Heavy-handed law interpretations take toll

18:42, Mar 26 2014
Holly Lyall
2013: In the pink: Blenheim women Nadine Dight, left, and Holly Lyall add the final touches of paint to the bar leaner they built to rest their drinks on during Brews, Blues and BBQs.

Five down, one to go. Next weekend more than 10,000 people will flock to Hagley Park in Christchurch for the Great Kiwi Beer Festival, the last of this year's major summer beer festivals.

The last few months have seen smaller festivals held in Blenheim, Queenstown, Wairarapa and Nelson, and a much larger event a fortnight ago in Auckland.

Although I've attended only the Blenheim festival in February, and Nelson's MarchFest last Saturday, I've been keeping my ears and eyes open for feedback on those other events.

Judging by what I've seen, read and heard, the success or failure of beer festivals, regardless of their size, is being hugely influenced by the way the new Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act is being interpreted and implemented by local authorities. For some festivals everything seems to be fine, but for others, no matter how well organised, they're struggling under the burden of increasingly restrictive liquor licensing and security compliance issues.

Take the R20-rated New Zealand Beer Festival, for example. Held a fortnight ago at The Cloud on Auckland's Queen's Wharf, the festival was hit with a sequence of last-minute changes to its liquor license.

According to one stallholder, "things were changing on a daily basis. One night we got two updates within an hour."


Event organiser Andrew Somerville applied for his licence in December last year, but the introduction of the new act meant the festival was left waiting until the Tuesday before the event.

With four days to go, closing time for alcohol sales at the festival's evening session was brought forward from 9pm to 8pm, and authorities insisted on restricting the pour size for all beers at both sessions to 165ml - the equivalent of half a standard stubby of beer.

With some 8000 people attending the evening session, the small pour resulted in them spending much of the time standing in long queues waiting to buy their next drink. There was also much talk of heavy-handed security, with guards standing by at every bar scrutinising those serving the beers, and unspecified observers videoing proceedings.

The event soon attracted a stream of negative feedback on social media. Festivalgoer Adrian Keane was furious: "Talk about erosion of civil liberties. Just when exactly did the fun police take over in Auckland? Tiny glasses and a bar that closed at 2pm . . ." he wrote on the festival's Facebook page. "Security guards were everywhere, and they were none too subtle as they actively sidled up to people to check just in case they may have had too much to drink."

Others echoed similar concerns. Marie Cleghorn wrote: "This event has had the fun sucked out if it - day split into two, half pours so you're constantly queuing, bars closed at 8pm for a closing time of 10pm."

And Ian Minton added, "From what bar staff told us, this event was handcuffed by the liquor licensing laws."

This summer in Blenheim, the annual Blues, Brews and Barbecues festival failed to materialise. Having once attracted crowds of around 8000 people, in recent years the event had suffered falling attendances, and was finally deemed unviable by its organisers, the Round Table club.

Why did it fail? When asked by the Marlborough Express, festival organiser Graeme Boon offered two reasons: first, Marlborough's craft brewers had withdrawn from the event after plastic cups replaced glasses in 2010 (a ban on glasses had been imposed by the local liquor licensing committee following a recommendation from police), and secondly that regulations surrounding the liquor licence had increased the cost dramatically.

Police pressure on the local liquor licensing committee had also been behind the festival becoming an R18 event a few years earlier; a move which completely changed the tone of the event by preventing family groups from attending.

The demise of Blenheim's Blues, Brews and Barbecues was a great shame because it was a charitable event. In its 20-year history the Round Table had donated more than $1 million of festival profits to local charities.

In the end this year Marlborough's beer lovers enjoyed a much smaller beer and music festival run by restaurateur Dietmar Schnarre. Held at the Dodson Street Beer Garden in early February, the event drew a crowd of some 300 beer lovers and proved that a quality-focused, family-friendly festival can succeed without plastic cups, restricted pour sizes, or an intrusive security and police presence.

By all accounts, this year's Greater Wellington Brewday, which was held three weeks ago in a paddock on the edge of Martinborough, was also a roaring success. Showcasing the products of 16 of the Wellington region's craft breweries and distilleries, and offering high quality food matches and entertainment in a family-friendly environment, the festival drew a laid-back crowd of about 1900. Reports suggest there was no invasive security, and the beers were available in 100ml tastings and larger 250ml pours.

And MarchFest in Nelson at the weekend was a similar success story. Around 3500 people made their way to Founders Park to enjoy a warm, sunny day sampling craft beers, ciders and wines from local producers while listening to music and exploring the park's many historic buildings.

MarchFest is known for its relaxed, family-friendly vibe, and at no stage did I see any unnecessarily overt or antagonistic security presence or undesirable behaviour. It's a wonderful way to celebrate the end of summer.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to attending Christchurch's much larger Great Kiwi Beer Festival in Hagley Park this Saturday.

Festival organiser Callam Mitchell noted that there will be a bigger police presence at the event this year, but is nonetheless pleased that festivalgoers will once again be able to sample the beers from glasses in 100ml tastings and 285ml pours. Since its inception, the GKBF has been a well-managed event with a happy, trouble-free atmosphere.


The Marlborough Express