Pioneer's pressure

by Karl du Fresne / 27 April, 2013
The big two tried to kill Mac’s beer, but only made it stronger.
Terry McCashin as All Black hooker in 1968, before lending his name to the first of the new wave of craft beers. Photo/NZH

Ironically, the man who launched New Zealand’s craft beer revolution doesn’t think of himself as a beer enthusiast.

Terry McCashin, who started Mac’s in 1980, says he wasn’t a big beer drinker, but saw a gap in the market. “It was a straight commercial motive. I’d been a publican for seven years and knew how annoyed the public were.”

The two big breweries, Lion and DB, would buy up pubs and replace whatever beer had been previously served with their own, whether patrons liked it or not. Long-established brands would be deleted with no regard for consumer choice. “They just did whatever was easy for them back in the brewery.”

A former All Black (seven matches in 1968 as hooker, but no tests), McCashin hired Jim Pollitt, an English brewer with international experience, and set up a brewery in what had previously been the Rochdale cider factory in Stoke. But the two big industry players took a dim view of their upstart competitor.

McCashin struggled to get supplies of essential raw materials, most of which were controlled by the duopoly. Finding outlets was even tougher; the big breweries not only ran the country’s pubs but owned most of the liquor wholesalers. “We thought that if all else failed we would make a living selling direct from the door, and that basically was what we did for the first three years.”

Initially he secured only one wholesale outlet, the independently owned Wilson Neill in Wellington. But gradually, word of mouth began to make an impression. Holiday makers from Wellington and Christchurch would buy Mac’s beer from the brewery, then return home and ask why their local wholesalers didn’t stock it.

Eventually the brewery-owned liquor outlets had to give way to consumer pressure, McCashin says. “They were getting embarrassed about it. “So then they took our beer, but they thought they would fix us by putting the prices up – make it so dear no one would want to buy it. They made it the same price as Steinlager, and all it did was increase sales. It shifted Mac’s into the premium price bracket.”

Associated Bottlers, another brewery-controlled company, tried a similar tactic, repeatedly raising the price of the bottles it supplied to McCashin. Eventually it was just as cheap to get his own bottles made – and that too turned out to his advantage, because the distinctive shape of the Mac’s bottle helped promote awareness of the brand.

“Everything DB and Lion did to slow sales down actually had the reverse effect,” recalls the jovial McCashin, chortling with delight.

Call it poetic justice, but the real turning point was a brewery workers’ strike that left Auckland desperate for an alternative supply of beer.

McCashin got a phone call from his friend Bruce Robertson, another former All Black, who worked for independent liquor wholesalers Hughes and Cossar.

“He said, ‘Put everything you’ve got into containers and send it up.’ I immediately went and told the brewer to get cracking. That was our first real breakthrough.”

Help came from another unlikely source in the person of Douglas Myers, scion of a long-standing brewing dynasty, who took over as managing director of Lion in 1982. “He decided we weren’t a threat because we were creating more interest in beer. He had the foresight to see that, whereas the empire-building [Lion] management just wanted to shut us out.”

McCashin says he eventually sold Mac’s to Lion in 1999 with some reluctance. A key aspect of the deal was that it enabled him to keep the brewery, since Lion’s interest was only in the brand. “I wanted to ensure the brewery would still be there for the following generation,” McCashin says.

Accordingly, once a 10-year restraint of trade clause had expired, the McCashin family got back into the brewing business. Since 2010, McCashin’s son, Dean, and his wife, Emma, have produced a range of craft beers under the Stoke brand.

McCashin says he takes great pleasure from the remarkable proliferation of craft beer labels since he made his lonely stand, and is all the more excited now that his son and daughter-in-law are having a go.

Now 69, he lives in Christchurch and keeps himself occupied running his sheep and beef farm on the outskirts of the city. Pollitt, the man who provided the brewing expertise behind Mac’s, is retired in Nelson and remains a firm friend.

For more on New Zealand's beer industry, read this week's feature article by Karl du Fresne: Ale & hearty
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