Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Where it's at

Party time!... that pre-ball get-together, - one special guest to be introduced all round - Steinecker Lager beer. Your guests are discriminating in their choice of Lagers, and none can resist Steinecker's charm, its true continental strength and flavour - its tang of cool breezes in high snowy places - its friendliness. Serve Steinecker chilled, your guests will agree - it makes a perfect party.
The past, as L P Hartley said, is a foreign country; they do things differently there. And one of the things they do is drink Steinecker Lager. This bothers me. It bothers me because - as an architectural historian and, more specifically, an historian of New Zealand's architectural culture - I am trying to get some sort of feel for what New Zealand was like in the period I am studying, which is from 1960 to the end of the last century. Now, you might interject, Steinecker Lager has nothing to do with architecture and I really should be concentrating on buildings and the like. But, I would reply, things like Steinecker Lager are part of the culture, and I find it difficult to ignore.

You see, the trouble with History is that it is very difficult to take one part of it and isolate it from the rest. Looking at old buildings is all well and good, but those buildings were built by people who lived at a particular time and were subject to particular influences. The Steinecker Lager advertisement which I quoted above was published on page 23 of the New Zealand Listener of 22 April 1960. The copy is accompanied by a drawing of men in Black Tie and women in evening dresses, all enjoying Steinecker Lager poured into those conical glasses which were so, so modern at the time. These people are discriminating, you can see. And they are part of the culture. The obvious selling point of Steinecker Lager - made by New Zealand Breweries Limited of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin - is that it is continental. It has the tang of cool breezes in high snowy places, after all. It is, in marketing terms at least, a long way from the Six O'Clock Swill.

One could get all Continental about this advertisement and deconstruct it as a Text. One might note how these characters are dressed as if they ought to be drinking cocktails, yet they are drinking beer; how they are arranged in couples - men and women drinking together, but obviously in stable relationships; how the man of the house (presumably) pours the beer carefully into the conical glass, while the wife of the house waits with a tray; how the stock figure of the Matriarch sits in the background, conversing with younger folk standing around her. One could go on. But the point is (and this is more my problem than yours, and I really should not be troubling you with it) that all this is part of the culture of which the buildings and the opinions about the buildings of which I am studying are also part. Clearly, as if I didn't know it already, continental sophistication is a desirable thing of the period. One could, if one were not writing about architecture, write an entire thesis about drink advertising in New Zealand and how it expresses desires to be more international and of a better class. This desire can be seen in the architecture of the period, as can an opposite desire (both in booze and buildings) to be more national and authentic. That we have buildings of the period that look the way they do is the result of influences that are not solely architectural. That we had beer of the period is not solely bibulous. The suggestion by Kingsley Amis that there should be one universal beer advertisement - "Drink Beer: It Gets You Pissed" - rather misses the point.

Anyway, that is my problem and not yours. But another problem with History is that one can never know what Steinecker Lager is like. I expect it was perfectly horrid, at least by modern standards; but then, it was judged by the standards of the day, not by ours. But one cannot really know, because the only senses we can use in History are sight and hearing. Taste, smell and touch are beyond us, for the most part. I very much doubt that there is a bottle of Steinecker Lager in existence; I am sure that, if there were, it would taste nothing like it did in 1960. So we might have to take the advertiser's word that it tasted of cool breezes in high snowy places.

Anyway, we should leave them to their party. I am reading the Listener of April 1960 on the off-chance that Monte Holcroft might have something to say about architecture, not for the advertisements his publication ran. And I am sure you have better things to do than worry about problems of History. Just remember, serve Steinecker and serve it chilled.


13 comments:

Giovanni said...

I expect it was perfectly horrid, at least by modern standards.

Hard to say. Lagers taste all the same to me, and it may be my lack of refinement and conoisseurship (can't get more continental than that word - conoisseur) but consider how Stella Artoise for instance advertises the fact that its beer has (supposedly, allegedly) had the same taste for centuries. That gimmicky going-back-in-time ad is in fact very apropos what you're saying here, and I expected it to be the subject of your clip.

Paul said...

Always surprising, never surprised.

The Stella Artois advertisements always strike me for their "reassuringly expensive" slogan, which says so much about our consumer society. But yes, the appeal to nostalgia (even for a time and place we never knew) is very much part of the selling of piss.

Robyn said...

I googled Steinecker, and found this piece of history on Wikipedia:

In 1957 the New Zealand Minister of Finance, Arnold Nordmeyer threatened to cut international beer imports as part of his "black budget" and challenged New Zealand's brewers to "come up with an international-style lager beer". Lion Nathan produced a beer the following year named Steinecker, named after the company whose equipment the beer was made in. The beer's name was changed in 1962, not in response to a challenge from the Steinecker company, but to distinguish it from Heineken.

So what was the lager's name changed to? Steinlager.

Of course. It all makes perfect sense now.

Everything changes, nothing changes.

George said...


consider how Stella Artoise for instance advertises the fact that its beer has (supposedly, allegedly) had the same taste for centuries.


I fail to understand how and why Europeans praise their beer purity laws. The regulation of beer was instituted by the Church against druids and other brewers to control how people were medicated and intoxicated. Not for the sake of good beer.

Anyway, to the topic at hand. As a "historian" in training, I have few ideas on how to help you, other than to say that having access to good oral sources is worth a great deal.

Peter in Dundee said...

One thing to bear in mind Paul is that Steinlager or Steinecker lager was the first National Beer in the sense that it was available in all the main centres. Back in the day the beer was as regional as the pies, the soft drinks too. In Dunedin for eg there was Speights beer and Thomson's soft drinks. This was a function of inadequate transport links and preceded the creation of large national brewing companies that bought out the regionals. Back in the '80s you couldn't get Speights on tap in Auckland or many places north of the Waitaki. Montieths was from the West Coast etc and gradually the regional beers became nationally available. I specifically remember the delight when both Bottled McCashins and Monteiths on tap arrived at the Robbie Burns, must have been 1990 or so.

Anyway it was a nice thing to arrive in Dunedin from Auckland in '84 and have something other than DB or Lion to drink. Not that I entered licensed premises as an 18yo Fresher officer. Hic!

Philip said...

If you're in New Zealand, does Continental mean Australian or Antarctican? Presumably the last would be best for chilled lager and the first would be best for refined and sophisticated conversation to go with it.

Word Verification: gothi, an endless Gothic or a Goth with an extra bit. Take your pick, and good luck.

Giovanni said...

Gothi... wasn't that the alternate spelling of fish?

On the subject of continental = continental Europe = refinement I can report my amusement at seeing Birra Peroni and Nastro Azzurro being sold at a premium at the snooty pubs here. They are awful, watered-down potions that no sane Italian would drink, given the choice.

Philip said...

Gothi... wasn't that the alternate spelling of fish?

G as in gish, O as in fosh, THI as in fithi, presumably.

Word Verification: pagolab, a scientific establishment for the creation of backward gaps, to the immeasurable enhancement of our knowledge of the origins of the universe.

Philip said...

Ooooh, this one's even better.

lemskedi, the Norse god of slippery citrus. Though strictly speaking it should be lemsk├ądi, of course.

Giovanni said...

Goti, was it? It's coming back to me now... g as in cough, o as in women, ti as in potion. Or something like that.

Incidentally, about half of all word verification words would be excellent names for pharmaceutical drugs. Case in point: rancycin.

Jack said...

Nitpick: the time-travel ad is Heineken, not Stella. Stella's advertising tends to be subtle parodies of famous French cinema.

walter said...

I remember my first taste of Steinlager, in the Majestic Hotel in Palmerston North. We went to hear a new-wave band (can't remember who), I must have been 17. It was fantastic, I felt so grown up. Later when Steinies became 'too commercial' I used to translate the name to 'mug-beer'- strictly to cause offence to its drinkers, mind you.

Paul said...

Thank you one and all. I had no idea that Steinecker became Steinlager. I might extend my research - moving forward - to the Steinlager "they're drinking our beer" campaign.

Word verification: Pushkin - a traditional Scottish sport for all the family.