It all started on a family summer holiday in the Marlborough Sounds in 2008-9. According to Alasdair Cassels, he reckons he wanted to teach his son Zak and son-in-law Joe Shanks an important life lesson: how to make beer.
Joe, who is married to Alasdair’s daughter Pippi, remembers it differently. “We were on a family holiday and Alasdair thought we were drinking too much so he said, ‘we better start making some’… and we did it on an old Rayburn wood-burning stove.” The beer they brewed that summer was a hoppy pilsner. “We impressed the hell out of ourselves,” says Zak.
The Cassels trio can’t remember exactly how their summer hobby turned into a business – they just had a feeling there was a gap in the market for small batches of handmade beer brewed on a wood-fired brew kettle. “We started doing it as a project,” says Joe, “and then it was Alasdair driving us. Alasdair thought if we were going to do it, we were going to do it properly.” With a background in engineering, Joe came up with a design for a 200-litre wood-fired brew kettle. It was one of a kind in New Zealand and a unique selling point for a fledgling operation.
Within a few months there was a little brewery up and running in Christchurch. Beer was bottled by hand, labels were glued on manually, and soon swing-top bottles of Cassels & Sons beer were being sold at the Lyttelton Farmers Market. From there it crept into bars around the city. They soon realised they needed a bigger brewery and an expert brewer, so invested in a 600-litre kettle – still wood-fired – and hired Nigel Mahoney as their brewer. As Zak recalls, 2010 was a good year. “Our little brewery was growing, sales were growing, our outlets were growing, the whole craft beer market was growing.”
Then Christchurch was devastated by the February 22, 2011 earthquake, and so was the small brewery. But from disaster came an opportunity: a building, scheduled to be demolished to make way for a garden was, ironically, in good enough shape to become a home to the brewery, so work began on a brew bar. “One hundred days later we had a bar, a brewery, a cafe, a music venue and a restaurant,” says Zak.
More new beginnings followed with the hiring of Simon Bretherton, who had worked for Boddington’s, one of the UK’s biggest breweries; Harrington’s Breweries in Christchurch; and Little Creatures in Melbourne.
Bretherton has overseen the building of a world-class brewery, with a bottling system second-to-none in New Zealand. Cassels is now making a nationwide push with a core range featuring the Milk Stout; Extra Pale Ale; Red IPA; and Golden Age, a bright summer ale.
While Alasdair is a well-known figure in Christchurch, he doesn’t see himself as the face of the brewery. “I see it as a family thing. It’s bigger than me and I couldn’t do it myself – different generations add the flavour. It’s a family business.”