Saturday, June 15, 2013

Liquor Laws. Rant #2.

I wrote these comments back when the drinking age and the rest of the new act was being debated. So the age thing isn't quite so relevant now. But it's still part of the tapestry of denial and delusion that went on when the act was being debated and continues now that councils are developing their local policies. So here is a collection of uncomfortable facts that need to be absorbed when interested parties weigh in about liquor policies.

1. Our society depends on alcohol. Alcohol is an almost ubiquitous component of our socialising, our celebrations and our cuisine. A recent article in the New York Times put it like this:
.. these same lifesaving social instincts didn’t readily lend themselves to exploration, artistic expression, romance, inventiveness and experimentation — the other human drives that make for a vibrant civilization. To free up those, we needed something that would suppress the rigid social codes that kept our clans safe and alive. We needed something that, on occasion, would let us break free from our biological herd imperative — or at least let us suppress our angst when we did. We needed beer.
Yes this could be interpreted as saying that alcohol is compensating for faults in our ability to express ourselves. A sad admission but also an unavoidable truth.

And whether we like it or not, occasional misuse and overconsumption are inevitable consequences. That’s not to say that it isn’t important to do something about the frequency and volume of those instances of overconsumption. But people in denial of the nature of our society’s relationship with alcohol aren’t helping.

2. The Hospitality Industry is far from blameless. Spokespeople for the hospitality industry stress that the industry is playing its part and alcohol consumed off-premise does far more damage than that consumed on-premise. It’s a half-truth. Sure pre-loading is how many of the worst behaved drunks get that way. But if bars were truly, consistently fulfilling their obligation to deny service to the intoxicated, then places like Courtenay Place would look a lot different at 3am on Saturdays and Sundays.

3. New Zealand’s “Drinking Age” was never 20. All we ever had was a law that said anyone under 20 drinking in a bar ran the risk of getting a criminal record. Disobeying the law was normal and carried no stigma. If you got caught in a police raid and got a conviction you were considered unlucky, not naughty, let alone criminal. Of course if you were a law student you could argue that a conviction for something so trivial would unfairly disadvantage you in your career and get discharged without conviction. In other words, even the courts considered the guilty to be simply unlucky.

4. Alcohol abuse among young people is not some kind of modern scourge. In fact the only thing we know for sure about alcohol consumption is that in general it’s falling. The rest is anecdotal. Certainly it is easier than ever to witness disturbing and embarrassing displays by young people of their inability to consume alcohol sensibly. But why is that? A generation ago, our cities didn’t have strips of noisy bars licensed until well into the morning, where young people socialised and drank. Not as many as we have today anyway. Instead we did our early evening drinking in bars before adjourning to parties in suburban homes to conduct the business end of the evening’s alcohol consumption. Instead of falling over in the toilets of bars or Courtenay Place gutters, people turned feral, fought and passed out in each other’s homes and back yards.

One other change over the last decade that I see has been that people have been encouraged to spurn our reserved demeanour and behave flamboyantly in public. This is particularly true of sporting events, where it’s no longer enough to attend, clap and cheer then leave. Spectators are expected to become participants in a shared public spectacle. The most extreme example is, of course, the Wellington sevens. As I acknowledged above, we collectively depend on alcohol to shed inhibitions and fraternise. But at the sevens this is taken to an absurd extreme, by design.

There’s another particularly perverse aspect to the theory that today’s yoof are somehow off the rails. I was at university in the late 80s. At that time we saw a few remnants of the drinking culture that we were told had prevailed in the preceding decades. A culture of mini-tankers, drinking horns, projectile vomiting, “international rules” and other, frankly nauseating traditions. We were told that things had changed and internal assessment and tuition fees had robbed our university of its tradition of degenerate drinking practices. I’m not naïve enough to assume that the legends we were told about preceding decades were reliable. But we were being lamented and even mocked by the previous generation for our relative sobriety. Yes it’s just words, but not to impressionable people in their late teens and early twenties out to match the exploits of the previous generation. Every generation is influenced by the bullshit stories the previous one tells.

Which leads to a (slightly over-simplified) conclusion that:

one of the reasons that young people abuse alcohol is that their parents did.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Liquor Laws. Rant #1

Yesterday I sat through a meeting at the Wellington City Council at which interested parties made submissions to the Council as they attempt to draft the new Local Alcohol Policy. Some sincere, credible representatives from Police, the District Health Board and one or two other branches of Health made the case for reining in the rights of liquor licence holders. And industry representatives tried to defend their ground. Some messages were hammered home:
  • Nothing good happens after 3am. [Police]
  • Restricting availability of alcohol reduces abuse. [Health experts]
  • It’s their fault. [Hospitality and Retailers, about each other]
Now I have one or two opinions on flaws in the thinking of a few parties to discussions about alcohol, which I’ll come to soon. But with respect to the fate of Wellington’s liquor licensees, it looks as though most of the heat and noise around the policy will come down to a few a lines on maps and times of day. Specifically, what streets will have different maximum closing times and what the various closing times will be.

In particular, the concept of having a designated nightlife zone with different maximum licensing hours seems to have been negotiated in advance between the Council and local representatives of the Hospitality Association. Going by what has been said, the Council envisage an area in Courtenay Place and another area in Cuba St. Jeremy Smith of the Hospitality Association said that they think the zones should be connected. Because there would be better lighting that way or something.

I don’t really care about the details because either way I’m staggered at what a colossal blunder they are conspiring to make. Here is why.

Courtenay Place wasn’t always Wellington’s nightlife centre. In fact it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. To someone brought up in Wellington it’s not that long since Courtenay Place consisted of an ugly bus terminal and some uninspiring shops. And on its side streets were massive wholesale fruit and vegetable markets. The bus terminal and markets have gone and I assume that that evacuation by long standing businesses made the influx by bars and cafes possible. It’s a classic example of the evolution of a city and exactly how nightlife quarters spring up in cities everywhere, from Dublin’s Temple Bar to Tokyo’s Golden Gai.

The trouble is that nightlife districts have a life cycle. They don’t spring up and stay interesting and youthful forever. They stagnate and get superseded by other districts. That stagnation happened about ten years ago in Courtenay Place. It's now a big brewery-controlled, noisy, cigarette smoke-filled (that's right) ghetto. The trouble is that no-one has told the Council or the Hospitality Association. Courtenay Place has become a model for everything that can go wrong in a nightlife district. Do I need to make the case here? I hope not.

It’s no surprise that of the dozen or so craft beer oriented bars that Wellington likes to boast about, only one is in Courtenay Place. If you’re looking for a venue for a new bar like Goldings Free Dive or Rogue & Vagabond, the brief you give a real estate agent is “anywhere in the CBD except Courtenay Place”. As a consequence there are signs that a lively and colourful new nightlife is emerging in the area where these businesses found premises – in back alleys and previously unfashionable streets near, but not on, Cuba Street.

But the Council, who seem to think the scenes in Courtenay Place late on Fridays and Saturdays represent “vibrancy”, and the Hospitality Association, led by individuals who, I believe, own businesses in Courtenay Place, are planning a regime that will penalise anyone trying to establish a business anywhere else – businesses that might give discerning consumers an alternative to the chaos on Courtenay Place. It may not be what the Council intended, but it’s what’s called an unintended consequence. It’s what happens when you draw lines on a map and create differences between the two sides.

Of course not all the results will penalise businesses outside the strip. If you’re a Courtenay Place property owner learning that your tenants have privileges with respect to liquor licensing, you’re going to put their rent up. I look forward to hearing the Hospitality Association complaining about sky-rocketing rents in the street in about a year’s time.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

What We Stock – a Rough Guide

An awful lot of time and energy is wasted arguing over a definition of “craft brewing”. The trouble is that the term was first coined for convenience and is inherently qualitative. It was basically coined so that a portion of the market could set themselves apart because they considered themselves different from and better than the majority of swill that was on the market at the time. And it was probably fair and sensible of them at the time. Of course you can’t realistically define a segment of the market as being “good”, so there have been increasingly desperate efforts since then to come up with more rigorous definitions. And now that “faux craft” is increasingly serious business the whole debate is doomed to becoming more and more fractious.

In fact, for a laugh and to make a desperate attempt at getting the final say on this debate, here’s another definition of a craft brewer:

a craft brewer is a brewer who stays out of debates on what a craft brewer is.

But it’s time to change the debate. Rather than flail around trying to retrospectively apply a definition to a term that’s already subject to widespread misuse, it’s time for people who care to state for the record what it is they care about. So here, for the record Hashigo Zake submits a definition of the criteria we use to guide (but not necessarily dictate) our product choices.

  1. Fair Competition: Hashigo Zake stocks beer from breweries who compete on price and quality and do not offer incentives to outlets to stock their products and/or exclude others.
  2. Brewing-centric: Hashigo Zake stocks beer from breweries who, from inception, have one or more individual brewers intimately and intrinsically involved in planning and building the business.
  3. Independence: Hashigo Zake stocks beer from breweries who are not owned by parent companies that are corporate brewers with a market capitalisation greater than $1 billion.
  4. Honesty: Hashigo Zake stocks beer from breweries who do not intentionally mislead consumers about their own history or products. Their product information is compatible with internationally recognised definitions of beer styles. They don’t consistently call a beer one style then enter it into competitions as a quite different style. They don’t mislead consumers about where and by whom their beer is brewed. They don’t trademark terms that they didn’t invent.
  5. Respectful: Hashigo Zake stocks beer from breweries who do not market their product by insulting, denigrating or exploiting a section of society.
  6. Quality: Hashigo Zake stocks beer that we think is good.

If anyone thinks that some aspect of these criteria is misguided - that’s nice, we look forward to seeing you demonstrate your superior grasp of what’s important in your own business venture.