I can remember my dad and uncle first getting keen on whole grain brewing in the early eighties. My dad used to mash and boil on the wood fired range at home in Sumner. Cleaning out the gear was always an onerous task but on sunny weekend afternoons we got to taste the goods and compare our beer with uncle Wintons. In the Summer of 2008/09 we re-ignited our interest in brewing and brewed a fresh hoppy pilsner (with a lot of Motueka Sauvin hops and organic pale malt from Dunsandel) at the family batch in the Marlborough Sounds. On tasting day we impressed the hell out of ourselves.
We all began to dream about building a bigger brewery – perhaps even a “wood fired” one. My sister and her partner owned the British Hotel – they could buy our beer – everything seemed to fall into place. Googling wood fired kettle came up with a magnificent brewery in Dortmund Germany with a brick kettle – now a museum piece and another one “Cracole” Brewery in Belgium – but that was all – nobody else seemed to be doing it. We figured that if humans have used firewood as a source of energy for brewing over the most of brewing history – why not give it a go!
The first challenge was to design and build a 200 litre, wood fired brewery. We read books, scavenged around for second hand materials and opened an account with a stainless steel supplier. My brother in-law and business partner Joe Shanks was trained as an aircraft engineer – really handy skills thank you Air New Zealand. This little brewery took me and him a few months to complete, we were brewing by September 2009. Our first batch of Pilsner was ready by November – just in time for the opening of El Santo – a new bar in Lyttelton’s British Hotel.
Our Brewing equipment was fairly primitive at this time, we used to cool our fermenting lagers with a garden hose spraying cold artesian water onto blankets wrapped around 200l blue plastic drums. We developed two beer styles – a hoppy pilsner and a more traditional malty pilsner. These were often good – but lacked consistency. We needed more gear, a bigger brewery and we needed a brewer!
By February 2010 we had planned to open a craft brewbar in the old Tannery Site. We were well under way with our larger capacity kettle and mash tun, this was built using the same design as the brewery in Dortmund. We hired Nigel Mahoney as our Head Brewer – the beer got noticeably better. Nigel brewed a Dunkel and it was an instant hit – it also won a bronze at the 2010 BREWNZ awards – his second brew in the wood fired kettle.
We started collecting and refurbishing 600 litre conditioning tanks and fermentation vessels. By May we had sourced a few pallet loads of German swing top bottles and a basic hand operated bottling machine. A local artist, Scott Jackson, made a lino cut of the old tannery buildings on the banks of the Heathcote River. A label soon followed and we were able to sell Cassels and Sons beer in bottles. Bottling at this time was very labour intensive; we glued our craft paper labels on by hand. We also spent a lot of time cleaning our returning bottles for re use. We enjoyed great success at the Lyttelton Farmers Market and soon our product was in bars and restaurants in Lyttelton, Sumner and the City. Our little brewery was growing, sales were growing, our outlets were growing, the whole craft beer market was growing. Then Christchurch got hit by the February 22 earthquake and so did we.
We really got hammered in the earthquake, we lost a lot of beer and we sustained extensive damage to our plant. We spent a week or two scratching our heads and wondering what the next step forward should be. We wanted to do something positive at such a sad and hopeless time for the city. The building our brewery had always occupied was in good shape structurally so we got to work in it. There was a real building of momentum around this time and we took on an army of can do tradesmen who poured their enthusiasm into the project. One hundred days later we had a bar, a brewery, a cafe, a music venue and a restaurant.