I was first introduced to Tui beer one summer at the end of my first year of university. My father had got me a job as a rousie in a shearing gang working on sheep farms east of Dannevirke. I was 18, skinny, unfit, at the bottom of the pecking order, but accepted with good humour as the only pakeha in the village.
This was at the end of of 1970 and Tui East India Pale Ale was little known outside what is now the Tararua district – northern Wairarapa and Southern Hawke’s Bay. But for my gang at least, run by the late Peter Lawson and Herb Chase, the beer was the single alcoholic beverage available after our 12-hour days and also the hydration of choice for the shearers during their shifts. Most shearers would take a single bottle of Tui at breakfast at 7am after the first two-hour run – these were the old-style bottles that held over a pint – and then they’d down two bottles with lunch. Lesser mortals – the presser, rousies and cook – drank only in the evenings and made do with big mugs of strong tea during the day. I don’t recall anyone drinking water.
The traditional invitation to drink was to “throttle a Tui”, something I did with alacrity whenever I got the chance. The beers were kept stacked in wooden crates on the verandahs of the shearing quarters. They were never refrigerated (the small amount of fridge space was reserved for the vast quantities of mutton that sustained the gang). The Tui was warm, sweet, sickly yet strangely insubstantial. Craft beers were decades away, yet to my uncultured palate it still tasted pretty awful.
Probably the best aversion therapy for drinking Tui at all was starting a run at 5am, hung over with dry horrors, thumping head and heaving stomach. The fumes of last night’s beer mingled with the smell of sweat and sheep shit. It was a powerful lesson on the folly of trying to match hardened drinkers twice my age and one I repeated often. The rest of that summer was wonderful, but the smell and taste of warm Tui linger like stale onions more than four decades later.
Which is why I’m especially distressed by the choice of beers at the new Pavilion Bar in Westpac Stadium: Tui light, Tui dark and just for variety the anaemic and joyless Amstel Light. Really? Isn’t Wellington the craft beer capital of New Zealand? Surely we can do better. I admit the food in the Pavilion is a little better than the soggy chips and foul burgers in the concourse and there are plenty of good food carts now. But shouldn’t we have left the rubbish beer behind to accompany the rubbish food downstairs?
These days 10,000 is a good crowd at a Super rugby match in Wellington. Alas, Tui is throttling the fun out of the rugby. Unshackle the stadium from the tyranny of Tui and I reckon you’d win some of the crowds back. Well, at least three of us anyway.