a bar generally buys a drink at a time, at a price that incorporates the bar’s costs, from a worker who risks conviction for selling a drink to someone who’s intoxicated. But someone who has taken a large volume of alcohol to a party and has left that drink at arm’s reach has no brake on their consumption and probably has an incentive to finish what they brought.

The earlier the bottle store or supermarket closes, the greater the lengths that a determined drinker will go to to make sure he or she doesn't run out later in the evening.

So as ugly as zones like Wellington’s Courtenay Place can be, are they doing New Zealand (and our suburbs) an enormous favour, by bringing our most determined party-goers into one precinct? There their drinking can be moderated and when the worst happens they’re more likely to be seen to, instead of being left unconscious at the bottom of a suburban garden.

Again – does it need to be repeated? The liberalisation of New Zealand’s liquor law in 1989 coincided with a reduction in consumption. In fact this effect has been repeated throughout New Zealand’s history and it has been documented. Not that anyone thought to take into account the findings of Paul Christoffel’s 2006 thesis, “Removing Temptation: New Zealand’s Alcohol Restrictions, 1881-2005”. The law commission report saw fit to quote from some of his historical background. But they never bothered to mention the core finding of his research, which was that the availability theory (greater availability of alcohol leading to greater consumption) is patently wrong. In fact the historian wasn’t consulted at all during the drafting and debate of the new Sale and Supply of Liquor Act.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the new act’s flaws. Here are a few more:
  • Accompanying the act are new, much higher, fees for holders of liquor licences. Now remember that an enormous portion of the income that a licence holder derives from selling alcohol goes to the government in excise tax. But an intentionally punitive new fees regime has been imposed as well. Making the selling of alcohol uneconomic is a petty and stupid way of penalising the industry. Additional compliance costs are just going to make operators look for ways to take some of the risk back out of their business – probably by looking for deals with suppliers that hinge on increases in turnover.
  • The cost of getting a duty manager’s certification for the purposes of the act are roughly doubling. At Hashigo Zake we consciously get as many of our staff as possible qualified as duty managers. It’s a good way to make sure everyone understands the law and our responsibilities. Now we’ve been given a financial disincentive for doing this.
  • One of the measures of the new act is the outlawing of advertising of discounts of more than a certain percentage. However it was pointed out at a briefing recently that advertising such discounts with signs inside a bar or bottle store is legal. What's more there is nothing to stop a customer from taking a photo of such signage and posting it on the facebook page of the outlet. In other words, a much heralded component of the law comes with a built-in loophole.
In short, New Zealand’s new law looks like a blunder from conception to implementation. It’s based on a phony moral panic and incorporates a package of measures that are more likely to lead to irresponsible drinking practices. It seems to have been designed by people who are afraid of alcohol and want everyone else to be, regardless of whether that is healthy.