Cassels & Sons brewery in Christchurch was the culmination of a brewing path begun by Alasdair Cassel while he was whole grain brewing in the 1980s then turned into a commercial reality with his son Zak, son-in-law Joe Shanks and noted brewer Nigel Mahoney. 

Their first beer, a pilsner produced on equipment which they described as “primitive”, was released in late 2009.  By 2010 they had hired Nigel Mahoney (ex-Wanaka and Twisted Hop) and in 2011 were in the process of converting an old 1870s tannery site into a larger brewery and bar. 

In one of the most poignant sentences I have ever read in a beer article, Zak wrote: “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.”

In fact, they got hammered.  Cassels & Sons lost a lot of beer, their plant was extensively damaged and the proposed tannery site was not safe to use. [1] Zak continues: “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.”

They made the massive decision to move their brewpub project to a structurally sound 1970s building on the same development.  Ironically, this building had actually been housing the growing brewery while they were waiting for the Tannery redevelopment to be completed. 

In what the rest of the country has come to regard as a typical Christchurch approach, the team at Cassels just rolled up their sleeves and got on with it.  Zak notes “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.”

Once again, their little brewing is growing, their sales are growing, their outlets are growing and the whole craft beer market goes from strength to strength.  Something very positive has emerged from what was a tragic time for the city and the nation. 

The Cassels & Sons brewing philosophy is nicely described by Rick Stevens, their bar manager: [2]

At Cassels & Sons, we want to take our guests back to better times.  Our beer is brewed the way it was hundreds of years ago – using pure artisan water and the finest grains and hops.  Our sustainable wood fired brew kettle is primitive and makes each brew difficult, but it also makes our beer really good.  Our head brewer Nigel and his team are true artisans; putting their skills into every brew.”

He is right – particularly about the wood fired brew kettle being difficult to use. [3] Remarkably, Nigel Gregory, who had no previous experience of brewing over flaming timber, had his second Cassels brew, a dunkel, win bronze in the 2010 New Zealand Beer Awards.

Today, Cassels & Sons still sell most of their beer on the premises.  They do produce some very attractive bottles which, despite being originally intended for the local market only, are slowly appearing to a wider audience.  While the erstwhile Pomeroy’s pub has long stocked Cassels, now some kegs are making their way to other select bars around the country.

Following a visit to the Capital last week by Zak, Malthouse has sourced four Cassels and Sons beers which will progressively go on tap next week.  Here is a brief summary of the four:

Cassels and Sons Milk Stout (5.2%) – A Gold Medal and Trophy winner at the New Zealand Beer Awards 2011, this acclaimed deep black beer is sweet, rich and smooth.  A fine example of the style, this silky drop has hints of coffee, milk chocolate and dried fruit. 

Cassels and Sons ESB (6%) – Zak describes this to me as “hoppy south English ale.”  Essentially, it is a stronger keg version of their Best Bitter real ale, usually served on handpump at their bar.  It is an amber beer with well-balanced touches of grass, subtle lemon, soft malt, toffee and lingering bitterness.  Several prominent ESB aficionadas are known to be fans.

Cassels and Sons “Beer” (4%) – The brewer calls it a “fast ale” but most would describe it as an easy drinking pale ale perfect for summer.  Using a little wheat, Rakau hops and Green Bullet hops, the result is a golden beer with notes of herbal hops, honey sweetness and gentle caramel before a quenching dry finish.  The brewery also jokes that now if you walk into their bar and order a beer, this is what you will get!

Cassels and Sons Medicinal (6.3%) – This one is a little harder to describe in terms of style but that is perhaps not important.  It is a dark ale made with local elderberry juice.  NZ Craft Beer TV report both Alasdair and Nigel are firm believers in the antiviral and antioxidant properties of those berries. [4] Tasters have picked up fruitcake, chocolate, cherry and (unsurprisingly) elderberries.

It has been a tough year for Cassels & Sons but they returned from the 2011 Beer Awards with far more than the Gold and Best in Class for the Milk Stout.  They also picked up Silver for Best Bitter in the Cask Conditioned category, Bronze for their Elderale in the Flavoured and Aged Styles and Silver for the Pilsner in Packaging. [5]

All in all, a fair haul of medals and hopefully a sign of a better 2012 for a great little brewery with genuine heart.

[1] They remain determined to complete the restoration but the price tag may well now be up to $10m.
[2] This is his job title even though the quote is taken from a well-written he did passionately arguing the Tannery was a pub.
[3] It is probably the only one operating in New Zealand after the Monteith’s Greymouth brewery kettle has been replaced as part of a modernisation project.
[4] JimTheChap on Ratebeer is less convinced ending his review of this beer with the comment “May or may not keep the doctor away.”
[5] Even I know those are stylish bottles and labels.


Neil Miller
Beer Writer
Real Beer New Zealand
Beer and Brewer Magazine


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