Who is New Zealand’s Oldest ‘Craft’ Brewery?

Longevity is not the same thing as quality, especially in the beer industry. After all, Tui has been around for donkey’s years. I set out to learn which ‘craft’ brewery is the oldest because of a realisation that I could think of at least five breweries that were all trying to claim the title in one way or another. Frankly, I didn’t believe any of them. Heritage is perceived as a valuable marketing tool and it’s no surprise that several different outfits are vying for the position oldest ‘craft’ brewery.

But which one really is the oldest? Let’s take a look at the contenders. But first, some terms:

Oldest – I’m defining oldest as: “The brewery that has operated as a commercial brewing entity continuously for the longest period of time”. By ‘commercial brewing entity’ I mean a business that has been making beer under a ‘brand’ name. To put it simply – was the brewery, throughout the history they claim, making beer; and could I reasonably expect to go and buy one?

The reason I’m defining it this way is because all the breweries I’m going to look at in the course of this article have changed hands at least once in their history. What I want to do is differentiate between breweries that have been sold and continued operating as essentially the same business, and breweries that have changed ownership and subsequently become a new brewery altogether.

An illustration of the difference would be the cases of Emerson’s and Monkey Wizard. Both were sold to new owners, but Emerson’s stayed Emerson’s. You can drink the same beers, with the same label. You can go to the Emerson’s Brewery.

Monkey Wizard on the other hand, as soon as it was sold, ceased to be Monkey Wizard. You could no longer reasonably expect to go and buy a Monkey Wizard beer and you can’t go to the Monkey Wizard Brewery. Instead, you can go to the Hop Federation brewery. It’s a whole new entity, making a different range of beers under a different name. Monkey Wizard was founded 2006. Hop Federation uses the same premises and equipment as Monkey Wizard, but it would not be reasonable for Hop Federation to claim to have been founded 2006 (and very sensibly, they don’t).

Apologies for going on at length about this, but the distinction will become important later on.

‘Craft’ – I’ve always put that word in quotation marks because there is no agreed on definition of the term, nor do I ever think there will be one. I’m using it here as a collective term to broadly describe beers that are part of the ‘craft/boutique brewing sector’.

As such, these beers are not separable from the rest of the market in any quantifiable manner. ‘Craft’ beer isn’t definable according to quality, ownership, production method, style, or any other measurable way. Instead I’m using the ‘Obscenity Method’: what is ‘craft’ beer? I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.

Some people may take issue with this approach. If that’s the case, I make no apology. These are my opinions and yours may differ. Caveat lector.

So let’s get down to assessing some of the cases for New Zealand’s oldest ‘craft’ brewer. Let’s start with the easiest to dispel.

Hancock & Co. BrewingHancock

The claim: According to their website and this rather painful Youtube video. Hancock has been busily brewing ‘craft’ beer since 1859.

How it stacks up: complete bullshit.

Hancock Brewing was indeed founded in 1859. It was in Auckland. Importantly it was one of the ten breweries that merged to become New Zealand Breweries, and ultimately the company known today as Lion.

As such, the company that was Hancock is still operating (as Lion), but Hancock itself ceased to exist as commercial brewing entity. So why is it back?

Well, Lion sold the brand which it still owned the rights of, and new beers were launched under the name, brewed under contract at McCashin’s in Nelson. So as a commercial brewing entity, the Hancock of today can only claim to have existed since 2011.

Founders Brewery

The claim: 1854, from their website.

Founders-brewery

How it stacks up: Also bullshit.

If you read their ‘history‘ page, you could easily believe that the Duncans/Dodsons have been handing down a brewery from generation to generation for over a century. They haven’t.

As before, there is a grain of historical truth in this one: an ancestor of the contemporary founder of Founders brewery did indeed have a brewery, although he didn’t found it, he bought into it.

Joseph R. Dodson bought into Hooper & Co., a Nelson brewery. He later then sold these shares and leased the Bridge Street Brewery, only to buy back into Hooper and Co. a few years later.

In 1879 the name of the brewery was changed to J.R. Dodson and Sons and the story runs more or less as the website claims, until 1944 when it merges with the Raglan Brewery (which Dodson Senior had also helped set up) to become Nelson Breweries Limited.

Nelson Breweries operated until 1969, when it was bought out by DB and closed down completely. This is where the dynasty ends and Founders start playing fast and loose with the truth.

When the website claims that Nick Duncan was brewing from 1969-2004, this is technically true, but he wasn’t brewing for Founders, he was brewing for DB, at Tui and elsewhere. This is a bit of a sneaky claim, akin to if Fork Brewing claimed to have been established in 2001 – the year brewer Kelly Ryan also went to work for Tui. Similarly, the claim on the website that John R. Duncan has been brewing since 1987 is also misleading: he was brewing for Mac’s between 1987-1999.

The modern entity that is Founders Brewery, now owned by Asahi, was started from scratch in 1999 by John Duncan. The supposed heritage claimed by the website actually spans five breweries and disguises a gap of 40 years.

Not really. Source.

Not really.                                          Source.

Monteith’s

The claim: Founded by Stewart Monteith in 1868.

How it stacks up: More bullshit, but not necessarily in the way you might expect.

Stewart Monteith didn’t found a brewery in 1868, he took one over – the Phoenix Brewery in Reefton. Through various mergers and closures, we end up with the Westland Brewery, which was absorbed into Dominion Brewing in 1969.

So in a certain manner, some sort of brewing has been happening out of what is now the Monteith’s brewery for over a century. But the Monteith’s that we know of today, although having the appearance of a family-owned brewery that has been been taken over by a corporate brewer (a la Mac’s and Emerson’s), was a was itself entirely an invention of DB. They took a name from history, stuck it on the wall and said it had always been so. As such, the ‘commercial brewing entity’ that is Monteith’s has only existed since 1990.

Mac’sMac_s Shield

The claim: 1981

How it stacks up: Accurate, but…

Mac’s was indeed started in 1981 by Terry McCashin. It was the first independently owned brewery to open since Lion and DB had set about closing down or pushing out all of New Zealand’s small breweries decades before.

As such, it is fantastically important part of New Zealand brewing history. I don’t want to understate the importance of Mac’s to the contemporary beer industry. I recommend you read Michael Donaldson (2012) and John McCrystal and Simon Farrell-Green (2013, see bibliography) to learn more about it.

But was it a ‘craft’ brewery? I don’t really think so. Certainly not by modern standards. Which isn’t to say that Mac’s couldn’t have become a contemporary ‘craft’ brewery; I just don’t think it ever did.

In 1999 Mac’s was sold to Lion, which doesn’t rule it out of being a ‘craft’ brewery (look at Emerson’s). In fact many have said the quality of beer improved after the sale; another reason I’m reluctant to grant early Mac’s the ‘craft’ moniker.

It’s not that Mac’s is owned by Lion. Nor is it that the beers are no longer made in their traditional location in Nelson. Nor is it the fact that they are now brewed in several different locations that churn out products for a range of different labels, all owned by the same conglomerate. Nor is it even the fact that all character and personality (both literal and figurative) has been divorced from the beer so that it now exists only as part of ‘brand portfolio’ with a marketing team behind it. It’s none of those things. It’s kind of all of those things together.

Don’t get me wrong, I bear no ill will towards Lion (I applauded them at the BrewNZ Awards a few weeks back), and I don’t dislike the Mac’s beers. I’d drink a Hoprocker over quite a few ‘craft’ beers of less reliable quality. We’re just back to the old situation of ‘I know it when I see it’ and when I look at Mac’s, I don’t see it. I see a ‘brand portfolio’, consisting of reliably faultless, not very inspiring, but basically fine beers. And that’s OK.

Of course feel free to disagree with me on this one. If Mac’s fits your own internal obscenity definition, then call it case closed. I can’t and won’t argue with you. If like me, you want to keep digging, then read on.

McCashin'sMcCashin’s

The claim: 1981

How it stacks up: I won’t say bullshit on this one, but it’s not the whole truth.

According to the website, McCashin’s was started in 1981 by Terry McCashin. It was the first independently owned brewery to open since Lion and DB had set about closing down or pushing out all of New Zealand’s small breweries decades before and if you’re getting the feeling that you’ve heard this story before, then you’re not wrong.

This is the story of Mac’s. So what’s the deal?

As we’ve established, Mac’s was sold in 1999. Note – this was the brand only, the brewery premises (the old Rochdale Cider Factory) remained in the hands of Terry. A ten year restraint on trade was put on Terry, and his sons Dean and Todd.

Mac’s was brewed in Nelson by Lion from Rochdale until 2004, when it was moved elsewhere and the plant was mothballed. No brewing would take place here by anyone for several years.

Fast forward to 2009, and the restraint on trade on Dean ends. He and his wife Emma take over the brewery location and equipment from Terry and Bev. They started a brewery called ‘McCashin’s Brewery’, and launch a new range of beers in 2010 under the name of ‘Stoke by the McCashin Family’.

Now this company claims to have been brewing since 1981. That’s not technically true. What is true is that the equipment they use was commissioned in 1981 (in fact the premises dates back even further, to the 1940’s). However no trace of any company trading as McCashin’s Brewery or making beer under the name McCashin or from the Rochdale Cider Factory can be found before 2009. All intellectual property associated with McCashin’s Brewery and indeed the company that owns it (660 Main Road Stoke Limited) are registered from 2009 onwards.

We’re back to the Monkey Wizard situation – existing brewery premises, but a new brewery operating out of it. With this in mind, and the fact that no beer was commercially brewed at Rochdale for a period of seven years – therefore failing the ‘can I go buy one of their beers?’ test; the claim of McCashin’s Brewery to be the oldest ‘craft’ brewery doesn’t quite hold up.

So it’s at this point we reach the end of breweries who claim to be either ‘first’, ‘oldest’ or ‘Established [1800-and-somethingsomething]’, and yet we are still no closer to finding a satisfactory answer to our original question.

But I can think of two other potential candidates that are worth investigating.

Sunshine BrewerySB_Logo_RGB

Sunshine Brewery was started in 1989 in Gisborne by Geoff Logan and Gerry Maude. They made a handful of beers, notably Gisborne Gold (Lager), Gisborne Green (Pilsner) and Black Magic (Stout). I’ve always had a soft spot for Sunshine – I drank a lot of Gisborne Gold in my formative years at university.

In 2013, Sunshine was sold to Martin Jakicevich, the operations expanded and a revamped range of very nice beers was launched, including the revival of several classics of their range, such as Black Magic.

White Cliffs Brewery

White Cliffs, better known under the name Mike’s Brewery Also started in 1989, by Mike Johnson in Urenui, Taranaki. They made one beer back then, Mike’s Mild Ale, which was apparently praised by Michael Jackson and is still available today. White Cliffs has changed hands twice in its history – in 2003 to Stephen Ekdahl and Sharol Cottam, then again in 2007 to Ron Trigg.

Ron has turned the old brewery into a stalwart of the contemporary beer scene.

So we have two breweries both started in 1989. Digging through online records wasn’t much help. So I got in touch with the current owners of both breweries. Whilst no documentation of exactly when beer was first sold could be found, anecdotally, we might have an answer: Sunshine was first brewing in September 1989, with first beer sales happening a few weeks before Christmas (end of November/start of December). White Cliffs on the other hand, was brewing test batches in June/July the same year, with first sales happening in mid-September.

So it seems that White Cliffs/Mike’s wins out by two months, which in brewing terms (And certainly brewer-founding terms) is a nose. With this in mind, perhaps the gentlemanly thing to do would be share the title between them. In the end what makes me happiest is not that both breweries have been around a long time, but that today they are both making great beer.

Bibliography

Names, dates, places and other assertions have been pulled from:

Gordon McLauchlan, Beer and Brewing – A New Zealand History, 1994, Penguin Books.

John McCrystal & Simon Farrell-Green, The First Craft Beer: The McCashin’s Story and the Kiwi Brewing Revolution it Sparked, 2013, Random House.

Jules Van Cruysen, Brewed: A Guide to the Craft Beer of New Zealand, 2015,  Potton & Burton.

Kerry Tyack, Kerry Tyack’s Guide to Breweries and Beer in New Zealand, 1999, New Holland Publishers.

Michael Donaldson, Beer Nation: The Art & Heart of Kiwi Beer, 2012, Penguin Group.

The following websites were also useful:

The Prow. A website devoted to the history of the top of the South Island. Particularly this page on the history of the Dodsons/Duncans.

The Companies Office

The Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand

Lion. Particularly their history resources.

DB. And their history resources too.

Other websites are linked in the main body of this article.

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32 thoughts on “Who is New Zealand’s Oldest ‘Craft’ Brewery?

  1. Nice article. I remember drinking early Mike’s, my Dad used to travel from Hamilton down that way for work and would buy it from the brewery (and later mail order) in boxes of 9 plastic bottles. From memory, Mac’s was also brewed in Hamilton for a while before the sale to Lion? It’s hard to find any mention of that in the literature though.

  2. Interesting fact …Mikes Mild Ale was a lager and I got that from Mike when I visited there just after they opened which I thought was early 1990.

  3. Nice work Dylan, some interesting titbits in there. Mike told me that the first yeast was cultured up from a bottle of Macs that had been sitting on the shelf in the Urenui pub for some time. Steve definitely changed to a lager yeast which we used for almost 2 years. I changed to the current Ale yeast, but the rest of the recipe has remained unchanged for mike’s Mild Ale in 26 years.

  4. Nice. A minor niggle, I remember drinking Mac’s pre-Lion and I’d definitely say they passed the obscenity test at the time. Tastes, styles, and palates have evolved, but their beers were as to the mainstream then as Emerson’s Pilsner is to Steinlager now.

  5. What a great article Dylan, your conclusion surprised me, I am somewhat humbled. Of course if Steve and Ron hadn’t continued brewing, the result may well have been entirely different.
    Regarding the yeast. It is as Ron has mentioned, originally it was from a bottle of Mac’s gold. I continued to use this strain over the next few years with a tremendous amount of help from a microbiologist, a true gentleman, whose name if I remember well, is Lance King. Lance set me up with a microscope and some basic tools, and taught me how to determine if the yeast was contaminated with bacteria, and also how to go back to a pure culture if it was.
    A little later some very kind microbiologists at a university that should still remain unnamed isolated two distinct strains of yeast from this yeast, one I used for many more years, the other never made it past the first brew.
    After conversion to full certified organics and after Luke Nicholas made purchasing different strains of yeast simpler, I switched to an Ale yeast purporting to be similar to the famous Guinness yeast, a yeast I had been trying to purloin for many years. I kept that yeast going for well over two hundred generations.
    I lost contact with the brewery for many years after I sold so I can’t comment on the yeast that was in use then.
    Mike’s Mild Ale held the full title page in the section devoted to the Mild Ales in Michael Jackson’s World Guide To Beer or a similar title.
    When I opened the brewery on the day the licence was approved mid September 1989 I had five or six brews ready, the oldest would have been six to eight weeks old by that time.
    As a humorous/interesting aside and with the benefit of hindsight the first two brews I made as commissioning brews, that the local customs department had given me permission to give away at a very large and probably an out of control party were absolutely horrible. It took many more years of making a much better job of brewing to convince most of those party guests and everyone that they had spoken to, that this beer was actually drinkable. What I thought would be a marketing coup, was in fact a marketing nightmare.

  6. Enjoyed reading this discussion – very informative. Thank you.
    My ancestor – Captain Davy – established a commercial brewery and Malthouse in New Plymouth circa 1843,/44. The beer was sold at our familys pub in New Plymouth called the “Ships Inn”. This was the first public house in the township.
    Interesting Capt. Davy came out from England on the same ship as Richard Secombe (a founder of Lion Nahan) in 1841 – the two men would have known each other well. Circa 1850 the Davy brewery was leased to William George, but our family retained ownership for some time therafter.
    Ron and Mike are to be congratulated for their passion for continuing local brewing in Taranaki, great efforts guys!!

  7. Just read this – Bit of a jump since it was published! A great write up.
    When Hancocks launched, I actually went to the trouble of dropping them a “bullshit” line.

    Their marketing department tried to say otherwise etc etc as they would – so I sent them the companies office records of their incorporation…..

    I certainly get peeved at all these companies claiming heritage they don’t have rights to.

    • Hi Nick

      Good question! It really was an oversight on my part not to talk about The Shakespeare in this article. I dismissed them out out of hand, because I knew that there was a period in the 2000’s when they were not brewing, therefore I couldn’t as a punter reasonably go and expect to buy a Shakespeare beer. Now I thought that the gap was pretty substantial, several years. Turns out, after chatting to Ben Middlemiss, who was instrumental in getting the brewery at the Shakespeare up and running again, I learned that gap was probably about 2 years (2009-2011 from my hazy memory of that conversation).

      So there’s definitely a case to be heard for The Shakespeare. On balance and sticking to the aforementioned “Could I go and buy their beer” rule, I think that both Mike’s and Sunshine have stronger cases for oldest brewery. The Shakespeare does definitely deserve a mention though. I’m wondering if I should put in an addendum to this article.

      Cheers,
      D.

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  9. Just a comment re Monteiths in Greymouth. Originally was Westland Breweries ltd , an amalgamation of 4 West coast breweries of which Monteith’s Phoenix Brewery in Reefton was one . The main brewery of the 4 was Mandl’s Westland Brewery. Mandl’s brewery had their bottling operation in Greymouth and then Westland Breweries commenced brewing there. The major shareholder in the company was Mrs. Mandl. So what is now named Monteiths is really Mandl’s and it’s “history” can be traced back many years!

  10. The oldest and still operating craft brewing company is “Anchor Brewing Co (NZ) Ltd”, established in 1984 with its brewery “The Village Brewery” in Kenepuru Drive between Tawa and Poriua in Wellington. It produced kegged, bottles and flagoned beer, but was shut out of the Porirua District Licensing Trust area.

    Owner, “Jamie” Jameson, along with Jim Pollet, was a pioneer brewer at McCashins in 1981. Here he “tweaked” malting and brewing processes. He formulated and brewed the first Macs Black beer, Hugely popular, but Jamie says “Todays Stoke Amber is what I was shooting for recipe-wise, but we just couldn’t afford back then the grunty ingredients needed”…..

    “On top of that, we were producing “Macs Real Ale” which was a lie. It was a Lager brewed with Lager yeast, not an ale at all. With that lie, it was no surprise that Macs eventually sold to Lion.

    After his contract at Macs finished, he went on to establish “The Village Brewery” .

    Here the focus was on the “science” of beer, “not big brewery bullshit” as he puts it. The brewery went on to develop “bacteria-free” brewing with a bottle of beer that would even taste better 5 years after it was bottled, than the day it was.

    Strongcroft, Sunshine, Mikes & Shakespeare all came to The village Brewery for advice on how to start up brewing their own. “We helped and advised as best as we could”.

    “We trucked up overnight tanks of beer to the Shakespeare Tavern in Auckland. By the time we got to Huntly, the beer had warmed up a bit so was jetting out of a relief valve and spraying Huntly sidewalkers. In the truck cab, we were absoluetly cracking up with laughter as a pretty solid stream of beer hit them all as we drove past, hahaha”

    So…. where’s the brewery now? Village bought out Kapiti Brewery. Then… Village disappeared literally overnight. Why? Mmmmmm….

      • Hi Martin, Just very quickly…. It was 1984 I opened the brewery, not 1985. Yes, we brewed New Zealands first ->genuine<- modern-day craft ales. I had to sell it in 1996 (after 12 years of "blood, sweat & beers") to fund my ongoing scientific research into the true medicinal properties of beer(s).
        You may recall the publicity that our beer had a natural hop-related component that killed cold viruses dead. That testing was independently done by the NZ Communicable Diseases Centre.
        Yes, the same beer component was also hugely anti-HIV.
        The past 20 years since then, have been pretty much dedicated to "cracking" this therapeutic mystery of beer. My co-researcher and I have now done this and are drafting a scientific paper for peer review and publishing. To beer drinkers everywhere I say… get ready to be shocked, deeply shocked!
        The five Wellington craft brewers you couldn't recall the names of… Village Brewery Porirua (Anchor), Strongcroft Brewery @ Petone, Manfred the Germans Petone Brewery, Parrot & Jigger @ Lower Hutt Railway Station and Kapiti Independent Brewery @ Paraparumu.
        Cheers!

        Jamie

      • Hi Jamie

        Thank you for this very interesting information. I would like to ask a couple of questions, if you don’t mind.

        I see from the Companies Office that Anchor is still filing returns, but I don’t see any records of beer being brewed.

        As I understand it, you sold the brewery equipment in 1996, but didn’t close down the company, is that correct?

        Also, when was the last time you produced beer for commercial release in New Zealand?

        A cure for HIV would be a fantastic thing! Best of luck for you research.

        Regards,
        D.

    • Jim Pollitt was an English brewer, and was a brewer at the Red Band (Lion) Brewery in Wellington in the late 1960’s before he retired to Nelson then “taught” Terry McCashin how to brew. Jim returned to th U.K. to run the Carlsberg Brewery in Northampton.

  11. some fascinating reading from so many quarters, it just goes to show what a bit of well researched and thought out journalism can get started. well done Dylan, keep up the great work.
    Great comments and info from Mike, Michael, Ben, Anatole, Martin and Jamie. Another of the characters in the Macs yeast propagation days was Coops, Paul Cooper who’s now brewing some amazing beer at Wigram. Another character worthy of a full article Dylan, is Dick Tout. I think that he’s about to call it quits on Lighthouse Brewing if he hasn’t already done so.

  12. I’m enjoying this discussion too. A great read of New Zealand Craft Brewing!’

    A small contribution from me (albeit on a tangent), for those interested in slightly older history, I just this week I published a Wiki page on Captain Davy, who brewed in Taranaki (link below I hope that’s allowed). Davy’s father was a ‘hopfactor’ back in Wales in the 1780’s, so the family were probably involved in the industry for a while.

    Link: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lleyson_Hopkin_Davy

    Happy brewing.

    Cheers
    Michael

  13. Hey guys great write up! Learning a bit about NZ’s history is always interesting to read. I found your blog while looking for things my father-in-law is interested in. He’s a bit of a hardcase. I was also wondering if you guys had experience with Kegerators? I’ve been looking for a Kegerator for my father in law and found this this review http://www.crosshabit.com/best-kegerator-beer-dispensers but wanted more opinions about it.

  14. HI D. Just a little more info for you, to flesh the subject out.
    When I was doing my homework in 1987 to suss out the ‘Natural’ beer scene, with the view of establishing Sunshine, there were a handful of operators up and running at that time who were, without exception, very helpful and forthcoming. They were, from memory and from North to South – Auckland Brewing (Stockan brand) and Brofords (both in Henderson), Shakespeare Tavern (Auck), Newbegin (Onehunga), Trophy Brewing (Takanini and also Te Rapa), Otumoetai Trust Tavern (Tauranga) – these latter three being closely associated with or owned by McCashin’s – Anchor (Porirua), Strongcroft (Petone), McCashin’s (Stoke) and, lastly, Dux de Lux (Chch). Needless to say, I was unaware of Mike’s at that time.
    Keep up the good work. Cheers.

    • Hi Geoff

      Fascinating! Of the breweries you’ve listed, I am only familiar with the last for – Anchor, Dux, Mac’s and Strongcroft.
      I must dig into the history of the others some time.

  15. Hi Dylan,

    Just a quick reply to your post of October 2016. I think the qualification for oldest craft brewery should go to the same entity to whom the NZ Customs Brewers Licence is issued to.

    Three things have to be taken into account. Firsty, the entity to whom the Brewers Licence is issued to. Secondly, the premises that are also licensed. Thirdly, the continuity of brewing beer for sale under H.M. Customs Licence.

    By “entity”, I mean a brewery that’s maintained licensed production of beer for sale from a licensed premises. A brewery under changed ownership should qualify providing licence transfer is not interuppted. If the Brewers Licence lapses, then the entity is no longer legally a brewer. Sunshine Brewery moved to different premises, but maintained its Brewers Licence. Mikes has let its licence lapse. If the Shakespeare maintained its Brewers Licence throughout, then it would be NZ’s oldest craft brewery.

    Anchor is still a registered brewing company, but let its Brewers Licence lapse. It now carries out beer associated scientific research. Some of its surplus plant was sold and some was put into storage. The rest was used to set up a pilot plant to produce and trial a beer associated life-saving medicine.

    Cheers

    Jamie

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