Tough times for rural hotels as impact of new drink drive laws sees punters already choosing to stay away.

Since early settler days and gold rush fever they've been the next stop on the dusty road. A place to hang your hat, quench your thirst, and make new mates.

But the great Kiwi country pub is in danger of dying out.

Drink-drive laws introduced this week could be the last nail in the coffin for traditional rural hotels, publicans fear.

"Times are tough," said Travis Cooper, licensee of the historic Hurunui Hotel in North Canterbury.

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"In the old days, farmers would be down the pub having a beer at the end of a day's work. Now, with the new drink and drive laws, they can't afford to."

Many publicans have this week reported local police having a high presence, breath-testing departing clientele. West Coast drinkers at Theatre Royal Hotel at Kumara, built in 1876 at the beginning of the Kumara gold rush, are already staying away.

Offers of weaker, mid-strength beers are falling on deaf ears.

"These guys like their beer and there's not a chance of them going for that," publican Jonathan Naylor said.

"Guys who would normally have three or four twelves (12oz glasses) over three or four hours are just having one and leaving.

"Our regular customers are all very wary now."

Sales for this week were down on last year's at the Theatre Royal Hotel.

Mr Naylor fears worse is to come. Cheap supermarket booze and intoxication laws add to the struggles.

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"The drink-drive laws will impact on us greatly," he said. "The Government is killing licensed trade and the rural pub."

In the rugged North Canterbury area alone, seven well-known country pubs have either closed down, recently changed hands, or are up for sale.

Ten per cent of country pubs have closed every year, for the past three years, according to the Hotel Association of New Zealand.

Unless pubs outside the main metropolitan areas become the centre of their community, offering top-notch pub grub, barista-style coffee, and children's playgrounds, they will struggle to survive, industry experts say.

"A country pub can't survive if they are only catering to the farmers and workers turning up in their gumboots for a beer after work. They need to be much more than that," Hospitality New Zealand chief executive Bruce Robertson said.

Mr Cooper, at the Hurunui Hotel, the oldest licensed pub in New Zealand, dating back to 1860, said while low-alcohol beers are becoming a more popular notion, customers were wary of driving home.

"Since Monday, people aren't having that extra drink. Everyone is asking, 'How much am I allowed?' That's tough to answer," he said.

The Gladstone Inn in Wairarapa already offers a range of low-alcohol beers on the menu, and wants to add more. Most groups already arrive with designated sober drivers, publican Ray Wolff said, but the new laws are already changing habits. "The locals are teaming up and getting wives to do drop-offs," he said.

Wednesday is a popular locals night at the famous 143-year-old tavern where free food is dished out.

Mr Wolff said: "I think the new laws will have an impact on trends rather than trade. It means you can have four low-alcohol beers, which is a reasonable amount of alcohol over dinner."

While Mr Robertson of the Hospitality Association accepted that some pubs off the beaten track are struggling, he believed they would always have a place in rural society.

"There are still a lot of successful country pubs in New Zealand, and they are the ones who have changed and moved with the times," he said. "They have a strong food offering, and are really at the heart of the community, where they celebrate, where they grieve, where mum meets her mates for coffee and a muffin after dropping the kids off, somewhere you can take granny for Sunday lunch."

Brewers toning down alcohol content

The Hurunui Hotel is famous in New Zealand for its liquor licence, having held its license continuously since 1st July 1860. Photo / Martin Hunter

Drinks giants and boutique craft beer brewers have responded to the new drink-drive laws with the release of lower-strength drinks.

The challenge for brewers has been producing low-alcohol beers that retain full-bodied tastes.

DB Breweries sells 2.5 per cent Amstel Light and DB Export Citrus beers. It has a low-alcohol cider.

"If we don't provide our on-premise customers with quality lower alcohol options we put their businesses in jeopardy," said DB managing director Andy Routley.

Lion added 2.5 per cent Speight's Mid Ale beer to its lower alcohol range in October.

Research into New Zealand's $2.2 billion industry found drinkers are willing to try weaker beers, but don't want to compromise on taste. A booming craft beer industry has also had to provide alternatives to high-powered, hop-inspired brews.

"The main challenge has been to cram enough flavour into a smaller beer," said Soren Eriksen of 8 Wired Brewing. Bay of Plenty craft firm Aotearoa Breweries has produced two lower-strength IPAs this year.

Moa Beer has just released a draught 3.0 per cent wheat beer and 3.7 per cent Polish oak-wood smoked wheat beer.