An Auckland brewery says it's been threatened over a collection of craft beers depicting Maori ancestral legends which critics say are culturally inappropriate.

Birkenhead Brewering Company's decision to make reference to well-known Maori folklore in its Legend Series beer range has backfired, with descendants of Rotorua lovers Hinemoa and Tutanekai among those expressing their disgust at the distasteful treatment.

In the few weeks since the range was released, the situation has escalated with the company alleging threats had been made against its staff.

"Currently there is a police investigation underway ... this prevents us from making further comment until that is complete," said company spokesman Steve Simms.


Police confirmed a complaint had been laid and said inquires were being made.

Te Kawatapuarangi Tuupuna Rohe chairman Sir Toby Curtis told the Rotorua Daily Post it was "cheeky" of the brewery to use the images which belittled his ancestors.

"Hinemoa and Tutanekai were not just pictures on a wall, they are real blood ancestors and I am not at all happy the company didn't ... come talk to us.

"These are not images of the distant past - they are very much alive in our minds so to see them on beer bottles is like seeing our mother and father."

Birkenhead Brewing Company's Hinemoa Pacific Pale Ale, left, and Mokoia Pilsner Beer. Photo / Stephen Parker
Birkenhead Brewing Company's Hinemoa Pacific Pale Ale, left, and Mokoia Pilsner Beer. Photo / Stephen Parker

Te Taumata o Ngati Whakaue Trust general manager Roana Bennett said the use of the images was inappropriate.

"There is no place in this country for this type of marketing - particularly on a product [alcohol] that has done so much damage to our people."

Rotorua Lakes Council councillor Tania Tapsell - a descendant of Hinemoa and Tutanekai - said she saw the bottles in New World.

District councillor Tania Tapsell doesn't want her ancestors 'plastered on a beer bottle'. PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER
District councillor Tania Tapsell doesn't want her ancestors 'plastered on a beer bottle'. PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER

"It's a tricky situation because on the one hand I'm happy our ancestors are being promoted but on the other, to be on a product that has caused our people so much pain, is not really appropriate or respectful."

Tapsell said she would not go as far as to request the images be removed, but understood why a lot of people were upset by it.

"Hinemoa and Tutanekai are my ancestors of 12 generations ago and nobody wants to see their family plastered on a beer bottle."

She received a mixed response from her followers on Facebook when she asked whether they thought the branding was appropriate.

While most echoed the Maori leaders' disapproval - a number questioned whether it was okay if the intentions were good.

One said, "if, and I stress if they have detailed story behind each drink/name on their website/bottle then it may immortalise and raise awareness of some history in an inventive way."

Another said he was torn, against the idea because his ancestors being put on alcohol denied the mana and prestige they deserved.

But, "I'm also 20 for because of the description they provide and the fact they acknowledge Hinemoa and Mokkoia as being legendary".

The brewery would not comment but its website provided some insight into the inspiration.

"Hinemoa Street is the oldest street that links the village to the wharf. It was the main highway to the north via the ferries that used to transport people, horses and carts across the harbour from Auckland City. We've also paid respect to the magnificent legendary Maori lovers, Hinemoa and Tutanekai," it says.

"Mokoia Road is the main shopping street and links our western suburbs of Birkdale and Beach Haven to our village.

"Mokoia is also the name of the island on Lake Rotorua where Tutanekai would play his flute in the hope the wafting sound would attract his true love, Hinemoa."

Nevertheless, Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell called for the company to discuss with the appropriate entities the ongoing use of the images.

"I agree with the concerns raised by descendants of Hinemoa and Tutanekai. This is about whakapapa and whakapapa is not to be misappropriated."

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said it was important for people looking to reference Maori culture to do their research.

"It is 2016, not 1816 and by now New Zealanders should recognise the importance of consulting the right people when it comes to using ancestral images to make money."

Aroha Mead, a senior lecturer in Maori business at Victoria University of Wellington, said the rule of thumb was that ancestral names should never be used on alcohol.

"Maori words yes - but not sacred words or ancestral names."