When binge drinking was compulsory

Binge drinking used to be compulsory here in New Zealand, and was reinforced by an emergency law that lasted for half a century.

For the benefit of international readers, let me start at the beginning. Back in 1917, New Zealand was at war. We were attempting to drive the Hun out of Flanders, and the Sultan out Palestine. Some people were letting the side down by going to the pub of an evening, and so an emergency law was passed requiring all pubs to close at 6pm, thus freeing our evenings to contemplate the terrible world we would have if the Huns had taken over and let the pubs stay open.

Of course, we weren’t the only country at war – the whole world was at it. But were almost the only one to live with this kind of restriction for so long after the war. Because that emergency law outlasted both World Wars, the Korean War and the first half of the Vietnam War.

That’s right – from 1917 until 1967 all the pubs in New Zealand had to close at 6pm and stay closed until the next morning. We take it for granted in New Zealand, but it’s easy to forget what an extreme and influential policy it was.

We weren’t the only ones doing it – Australia did the same thing. South Australia ended early closing in 1967 too, but it introduced two years before New Zealand did, in 1915.

It became known as the six o’clock swill, as beer drinkers crammed an evening’s worth of beer into an hour of drinking. The swill affected our culture, our architecture and our beer styles and tastes, and it continues to influence us today, nearly a century after it was introduced.

Bars got bigger to serve as many customers as possible as quickly as possible. They were built with tile and concrete floors, some with built-in gutters, so they could be hosed-out. This was the predecessor of the ugly-great booze barn style of pub design as seen on Once Were Warriors, and, increasingly-rarely, in New Zealand suburbs.

The beer had to be easy to drink and easier to pour. There was no time to discuss, or even notice, strong flavour, so it was brown and sweet, like our tea. Beer was dispensed from hoses into glasses and jugs, and good head was treated as a waste of space that could be filled with more flat beer. Beer was delivered in tankers, derived from the dairy industry, and pumped from the tanker into tanks below the pub, like petrol. Although the swill is long-gone, that industrial presentation and lack of flavour was a poor start for a more sophisticated and diverse beer culture.

The six o’clock swill lasted for two generations, and today’s binge-drinking culture shows we’re not over it yet. It’s ironic that the swill was supported by the temperance movement, both when it was introduced and whenever it was reviewed.

The swill was before my time – if you experienced it, you’d be at least in your sixties today. My father worked in a Lower Hutt bar in the 1960s, filling take-away flagons through a hose. To this day he maintains that presenting beer with a head is cause for complaint. I do remember 10pm closing – the last train back to Porirua was a tense trip, and I have a deep suspicion of synchronised closing times that fill the streets with drinkers all at once.

But given the current fascination with Kiwiana, nostalgia, and ads representing the 1950s as the Golden Age of New Zealand beer, perhaps the swill could make a comeback. Legislators are considering restricting opening hours and raising the drinking age – let’s make it 21, close all pubs at six, then ride home on the tram.

No, let’s not.

What about you – do you remember the swill? What changes came when pubs were allowed to open at night?

Wow of the week – Sprig & Fern Three Berry Cider. Black currents, strawbs and boysenberry blended with apple cider. Like Ribena, but with fruit, alcohol and Vitamin C. If you’re near The Malthouse, try it half-and-half with Coopers Stout with coffee beans off the hopinator. Mrs Beerblog invented this one – it shouldn’t work but it does, and it probably makes an excellent breakfast.

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© Martin Craig 2010. Reproduction with permission.

2 Responses to “When binge drinking was compulsory”

  1. Its like an IRA Black Velvet with Black

    Half Guinness Half Cider and Black Currant Syrup!!


  2. Forgive me if this comment is a little incoherent, it’s a Saturday morning at the end of a rather busy week capped off with traffic so ridiculous it took me the better part of an hour to get petrol then drive the 7km to pick up the Mrs from work, then traffic almost as bad on the way home… I hate Beijing’s CBD, and especially the fact that it lies halfway between home and her work. But on to the topic:

    I certainly see your point on the impact the 6 o’clock swill has had on NZ’s drinking culture, particularly the booze barn phenomenon and the industrialisation of the drinking process. But I hesitate to lay any blame, even partial blame, on the 6 o’clock swill for NZ’s binge drinking culture. We inherited our drinking culture from Britain, of course, and it strikes me that pretty much all of northern Europe, from Russia through the Nordic countries and the coasts of the Baltic and North Seas to the British Isles is binge drinking country, as are the colonial cultures (North America, Australia, NZ) derived from that part of the world. Indeed, drinking culture wise, the only difference with NZ I noticed in that summer I spent in Norway was the occasional booze-run to the nearest Swedish town with a liquor store (the price difference was enough to make the 80-odd km round trip worth it).

    But I suspect we agree that what is needed is not yet another legislative change, but a cultural change. Make getting absolutely hammered to the point you can’t remember your weekends a thing of shame, promote the idea that intelligent conversation over a few high-quality brews that are appreciated for their flavour rather than their effect on one’s ability to think straight, let alone walk straight, is a far better way to spend one’s spare time. The big question is: How do you change a culture? Legislation can have an influence, sure, but it can never change the underlying attitudes that cause our behaviour.

    That’s why I like these craft breweries and the NZ Beer Blog. I don’t know how much influence you can have on the drinking culture, but the fact there are people out there promoting the idea that one can appreciate quality beer as something other than a tool to get wasted with can only be positive.


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