How Cassels and Sons survived pirates and quakes to build their beer empire

by Michael Donaldson / 10 May, 2018
Photography by Ken Downie

Alasdair and Bridget Cassels, standing at rear, with their extended clan (from left to right): Zak and wife Hana, sisters Mia, Zoe and Maddy (holding daughter Mae), Joe Shanks (holding son Marco) and wife Pippi.

Beer, business and Christchurch’s heritage buildings have come together splendidly for the Cassels family. Michael Donaldson catches up with the head of the clan, Alasdair Cassels.

Nothing brings a family together like a pirate attack.

But first, the family. Alasdair Cassels casts an eye around the family-owned brew-pub in the Christchurch suburb of Woolston. Sitting next to him are his brewery business partners, son Zak and son-in-law Joe Shanks. Zak’s wife, Hana, is the duty manager in the bar; Joe’s wife, Pippi – Alasdair’s daughter – has a business just a few steps away in The Tannery, a collection of boutique shops, cafes and restaurants developed by Cassels in restored 19th-century industrial buildings.

As we talk, another daughter, Zoe, walks past on her way to the Cassels & Sons office, where she works as a graphic designer… there are family members everywhere. Another daughter, Maddy, also has a business in The Tannery. Both Maddy and Pippi are in business with their mother, Bridget. Nearby is a huge state-of-the-art brewery Alasdair hopes will launch Cassels & Sons into a national brand.

“None of this would have happened without family. I had the money but I needed these guys,” he says.

Alasdair and Bridget have five children and 10 grandchildren. A recent family holiday included 30 members of an extended clan. “We’re very committed to family – that’s just the way we are,” Cassels says for emphasis, before explaining the “secret”.

“About 20 years ago, I took all the kids out of school. We bought a 200-tonne yacht in Spain and sailed it back here over the course of a year. That was a serious bit of bonding right there. It was a real adventure.”

Pippi at the wheel in Corsica with Maddy, Alasdair, Mia and Bridget.Adventure is an understatement.

“They got attacked by pirates,” says Joe.

“With machine guns,” continues Zak.

“They came after us… rat-a-tat-tat,” says Alasdair.

The family was sailing in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. “One of the world’s pirating hot spots. as it turns out,” says Zak, with a dry laugh.

“We didn’t know that back in 1996,” his father responds, matter-of-factly.

When a small boat powered by twin outboard motors came alongside, Alasdair sent his family below deck and focused on getting the yacht to full speed to out-run the marauders.

“They came up alongside and looked at me in the wheelhouse. They were all bare-chested, skinny little guys with ammunition belts strapped across their chests like Rambo. They had machine guns and were spraying bullets over the bow. They wanted us to slow down.”

At the time, the yacht was towing lures to catch tuna and marlin, and the pirates got their outboard propellers tangled in the lures. “They had to pull them up – they got one engine back in the water, but they couldn’t keep up with us. Fuck, it was scary.”

“It was terrifying at the time,” recalls Zak, the oldest in the family, then in his mid-20s. His youngest sister, Mia, was not yet a year old.

“To do that trip in the first place, I must have thought we were a close family,” Alasdair reflects. “After we got back, there was a lot of camaraderie, although I think the year-long voyage was more important in that regard than the attack. I don’t know why Bridget let me do it – I still don’t, because it was dangerous.”

The Cassels family tours Egypt in the 90s. From left: Zoe, Mia, Alasdair, Zak, Pippi, Bridget and Maddy.

Alasdair kept the boat for many years and the family would sail to safer ports in the Pacific Islands or around the South Island to Fiordland. There’s a family bach in the Marlborough Sounds, and it was there the brewing business was born.

Alasdair had home-brewed in the 1960s, when he concocted recipes on a wood-fired stove. “I used to get malt from the Canterbury malting factory, crush it with a marble rolling pin and brew 20 litres at a time. Back then, home brewing usually involved a kit of Maltexo and it always used to taste like a home brew. I wanted something better and I was getting a taste I thought was better than DB. But it was very time-consuming. I did it in fits and starts…”

The demands of parenting and a growing industrial painting and sandblasting business put brewing on the back-burner until the summer of 2008-2009.

“Alasdair thought we were drinking too much, so he said, ‘We better start making some’… and we did it on the old Rayburn wood-burning stove,” says Shanks.

“I was showing the boys a skill I had, which was to make beer,” Alasdair explains, “and these two [Zak and Joe] picked up on it.”

Before long, the germ of an idea sprouted: to start a brewery. Back then, the cap hadn’t come off the bottle of the current craft beer boom. Breweries in New Zealand numbered around 50, compared with 160-plus now. Lion and DB dominated the landscape, and in Christchurch the best-known independent was Harrington’s.

None of the Cassels-Shanks trio can remember exactly why their summer hobby turned into a business, but they had a feeling there was a gap in the market for small batches of handmade beer made in a unique fashion. “We had this idea there was something in the wood-fired kettle and we went with that,” says Alasdair. Research found only one working brewery in the world, in Belgium, that used a wood-fired brew kettle.

Alasdair, by his own admission, stayed in the background and let the boys run the brewery, albeit with his eyes on their progress. “We started doing it as a project,” Shanks explains, “and then it was Alasdair driving us. He thought if we were going to do it, we were going to do it properly.”

Alasdair Cassels: “Exporting, that’s my job now. I’m an export brewer.”

 

The first batches of Cassels & Sons beer were made in a 200-litre brew kettle (which translates to a very big homebrew system). Shanks, who was an aircraft engineer with Air New Zealand at the time, came up with the design for the wood-fired system. The beer was available in flip-top bottles at the Lyttelton Farmers Market and at a pub in the port, owned by Zak’s sister, Maddy, and her partner.

By 2010, with the brewery upgraded to a 600-litre wood-fired kettle, Joe quit his job at Air New Zealand and Zak, who had dabbled in property like his dad, stopped working as a surveyor. “Our little brewery was growing, sales were growing, our outlets were growing, the whole craft beer market was growing,” says Zak.

Then Christchurch got hit by the February 22, 2011 earthquake.

You could never say the earthquake was good for the Cassels family.

“Mum and Dad’s house in Sumner didn’t survive, Joe’s house in Lyttelton didn’t survive,” says Zak of the devastating quake – which also destroyed the original Cassels & Sons brewery. Yet there was an upside for Alasdair in the realisation of a long-term property investment that had stalled.

Alasdair had trained as a civil engineer in an era when “you sat around with a slide rule”. He made his initial money as an industrial painter and sandblaster. The Muldoon Government’s Think Big projects allowed him to run crews “from Marsden Point to Tiwai Point… We were the biggest industrial painters in the country for five years,” he says.

Selling that business gave him the capital to get into property. “I get labelled as a property developer, but I’m not – in that everything I build I want to keep.”

So it was with the old tannery buildings on the banks of the Heathcote River in blue-collar, semi-industrial Woolston. Cassels bought the site in the mid-90s and built some apartments, but his dream was to create a retail hub.

“I love the area and it was a beautiful property. Christchurch doesn’t have a harbour and when the settlers arrived, they chose the Heathcote River, using barges to transport things. It’s got quite a history – like these buildings, built around 1870. I always had a bit of a vision for it, although a brew-bar wasn’t in the dream.”

He wanted to keep the integrity of the saw-toothed roofline and brick cladding of the original buildings. The interior would be modelled on Sydney’s Strand Arcade. “I had a stumbling block, though. The council couldn’t give me consent.”

But? “But the earthquake came along and changed all that. After the quake, there was turmoil – tenants were trying to find space, the city needed new retail areas and the council let their guard down a bit because they wanted to get the city going again.”

From the chaos, The Tannery was born, including music venue Blue Smoke, which can hold 400 people. One of the regular acts there is The Eastern, a string band that features Shanks’ sister Jess.

The Tannery, Woolston. Cassels wanted to keep the integrity of the saw-toothed roofline and brick cladding of the original buildings, modelling the interior on Sydney’s Strand Arcade.

A temporary building at the front of the site on Garlands Rd was due to be knocked down to make way for a garden. The irony is the building set for demolition handled the quake better than most and, after a quick renovation, became the new Cassels & Sons brew-pub, known as The Brewery, with the rescued wood-fired kettle on show behind the bar.

Since then, The Brewery has been supplanted by the brewery; Cassels & Sons has moved the bulk of production to a new facility in a nearby building. The huge vats are a far cry from that homely wood-fired kettle, which is now mainly for show and experimental brews. The modern brew-house could handle the production of all the craft beer in the South Island if needed. But the dream is to grow into it and grow big. After post-quake retrenchment, when they serviced their own bars and the wider Christchurch area, Cassels & Sons is now pushing into the North Island and abroad.

When pressed on how he will conquer the world with beer, when so many New Zealand breweries find it difficult, Alasdair focuses his thousand-yard stare into the small space between us. “I’m determined, really determined.”

He applied the same determination to his role with the Cathedral Working Group (CWG). He was an outspoken advocate for restoration, famously stating the people of Christchurch would be regarded as “barbarians” if they tore down a symbol of the city. After an original decision in 2012 to demolish ChristChurch Cathedral, and ensuing court battles and heated discussion over its future, the Anglican Synod finally agreed on restoration in September last year.

Cassels can understand those who wanted the ruins removed – that people shouldn’t “worship a building” and the money could be better used elsewhere to help those in need. “I can see all that,” he says, “but they started building that cathedral when there were only 2000 people living in Christchurch. When they started it, they didn’t know how they were going to pay for it – they just wanted to finish it. They’re our great-great grandfathers and great-great grandmothers. I think that heritage is very important. That’s what drives me. It was the first big building in Christchurch… and it’s up to us to fix it.”

He’s a proponent of the “people’s steeple”, the idea of using a giant windlass, powered by members of the community, to raise a new steeple. Son-in-law Shanks chips in: “It’s not about building a church, it’s building a community.”

As the restoration of the cathedral gets underway this year, Cassels & Sons is also looking to the future. And at 67, the family patriarch shows no signs of slowing down. While still labelled a property developer or entrepreneur, he is now solely a brewer. “Exporting, that’s my job now. I’m an export brewer.”

Alasdair Cassels has a strong personal brand – he’s one of the most recognisable faces in Christchurch – but he doesn’t see himself as the face of Cassels & Sons. “I’ve never seen it as just me; I see it as a family thing. I don’t live and breathe it as much as Zak and Joe do. It’s bigger than me, I couldn’t do it myself, I wouldn’t bother.”

Yet the sons say they couldn’t have achieved what they have without Alasdair. “If Joe and I had a brewery, we’d be tootling around doing okay, but it wouldn’t be like this,” says Zak. “Our development and growth you can attribute to Dad – not all of us have that business acumen.”

We round back to the difficulty of shipping a fragile, packaged product halfway around the world. The old saying that beer is best drunk in the shadow of the brewery holds as true today as 200 years ago. Beer deteriorates with time, temperature and agitation. To sell quality beer abroad means bottling it with minimal exposure to oxygen and shipping it in chilled containers. Cassels & Sons has invested heavily in the facilities to do that, including a bottling machine that utilises a sterile air filter to keep bugs out. “It’s like a hospital operating theatre,” says executive brewer Simon Bretherton.

To build sales, they’ve hired reps around the country and overseas, spending money like breweries five times their size. “We’ve learned a lot from other people,” says Alasdair, “and we’ve learned how not to do it. Controlling our distribution is key. That costs money. Those who haven’t succeeded haven’t spent money. Hopefully we’ve got the right people. If not, we’ll get more people.

“This doesn’t daunt me… you just have to look at The Tannery. I’m not daunted by anything – and if you go in with that idea, then you’ll win. We will win. We’ve got a world-class brewery and world-class brewer, and we’re perfectly set up to take on anything.”

Alasdair Cassels is entitled to sit back and sample his wares, but he won’t give up until he’s achieved his goal. “I haven’t taken a Gold Card or my super. I’ve never worked for anyone else in my life and when you have a busy business life, it’s what you become.

“The idea of retiring from that… well, something would have to happen to my brain.”

This was published in the February 2018 issue of North & South.

 

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