Many know its qualities as a refreshing reviver and welcome ingredient at social gatherings, but who knew reading about beer could also be satisfying.
Inspired by the renaissance of craft brewing in New Zealand, Sunday Star-Times deputy editor Michael Donaldson penned Beer Nation: The Art & Heart of Kiwi Beer.
Released mid-year, it is nevertheless a great alternative to socks or even the latest crime thriller to put under the Christmas tree for dad or granddad - or indeed one of the growing legion of female fans of boutique beers.
In his weekly column Pint of View, Donaldson writes entertainingly about the latest good quaffs. Beer Nation is an extended riff on the theme. Appendices at the back are a handy guide to our pilseners, IPAs, stouts and weizens, and there's even an itinerary for a nationwide "pub crawl" of top outlets serving craft beers.
But the book's strengths are the highly readable chapters on the role brewing has played in our history - early pioneers, the prohibition movement, the "six o'clock swill", the doldrum years of Dominion Breweries and Lion Nathan "making mirror-image beers" and the erosion of that duopoly, first by "Euro-lagers in green bottles", then by a new wave of Kiwi brewers experimenting with yeast, hops and malts.
After briefly tracing how the making of the first beers probably pre-dated our first breads at least 6000 years ago, Donaldson is soon concentrating on our shores.
He notes that by the time of the 1871 census there were 69 breweries scattered around the country.
Who knew that the temperance movement gained a "massive leg- up" from women gaining the vote in 1893. Teetotallers pushed hard for emancipation, knowing their cause could be aided if women could vote.
Wellington South, Wellington Suburbs and Masterton were among 12 of 76 areas which had voted to go "dry" by 1908 but the crunch poll came in 1919, the year the United States introduced prohibition.
It could have been bad news for drinkers here as well; in initial vote counting it appeared the wowsers had secured more than 50 per cent. But then the postal votes from the 40,000 Kiwi soldiers overseas arrived, tipping the scales against prohibition by 50.3 per cent v 49.7.
Donaldson writes that the unfortunate trend to sweet, bland NZ draught beers started in 1942 when the wartime Government forced brewers to lower the alcohol level in beer as a rationing exercise to conserve grain. The alcohol restriction was relaxed in 1949 but the sweet beers remained because the brewers liked the profit (they saved on malt and hops, and on tax which was levied on alcohol content) "and drinkers' palates had adapted to a blander, weaker beer."
But the really unfortunate experiment was when the Government of 1918, pandering to the temperance movement but not wanting to lose alcohol tax revenue, introduced compulsory 6pm closing of pubs. It was supposed to last until the end of the war but the six o'clock swill was not abolished until 1967.
Donaldson argues convincingly that the "half century in which we crammed our considerable drinking into barely one hour every working day" laid the foundations for unfortunate sculling habits passed down to today's generation.
He writes: "This way of drinking was around so long, it became normalised and remains so: it's in our DNA and is enshrined in practices such as drinking games, boat races, chunder miles and record setting in the race to down a pint.
". . . Bars had no furniture and no entertainment because they were distractions from the core activity; consumption of alcohol. The rule against women serving alcohol was equally pleasing to both sides as the temperance folk didn't want women exposed to the vileness and the pub owners didn't want men distracted from drinking by thinking of chat-up lines."
After chapters on topics such as beer marketing (best Tui billboards "It's only because the water is cold" and "There is definitely money in that account") and the mighty Morton Coutts and Doug Myers, Beer Nation gets on to the new entrepreneurs, starting with Mac's Terry McCashin and moving on to heroes such as Richard Emerson, Roger Pink and Stephen "Ben" Middlemiss - men who shunned continuous fermentation to experiment and come up with beers that had a point of difference. They paved the way for an explosion of new brews from the likes of Yeastie Boys, 8-Wired and Liberty.
Carl Vasta of Tuatara Breweries features. He is well established on the Kapiti Coast, but his early days were as a brewer at the Station Village in Lower Hutt, and then with Polar, based at the Petone Working Men's Club.
Tuatara's sales mushroomed when they started bottling in 2007.
Vasta says single bottle sales in pubs and restaurants drive the company's take-home beer success.
"If people go out and have a beer they like in a restaurant or cafe, they then go to the supermarket and buy a six-pack - experimentation is not expensive on-premise because you're only having one but buying a six-pack at a supermarket is quite expensive if you're not sure what you're getting."
It's a book to savour, and dip back into from time to time.
- Prohibition led to the first "boy racers". Moonshiners of southern states in America were the first to create souped up cars in order to outrun police. Stock car racing was born when bored moonshiners decided to race each other.
- Beer and cheese matches make more sense than wine and cheese. The latter are polar opposites in tastes but the former is a tradition going back to the Middle Ages in Belgium, where monasteries were known for their exceptional beers and cheeses. Cheese partners with bread, and bread is made with essentially the same ingredients as beer.
- We're said to be a nation of beer drinkers, but we're minnows compared to some. In the ranks of litres of beer consumed per capita (2010), the big fish were the Czech Republic (158 litres), Germany (111) and Ireland (106). We were 11th (68), behind Britain, Australia and the USA.
Source: Beer Nation, by Michael Donaldson
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