The pix are choice, Piet de Jong

The Story of Beer: Beer and brewing – a New Zealand History
Gordon McLauchlan,
Penguin, $39.95

If this book were a swimming pool, you’d break your neck every time you dived into it. Shallow maybe, but it probably achieves all it sets out to do.

It satisfies a male author’s natural instinct to show erudition on the subject of a man’s drink (his Hemingway reflex), it justifies an unusual publishing arrangement whereby this “history” of beer and brewing has been sponsored by a beneficent and disinterested party called Lion Breweries (see the chapter, “THE RISE OF LION”) and, perhaps most important, it gives the average joker an entertaining skip over some facts and legends pertaining to the consumption, ah, of the amber nectar.

While McLauchlan’s creamy circumlocutions are an enjoyable read, his “history” ultimately restores beer and brewing to a position of respectability and consigns all the people who have died in Mark Three Cortinas against bridge abutments with beer bottles broken off in their throats to the status of those who refuse to take personal responsibility. (Silly them, they should never have had beer bottles in their throats when they drove into bridge abutments.)

The book covers the “ancient craft of brewing”, the beginnings of beer in New Zealand, South Island brewers, the goldfields, THE RISE OF LION, the story of hops, the prohibition movement, the law, the West Coast and the swill. These essential elements of the beer story are adequately researched and covered. But I kept asking: where is the story of the drinkers? Where are the Cortina drivers? Where is the parochialism over beer brands?

And how can you have a whole book on beer and never use the word “piss”? In any bottle store or pub toilet in the land you’ll hear all around you: “We’re on the piss”, “I’m half pissed”, “man, is Jacko pissed!”, “I need a piss”, “I’m pissed off”.

The book is too sanitised. It reads like one of those new filtered ice beers.

The illustrations are choice though, especially if you avoid the excruciating captions … those lugubrious, mustachioed brewery workers standing amongst kauri vats, clinging to fox terriers. (There must have been a lot of fox terriers in those days as every historical picture book I’ve ever looked at tells me they were also a de rigueur dress accessory for burly timber fellers.)

Also, to his credit, McLauchlan has added to our national story. He celebrates our beers, shows us hundreds of wonderful labels and warmly embraces a national habit, even if he hides its dark side.

And after reading this book, I know I was right to follow my European instincts and pour a beer with a good head, in spite of the ribbings of my mates that I was pouring it like a sheila.


Piet de Jong is a Wellington writer, whose specialist topic for a sociology masters, later published as Saturday’s Warriors, was New Zealand’s rugby sub-culture.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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