Great festival

THE CASSELS: Alasdair Cassels and son Zak
THE CASSELS: Alasdair Cassels and son Zak

More than 13,000 people gathered in Hagley Park in Christchurch on Saturday for New Zealand's largest one-day beer festival.

By offering an eclectic mix of beer, food, live music, demonstrations and seminars, in just three years the Great Kiwi Beer Festival has established itself as a leading showcase for New Zealand's beer industry and describes itself as "the ultimate ‘cheers' to New Zealand's affinity with the great amber nectar".

I thoroughly enjoyed this year's festival. For the first time I wasn't working on the Society of Beer Advocates stand so I was free to explore and mingle. I particularly enjoyed catching up with local maltsters Doug and Gabi Michael, of Gladfield Malt, and listening to Stu McKinlay and Eric Crampton reflect on the economics of brewing and the impact of regulation on beer.

Other excellent seminars included beer blogger Phil Cook's thought-provoking talk on how to buy a beer and an insight into the brewing of sour and barrel aged beers by Jason Bathgate, of 8 Wired Brewing. I also enjoyed just walking around watching people's enthusiasm for the new beers they were sampling.

On the downside - and there really wasn't much to complain about - it was a pity the festival had again been forced to switch to plastic glasses and that so much of the Hagley Park site had been given over to corporate brewer-run "brand headquarters".

I was also disappointed by the number of lollyish, fruit-infused pseudo-ciders being peddled. That said, it was great to see stalls selling high quality, genuine (apple-based) ciders such as Zeffer and Peckham's attracting big queues.

I always enjoy visiting Christchurch and the festival gives me the perfect opportunity to make a weekend of it. Each year I spend a couple of nights with beer-loving friends and check out the local beer scene.

On Friday lunchtime a group of us from Nelson and Blenheim caught up with Zak Cassels at his family's excellent brewpub in the suburb of Woolston.

The Cassels' story began in 1994 when Zak's father Alasdair bought an industrial site alongside the Heathcote River. Stretching back from the road, the 7000 square metre site was dominated by a full of character 1880s brick warehouse that once housed a tannery.

Alasdair's vision for the old buildings was to renovate them to accommodate a range of craft businesses, one of which would be a brewery and bar run by his family.

In front of the old tannery buildings was an unremarkable 1970s warehouse and it was here that the family installed its first makeshift brewhouse in September 2009. The intention was to begin trading while the rest of the site was redeveloped.

The family had built up a small business selling bottled beers at farmers' markets and to around 40 local outlets when the February 2011 earthquake struck. The brewery was badly damaged in the quake but was salvageable, and the timber-framed building in which it was housed had withstood the shaking.

Sadly the old solid brick tannery buildings were devastated and the majority of the company's customers - many of whom were based in Lyttelton and Sumner - were also no longer trading. Things looked bleak for the family business.

Zak takes up the story: "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. The building our brewery had always occupied was in good shape structurally so we got to work on it.

"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."

In the time since, the Woolston site has been transformed. The brewpub continues to thrive and the old tannery buildings have mostly been rebuilt in their original style; the original bricks re-laid as cladding over timber framing.

Today, The Tannery Boutique Retail and Arts Emporium is home to an ever-growing number of boutiques, galleries and trendy eateries. It's a bustling place that's clearly on the radar of many Cantabrians.

The Cassels have also dramatically upped their brewing capacity. In the brewpub the quaint wood-fired brewkettle has been fitted with a supplementary gas supply and a year ago a larger "production" brewery was installed in a separate building some 300 metres away.

These days the company employs a trio of brewers overseen by ex-pat Englishman and former Boddington's brewer Simon Bretherton.

The Cassels beer range has also seen some changes over the years, but the brewery's award winning handpumped milk stout is still a mocha and caramel flavoured delight and a must-try if you're visiting. There's also a range of craft beers from other Kiwi brewers available on tap and the home made, wood-fired oven-baked pizzas are wonderful.

We couldn't visit Woolston without checking out another Christchurch institution, The Twisted Hop pub in Ferry Rd.

Although the original Twisted Hop brewpub in the city centre had been strengthened and withstood the 2011 quake, its neighbours didn't fare so well and the whole Lichfield Lanes area was subsequently red-zoned.

These days The Hop's famous real ales beers are brewed by Martin Bennett at a separate unit in Wigram and sold by his business partner Stephen Hardman at the shiny new Woolston pub.

Stephen and his team are genial hosts and the pub is another great place to savour cask conditioned beers served from traditional handpumps. The Twisted Hop also offers a small range of guest tap beers from New Zealand and overseas.

Sadly we didn't have time to make it to other beer meccas such as Pomeroy's and Volstead. A weekend in Christchurch just isn't long enough.

Never mind; next time . . .


The Marlborough Express