It is karaoke Sunday at Pt Chevalier RSA. A burly man is exploring the lower reaches of his vocal scale; belting out a rendition of Brandy that Bunny Walters would be proud of. Up by the bar, RSA members and Pt Chev locals queue for some of the cheapest beer in town.
A young woman asks for a shandy. Leonie, the bartender, asks what sort of beer she'd prefer. "I don't mind," says the drinker. "I'll drink anything."
"Yeah, there's no such thing as a bad beer," laughs Leonie.
This is an example of congenial beer-drinking culture. The RSA has been a cornerstone of beer-drinking for decades, and typifies the mateship and camaraderie that's part of our cultural identity. But while beer may seem a ubiquitous symbol of the male character, new data on beer consumption indicates its popularity may be waning.
Statistics NZ figures reveal beer sales have dropped from 181 litres per adult in 1973 to 79 litres last year. This figure marks the lowest level of beer sales since World War II. Have we come to the end of our affair with beer?
Auckland will host the New Zealand Beer Festival at The Cloud on March 23, so it seems time to ask hard questions about our relationship with beer. Why are we drinking less of it? Is it still a key part of the Kiwi identity? Why is beer advertising targeted at men when so many women now drink it? And how did it become so important?
Greg Ryan, dean of the Faculty of Environment, Society and Design at Lincoln University, is writing a history of beer in New Zealand. He says the first recorded account of beer in the country comes from 1773, the year of Captain Cook's second voyage here.
"Captain Cook brought molasses and other ingredients needed to brew beer," says Ryan. "At that time it was thought to prevent scurvy. Beer was too bulky to bring from England, so they decided to brew it from local ingredients.
"It was flavoured with manuka and given to the crew. They didn't like it so officers were made to drink it instead. Seeing the officers drinking it seemed to make it more palatable to the crew, so they drank it as well."
In 1835 Joel Polack, a merchant trader from Russell, started importing hops from Tasmania, and the first commercial brewery was opened.
Beer's popularity proved such that between 1860 and 1880, New Zealand boasted around 50 breweries. In the late 1890s and early 1900s many of these small breweries were merged and New Zealand Breweries bought 10 breweries to form a mega brewery in 1923. The other key player in New Zealand, Dominion Breweries, started in 1929.
The popularity of craft beer has led to an increase in the amount of small breweries (more than 50) but industry king pins DB and Lion (the former NZ Breweries) still dominate the market. Both are now owned by overseas companies - DB by Singapore-based Asia Pacific Breweries and Heineken; Lion by Japanese company Kirin.
Lion's New Zealand division posted a 2012 revenue of $659.8 million and employs 1400 people; DB Breweries reported $481m revenue in 2011 and has 500 staff here.
These figures give breweries influence far beyond the bottle store. Alcohol lobbyists have the ear of some of the most influential people in Wellington.
Green Party MP Holly Walker has a bill before a select committee aimed at making lobbying more transparent. She says alcohol lobbyists have a big influence on decision-making in Parliament. "It was revealed through the Official Information Act that (Justice Minister) Judith Collins met many alcohol lobbyists around the time of the Alcohol Reform Bill," Walker says. "It seems likely the lobbyists were influential in ensuring there was no regulation of alcohol price."
Beer has always been closely aligned with concepts of masculinity. Jock Phillips, historian, and general editor of Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, is one of the first academics to explore the relationship between masculinity and beer. His seminal work A Man's Country explores how beer came to hold such sway. "Beer has long been associated with physical masculinity," Phillips says. "It was used as nourishment for rural workers. The beer-drinking culture was brought to New Zealand by immigrants from the UK."
This connection with physical labour created an "every man" mythology around beer. The development of six o'clock closing in WWI and the return of servicemen after WWII helped fuel a culture of beer guzzling in male only beer environments. "Beer was seen as an acceptable vice for the working man," Phillips explains. "That hour between knocking off work and closing time at 6pm was the only time these men had to socialise. They would drink beer, talk rugby, bet on races, then head home to their families in the suburbs."
Fast-forward to 2013 and the link between beer and masculinity is still strong. "Masculine" brands, such as Speights and Tui, are the top-selling beers and the marketing around these brands is distinctly male oriented.
Danny Phillips, brand director for Lion Nathan (whose brands include Speights, Steinlager and Macs) explains. "Beer is still mainly drunk by men. And the advertising reflects this. But if we see opportunities to engage with women we will take them."
Nowhere is the link between beer and masculinity stronger than on the sports field. Masculine team sport (rugby in particular) and beer are intrinsically linked; Steinlager has been a sponsor of the All Blacks since 1986. This may be problematic. Results of a Monash University study investigating the link between alcohol sponsorship and problem drinking in Australia and New Zealand were released this week. The research revealed that problem drinking was more prevalent among sports teams that received alcohol sponsorship.
High-profile booze incidents involving sportsmen such as Zac Guildford and Jeetan Patel (the Crusaders and Black Caps are sponsored by Tui) seems to support the contention. Are fans following suit when it comes to beer drinking?
David Kennedy, chief executive of Eden Park Trust doesn't think so. "Beer is still the most popular drink. But we have worked with the police and the council to prevent bad drinking behaviour. At the Blues/Crusaders game there were no alcohol-related issues, and there were more than 31,000 at the game."
Women have often been relegated to the sidelines when it comes to beer drinking, but anecdotal evidence indicates this may be changing. Wendy Roigard, business and marketing manager of Christchurch craft beer distributor BEERNZ, says she and many of her female friends love beer. "I was offered a role working on the Beervana festival and I wanted to get to know the product so I started drinking a wide range of beer. At the beginning they all tasted the same but I eventually started picking up on subtleties of flavour."
Advertising does little to reflect this century's female beer-lovers. Tui ads, for instance, have been particularly identified by women's advocacy groups as harmful to gender relations for their portrayal of scantily-clad women in a brewery.
DB Export Dry launched a popular, controversial advertising campaign last year. Created by advertising agency Colenso BBDO, the ads featured mulletted, pastel-wearing men unhappily supping on wine while dreaming of beer.
"The concept was that nothing should get between a man and his beer," executive creative director Nick Worthington explains.
But George Christy Parker, senior policy analyst for Women's Health Action, has studied the adverse effects of female stereotyping in beer ads.
She says beer advertising perpetrates outdated concepts of gender. "Beer advertising represents a limited and outdated view of femininity, either as highly-sexualised objects for men's viewing pleasure or as nagging partners who are trying to restrict men's freedom."
Dr Alison Towns, Phillip Chase and Parker completed a report for Health Promotion Agency (formerly ALAC) on the link between beer advertising and domestic violence. The findings indicated that beer advertisements promoting concepts of traditional masculinity are linked to domestic violence.
"The alcohol industry uses beer advertisements to disrupt intimate heterosexual relationships because the longer they can keep men single the more likely they are to drink more beer.
"(They promote) 'mateship' values that privilege mates over women, and by playing on men's anxieties about intimate relationships with women and about women's authority."
Another negative aspect of beer is its use as a starter drink for young people. The Alcohol Advisory Council's 2009-10 report on alcohol and young people revealed that 36 per cent of teens aged between 12 and 18 said they had drunk beer at their last social occasion. Forty seven per cent of those classified as moderate drinkers drank beer at their last social occasion, but binge drinkers tended to go for RTDs (51 per cent).
Although beer is still the most consumed alcoholic drink in New Zealander (it makes up 61 per cent of alcoholic beverages consumed in the country), its popularity seems to be waning.
Lincoln University's Greg Ryan thinks that rather than indicating New Zealanders are losing interest in beer, the stats are an indication of a developing palate. He thinks the emergence of the craft beer industry means we are savouring, rather than guzzling, beer. "It's almost impossible to binge-drink a craft beer," he says. "The flavours are so intense you have to drink them slowly, and therefore you don't drink so much."
Jenny Cameron from the Brewery Association says that although beer drinking is on the decrease, it still has an "integral place" in New Zealand culture. "Beer is the drink enjoyed across all social strata. It is a refreshing, low-alcohol alternative to the other alcohol categories."
Back in Pt Chevalier, these debates seem a bit academic. As the afternoon progresses Leonie keeps pouring the pints and drinkers keep belting out the songs. Watched over by the sepia-tinged pictures of soldiers from various wars, punters sip beer and laugh and enjoy the company of their mates - male and female.
If beer's popularity is waning, no one's told the folk at the RSA.
Beer consumption per capita
• 122.8L - Czech Republic
• 107.6L - Germany
• 101.1L - Ireland
• 81.9L - Australia
• 76.6L - United States
• 71.6L - United Kingdom
• 69.9L - New Zealand
• 59.9L - South Africa
• 52.9L - Sweden
• 43.8L - Japan
• 33.3L - China