Woolston brewery Cassels & Sons has turned an old tannery into a boutique pub.
“If you want to drink a bottle of beer, you’ve got to remember that a lot of energy’s gone into making the beer and it’s always fossil fuel, apart from our beer,” says Zak Cassels, of Cassels & Sons brewing company. Unlike other breweries, Cassels & Sons makes its range of cask-conditioned ales, craft beers and lagers using a wood-fired kettle.
“There’s only two in the world and we’ve got one of them. The other one’s in [Brasserie] Caracole in Belgium, so we think we’re pretty unique,” says Alasdair Cassels, Zak’s father and owner of the old Woolston tannery complex from which the company operates.
The wood-fired kettle enhances the malt flavour of beer, but adds fire to the already delicate process of making beer. Too much or too little heat during brewing can alter flavours and there’s also the risk of burning the beer.
“It’s a reasonably courageous thing to do, in a way,” says Alasdair. “People told us not to do it – we couldn’t do it”. This didn’t deter the Cassels, however.
Alasdair has run a yacht-chartering business and a maintenance company, but has always enjoyed homegrown beer, making his own using malted barley and brewing kits. When Zak lost his job at Fletcher Reinforcing two years ago, it seemed an opportune time to turn a hobby into a business. Along with son-in-law Joe Shanks, who has an aircraft engineering background, the team started from scratch, building and refining both their ideas and their equipment. After a year brewing in a prototype kettle, Joe built a 1000-litre stainless-steel version, modelled on a 200-year-old kettle in a German museum. The men added expert brewer Nigel Mahoney to the mix and it’s been full steam ahead ever since. Although Nigel had no experience brewing the wood-fired way, his second Cassels beer, a dark German dunkel, won bronze in the 2010 Liquorland BrewNZ Beer Awards.
Nigel learnt his craft at Wanaka Beerworks and spent three and a half years at The Twisted Hop, before a stint in the film industry as a location manager. Now, Alasdair describes him as “a bit of an alchemist … he’s turning fire into beer”. By fuelling the fire with plantation-grown pine, it’s beer with a small carbon footprint, too.
Zero-waste is an achievable aim for the business, with beer sold in reusable flip-top bottles. Designed in 1875, the bottles keep the contents carbonated, enabling the drinker to save some amber gold for later by resealing the lid. Cassels & Sons puts a $1 bounty on every bottle, which can be used 30 to 40 times. Alasdair says about half are returned, “but the 50 per cent that don’t come back don’t end up in landfill – they end up [being used for] someone else’s homebrew, sauce bottles and so on”. The beer is bottled at a rate of 500 per hour, using a 1960 rotary bottling machine, bought from neighbour Three Boys Brewery.
“Brewers work together,” says Nigel. “I can go and knock on [Three Boys Brewery owner Ralph Bungard’s] door and ask for a cup of hops if I’ve run out … that sort of thing.”
Green objectives also mean Cassels & Sons beer is not intended to cross Cook Strait or even the city.
“Our business philosophy is based on an old English pub, where you source everything locally and sell locally. You don’t try and go out of your area. You try and establish all your customers in quite a tight area,” says Alasdair, who admits to second thoughts after the February 22 earthquake took out most of Cassels & Sons’ outlets, from the Lyttelton Farmers Market to the St Martins New World supermarket. “Sales would have gone to around a fifth or sixth of what they were,” Zak says.
The tannery complex itself took a bashing during the earthquake. Alasdair has been restoring the buildings since he bought the 7000sqm site 17 years ago, but, since the earthquake, the cost of the project has skyrocketed.
“All the bricks have to be taken down and put back up again. It’s a big job, a huge job” – one that comes with a $10-million bill, which Alasdair is prepared to pay. He has big plans for the area, including a brew pub – The Brewery. The brew pub’s construction was in full swing before the quake, in the 1870s building that was once the tannery’s drying room. Well-known chefs were to create magic using wood-fired stoves, in full view of restaurant patrons, with a pint of Cassels & Sons beer in hand. The old English pub was to open on to a large beer garden, a replica of the one shown on the site’s original plans. However, the building did not fare well in the February earthquake and the project was shifted. The Brewery has been rebuilt inside a 1970s building at the Garlands Rd end of the development, which luckily had not yet been cleared for the garden.
Persian rugs lie on the concrete floor, while steel beams and platforms connect to the fully functional brewery behind the kauri bar. It has a very industrial, almost steam-punk feel. Once open, The Brewery will be a café by day and pizzeria/fish-and-chippery by night, and Nigel will brew beer somewhere in between. “With our bar, we want to appeal to the widest possible audience. It will be good for a family to come and eat not too expensively and Daddy can drink beer and we’ll have lots of wine,” Zak says. As the nights roll on, live music will start up, too, with DJs sharing the brewing platform, and a backdrop of steam rising from the kettle.
On Avenues’ visit, the finishing touches were still being made. Two people were busy buffing the kettle’s copper dome. Alasdair was called away to show more potential tenants the tannery site and there were bricks and boards all over the construction site. “It’s been a real trial. I’m amazed we’ve got anything that’s halfway drinkable because of what I’ve got to deal with,” says Nigel, who continues to brew amid the chaos. “I’m looking forward to getting rid of all the tradesmen, cleaning the place and then we might start making some good beer!”
The Brewery is already the only producer of cask-conditioned ales in Christchurch, a title The Twisted Hop held until February 22. The ales are brewed in an open fermenter and conditioned in a cask, called a firkin (made of stainless steel and resembling a small keg). The result is a typical English-style beer. “Generally it’s warmer and not as fizzy,” Joe says.
Other interesting beers include the Medicinal, a winter brew using elderberries sourced from Banks Peninsula, and its summer equivalent, the Elder Ale, which uses elderflowers. Alasdair says the elderberry has anti-viral properties and rivals Tamiflu in its effectiveness against bugs. “If you’ve got swine flu, or flu, just drink elderberry. Three days and it’ll get rid of everything,” he says.
Keeping the surrounding environment clean and green is also part of the grand plan. The family organised a cleanup day for the Heathcote River, which runs past the tannery. Over a few hours, the 30-plus volunteer group collected 680kg of rubbish. “We talk about doing the right thing, being sustainable, being an ethical business, and that’s important to all of us, but you have to do it, as well. We want to do a lot more of it, but time and energy is finite,” says Zak, adding that another clean-up is definitely in the pipeline.
When The Brewery opens its doors to the public, Nigel will have 12 of his brews centrestage, with 14 more guest beers, and not a mainstream label in sight. Patrons will sit on oak furniture made by Joe’s uncle, Blair McCosh from Icon Furniture, and drink water from the Heathcote aquifer found onsite.
One day, the brew pub will move back into the 1870s building, The Brewery will be cleared to make way for the English garden, and there might even be a pig farm on the opposite bank of the river, where malt waste will become compost. Whatever happens, the old tannery site has been given new life and is a place to watch, as the family in charge is brimming with sustainable ideas.