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. Brewing
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.
The claim: 1854, from their website.
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.
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.
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.
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-something–something]’, 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 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.
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 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.