The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)

6th August 2011

Who would have thought that something as ubiquitous in the British Isles as a pint of beer would be so hard to come by in foreign climes? The scarcity of the humble pint in New Zealand is particularly bewildering, not least because this country is teeming with Brits and children of Brits who must surely be thinking the same thing as me when they enter a pub here and are served their beer in a glass that, even to the naked eye, is clearly not pint-sized. It’s not far off, admittedly, but when one has spent their entire adult life drinking their favourite alcoholic beverage in a very specific volume, it is immediately apparent when said beverage is presented to you in a stunted form. It’s the same feeling you get as when you excitedly tear open a seemingly laden packet of crisps only to find that the bag was full of air and there’s barely a mouthful of the advertised contents at the bottom - a feeling of being, as we Poms say, “turned over”.

Such is the infrequency that pints are to be found in NZ pubs that I have been forced to adapt my lifelong bar order to exclude all reference to the desired quantity. I now simply request “a beer” rather than “a pint” for fear of getting strange looks. There doesn’t appear to be a name or word that identifies the slightly-less-than-a-pint-sized glasses that beer is usually served in here. In Australia, I know they call their smaller beer glasses “schooners” but the receptacle closest to a pint that I have encountered here is known as a “pot”. Which to me implies a small ceramic vestibule, and something entirely unsuited to the drinking of beer.

Now I realise some of you are probably thinking that this is all a bit of a fuss over nothing, but the smaller glass size does cause a certain degree of distress for unaccustomed Poms like myself. For a start, it means that you finish your drink a good couple of minutes sooner than you would in the UK, which means a quicker return to the bar, and ultimately more visits to the bar throughout the course of an evening. Which is annoying. It also means you end up spending significantly more on a night out than you would in your typical British pub, even in one of those monstrously overpriced west London gastro-pubs. The average price of a not-quite-a-pint in Auckland is somewhere around the 8 dollar mark, which at the current exchange rate is over 4 British pounds. Suffice to say, that is not a cheap date.

It recently transpired that it’s not just us grumpy Brits who have taken the Kiwi not-quite-a-pint issue to heart. A couple of weeks ago, the New Zealand Herald, Auckland’s leading newspaper, ran an outraged article entitled ‘The great World Cup beer swindle’, which announced to a disbelieving populace that official Rugby World Cup sponsor Heineken had increased beer keg prices whilst at the same time reducing the size of their branded tap beer glasses from 425ml to 400ml. The not-quite-a-pint controversy just became the barely-a-half-pint scandal.

If nothing else, the size of New Zealand beer vestibules helps to illustrate that the drinking culture here is quite different to that of the UK. I have previously remarked on the fact that pubs here are few and far between, with Kiwis more likely to choose bars and restaurants as their preferred out-of-home drinking dens. It’s a trend that I do find slightly strange, because Kiwis do love a good pub. Those that have travelled to the UK often cite the traditional “old man’s pub” as one of the things they miss most when returning to their homeland, and the pubs that have set up here always seem to be doing a roaring trade. Not that New Zealand’s pubs entirely replicate the distinct atmosphere of your English King & Queens and Coach & Horses. As well as the glass sizes, there are a number of other subtle distinctions that mark a Kiwi pub out from the ones I know and love back home. For a start, it is rare indeed to find a pub that serves bags of crisps from behind the bar. This curiously British phenomenon is, of course, a disaster waiting to happen for one’s arteries but when you’ve grown up with it, it’s hard not to feel disappointed when you’re deprived the ability to scoff a packet of steak-flavoured McCoys or bag of scampi fries with your pint of ale. And they haven’t even heard of pork scratchings over here, which, when you find yourself trying to explain the appeal of a bag of hairy freeze-dried pork rind, is probably not all that surprising.

So, if they serve their drinks in sizes that would justify a refund back home, and don’t offer their punters anything in the way of meat-flavoured potato snacks, is there anything that New Zealand pubs do do better than their British counterparts? Well, as it happens, there is. For a start, it is actually possible to walk into a central Auckland pub on a Friday lunchtime and find a free table. It is even probable that you can walk straight up to the bar and get served instantaneously, without any need for standing on tip-toe, dislocating limbs or barging fellow customers out of the way in order to get the barman to take your order. For any British person accustomed to spending entire evenings in the pub standing up and waiting at the bar for up to half an hour to get served, this is the equivalent of watering hole heaven.

Another notable feature of Kiwi pubs is that many of them actually serve their own beers brewed on site, and even those that don’t tend to offer a much broader and more unusual selection of lagers and ales than your average British boozer. There are also fewer in the way of homogenised chains like UK juggernauts Wetherspoons or O’Neils, which, while easy on the wallet, are only slightly more pleasant to spend an evening in than a motorway branch of Burger King. The main chains that they do have here – such as Mac’s brewbars and Monteith’s series of pubs – tend to be specialists in a particular beer brand and do their best to offer unique and interesting drinking experiences for their patrons. The food on offer in these establishments is usually of a decent quality too, with menus often bespoke to the venue and usually much more innovative than the limited burger-based selections you find in England. So even if you can’t buy a bag of smoky bacon crisps to soak up your beer, you are at least guaranteed a non-soggy bowl of fries and mayo.

Strangely, while my perception is that pubs are not very common in New Zealand, when I actually think about it, a lot more come to mind than expected. In Auckland alone, I can reel off a good half dozen where I’d happily spend an evening sitting (not standing) with a group of friends. There’s Ponsonby’s Belgian Beer CafĂ©, for example, a poshly-named pub housed within the grandiose walls of an old post office that serves heaving buckets of moules to accompany your Leffe and Stella Artois (yes, they have European beers here too).

There’s College Hill’s Cavalier Tavern, which does a mean lunchtime burger and provides a large outdoor terrace with great views out to the Sky Tower-dominated CBD - perfect for large groups on balmy summer evenings.

There’s downtown’s Northern Steamship, a classy Mac’s Brewbar uniquely decked out with upside-down art deco lampshades, leather couches and towering cylindrical free-standing bookshelves. There’s even an almost-authentic Irish pub called The Clare Inn in Mount Eden with a roaring fire, sport on the TV, and genuine Irish bar staff who call it “The Clurr Inn”.

So what’s missing about NZ pub culture, apart from pints? Well, on reflection, I think it’s probably the concept of “the local”, which is so engrained in British culture that the very expression has come to mean “the nearest boozer”. In the UK we have it good – perhaps too good – with even the smallest rural villages boasting a pub alongside the obligatory post office and shop, and in the big cities you’re rarely more than a 15 minute walk from the nearest drinking establishment. Within staggering distance of my old Maida Vale flat, for instance, it would take a third hand to count the number of pubs within a short walking radius. Not all of them were great, of course, and some of them were downright ‘orrible, but at least you had options. By contrast our new suburb of Epsom, while more than catering for every conceivable takeaway food occasion, doesn’t appear to have any true pubs. The closest ones to our flat are in Mount Eden village, a good twenty minutes’ walk from here.

Given that so much of New Zealand culture can be directly traced back to its British roots, it really is a curious thing that that mainstay of British life, the public house, is not more commonplace than it is here. Perhaps there’s a silent not-quite-a-pint boycott going on. Perhaps the price of beer is forcing Kiwis, particularly in these uncertain economic times, to drink more in the comfort of their own homes, with a 12 pack of beer stubs from the local supermarket currently a frighteningly cheaper option than a round of drinks in the pub. Or maybe it’s that dreaded public transport issue again – after all, a pub crawl is an easy night out in London when you have the Tube to get you home (and sometimes you can even get away with a pub crawl on the Tube), but when you’re having to rely on Auckland’s less than efficient buses and local trains, I know from my own experience that driving oneself home after a sober night out is the preferable option.

Whatever the pros or cons of the New Zealand drinking experience, the one thing I am sure of is that there’s a huge gap in the market here for a suburban, proper pint serving, crisp-stocked pub with fruit machines, a 80s-themed jukebox and a grumpy old man and a dog in the corner. There are enough Brits here to guarantee it regular, free-spending punters and you never know, the locals might just enjoy it too…


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