Dave Hastie and Debs Thom from the Whakataki Hotel near Castlepoint. PHOTO/BECKIE WILSON

Once the backbone of a rural community, Wairarapa pubs have seen a shift in attitude that has changed the traditional pub scene, writes Beckie Wilson.

They are the place you go to spin yarns over a handle of beer, or to celebrate an occasion.

They are the focal point of a community — the rock that keeps a rural town together.

But after two decades of legislation changes and restrictions, some Wairarapa hotels have shifted away from the traditional pub atmosphere, while some still thrive on it.

The Whakataki Hotel is the only pub between the coast and Tinui, and is seen as the “central hub” of that area.

Owners Dave Hastie and Deb Thom say there is something special about the pub after two and half years of running it.

A typical rural pub attracts farmers and small-town locals, and the Whakataki Hotel does just that.

With four large stations in area, and the stream of locals and tourists heading to Castlepoint, the pub can be busy on weekends and during the festive season.

“It’s the central hub of the whole community really, everything that happens here happens at the pub,” Mr Hastie said.

Whether it be a birthday, funeral, or events such as the Melbourne Cup, or the weekly ‘hump day’ on a Wednesday, the pub is the first port of call.

Locals are in two to three times a week, but the pub does not see many “young people come in”, Ms Thom said.

“Everyone gets on really well here, and we all depend on each other as well. If anything goes wrong, help is a long way away.”

It’s the only place at Castlepoint that offers evening meals, beer and accommodation all in one.

“It’s a shame when you see them go, when pubs shut down, it sort of destroys the community,” Mr Hastie said.

Luke Tipoki, of the Lake Ferry Hotel, thinks the pub scene has changed for the better. PHOTO/BECKIE WILSON

Lake Ferry Hotel proprietor Luke Tipoki worked behind the bar after leaving college but plenty has changed since then, he said.

“You would come here, have a few beers, 90 per cent were men, mainly farmers and workers, and seriously just local people — the place survived on that core group of local drinkers and it also ran a bottle store,” Mr Tipoki said.

“A lot of things have happened in the last 22 years with different legislations and different attitudes, and the influx of tourists — you’d never see them out here unless they were lost.”

The biggest shift in culture was when supermarkets were allowed to sell alcohol, he said.

The pub was first licensed in 1851, which makes it undoubtedly the oldest hotel in Wairarapa, he said.

While he thinks change has been for the better, he knows of many, old and young, who long for the old pub days.

When Mr Tipoki took over the lease from his parents 70 per cent of what they were selling was alcohol, and 30 per cent food.

Now, it’s reversed, and they do about 60 per cent food, he said.

The “business is booming” but Mr Tipoki has purposely shifted the culture of the hotel away from drinking and focussed more on the restaurant.

The liability for pub owners is too high, and Mr Tipoki wanted to serve the crowds that flocked to the coastal South Wairarapa town.

“We still get a lot of local people here to dine, and a core group of farm workers who comes down for a few beers and some pool.

“We stay true to who we are which is a traditional Kiwi hospitality feel, and most people appreciate that.

“This hotel was originally set up to service the weary traveller, we still do that now.”

Colin Gillot, left, and owner Mike Shale reopening the Eketahuna Inn in 2015. PHOTO/FILE

Mike Shale has seen a thing or two over the 47-odd years of running a handful of Wairarapa pubs.

These include the Eketahuna Hotel, The Greytown Hotel, and The Marquis of Normanby Hotel in Carterton, and now the Eketahuna Inn.

The biggest “kick in the pants” for pubs was allowing supermarkets to sell alcohol along with the drink driving laws, he said.

The “tinkering” with the law has changed the drinking culture which Mr Shale believes will never return to how it used to be.

But it is not all doom and gloom, he said.

The Eketahuna Inn is the only pub on the main road between Pahiatua and Masterton, but it sees about 90 per cent locals, whether it be farmers or those living in the town.

“On Saturday we get stag parties and hens parties . . . and we have a joker draw on a Friday and that fills the place up, it really does,” he said.

Rural pubs are few and far between but if they are run right, with good food and entertainment, then “country pubs can still be successful”, he said.

Hospitality NZ advocacy and policy manager Dylan Firth said local New Zealand pubs were a focal point of a community, and regulars still went to the pubs for a beer and to watch rugby on-screen.

But many have closed over the past decade and now only 25 per cent of alcohol was consumed in restaurants and bars, and that was due to the restrictions, he said.

A traditional pub with a TAB does not always work in rural environments, and this had seen a shift in business models.

Owners have focused more on food, and creating a point of difference to attract people.

“People have a reason to go there . . . if you’re driving out to Whakataki, it’s a nice drive. It’s a cool little spot and a beautiful old building.”

Rural pubs played an important role in the country’s history, Mr Firth said.

“It’s your third place, your work and your home and your pub – the extra living room.”