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Story: Alcohol

Craft beers

New Zealand’s first European settlers – many of them single men – escaped the country’s rough conditions for the warmth and conviviality of pubs. From the early 20th century beer dominated, and until 1967 pubs featured the ‘six o’clock swill’, as men drank as much as they could before closing time. In the 2000s liquor laws were looser and wine was a more common tipple.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: Craft beers

Story Summary

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In the 2000s alcohol was New Zealand’s most widespread drug – about $85 million was spent on it each week, and the equivalent of 34 million litres of pure alcohol drunk each year.

Early drinking

Traditionally Māori did not drink alcohol, which was introduced by European settlers. Many early settlers were single men who found warmth and company in pubs. Binge drinking was common, and the conviction rate for drunkenness was high – in the 1870s more than twice that of Britain. However, overall consumption was no higher. As the number of breweries grew, beer drinking increased.

Māori were not impressed by alcohol, which they called waipiro (stinking water). From the 1850s more Māori drank. Measures were passed to restrict alcohol in Māori areas.

Prohibition movement

From the 1840s some people and groups campaigned against drinking. In the early 20th century around half of New Zealanders wanted alcohol completely banned. While this didn’t happen, restrictive laws were passed. The number of pubs fell, and from 1917 they had to close at 6 p.m.

The beer swill

Six o’clock closing meant that drinkers had just one hour in the pub after finishing work. They swilled beer in public bars.

In the 1920s a number of breweries amalgamated as New Zealand Breweries and Dominion Breweries. The two companies dominated beer production until the 1980s.

Changing times

In the 1960s and 1970s liquor licences were extended to restaurants and other venues, 10 o’clock closing of pubs was introduced and the drinking age was lowered to 20. From 1989 supermarkets could sell wine and bars could stay open all night. In 1999 the drinking age became 18.

Wine became a more common drink. Small independent breweries were set up, and RTDs (ready-to-drink mixed spirits in bottles) came on the market, mainly targeting young people.

Drinking patterns and impacts

In the 2000s the overall level of drinking was not high, but binge drinking was common – especially among young people, Māori and Pacific Islanders. The ill effects of alcohol included health problems such as cancer, liver diseases and foetal alcohol disorder; violence and aggression; and accidents.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Alcohol', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/alcohol (accessed 19 October 2017)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 13 Apr 2016