Brewing beer in Hawera

Last updated 11:09 18/08/2012

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MOONSHINE Not only were ale, stout and porter in demand from local settlers but so was whisky and, by law, it was all imported from distillers in Scotland, a product on which an excise tax had been paid. Like many other districts in New Zealand, Taranaki had makers of illicit whisky who avoided the authorities by setting up a still in a piece of deserted bush. In the 1890s the police and excise people were alerted to whisky being made in a gully behind Alton. By the time the police arrived all they could find was the remains of a burnt out hut. There was no distilling equipment to be found even though they carefully searched the stream and adjacent bush for the all-important copper worm.
n the 19th century two beverages reigned supreme in Taranaki.

Imported tea that arrived in chests and boxes was one of them while beer, both imported and locally brewed, was the other.

It is said that within days of the first settlers coming ashore in New Plymouth in 1841, John Wilkinson had a roughly assembled whare dispensing both beer and spirits. As the settlement grew so did the number of public hotels and small breweries making ale, stout and porter.

James Paul, a young Scotsman who was posted to New Plymouth in 1864 by the military, saw an opportunity for selling beer to the soldiers quartered in New Plymouth. With energy and a flair for advertising, he established the Egmont Brewery. It was an enterprise that supplied the district with beer through the decades until it was bought by Auckland-based Dominion Breweries in 1979.

In each early Taranaki settlement enterprising men were aware of a continuous thirst for the amber liquid.

In Hawera in 1880 John Burton had already established a small brewery in Princes St and that was soon followed by others in Opunake, Manaia, Eltham and Normanby.

In 1881 Felix McGuire, a restless young Irishman, built the Colonial Brewery on the corner of High St and Cameron St. It challenged the established firm, which had earned the ire of the neighbours with the brewery's inability to adequately dispose of waste products.

McGuire's brewery drew on an internal well and used a stream at its back to carry away the discharges.

So now Hawera, soon to be a borough with 1100 inhabitants, had two enterprises each capable of producing six hogsheads of beer each week, and with the potential to double that output quickly.

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A hogshead contained 52 imperial gallons or about 238 litres.

Nathaniel Johnson, who had been partner with his brother in Normanby's Imperial Hotel, took over the Hawera Brewery bringing in new machinery and a new boiler.

But he sold it back to Burton and went off to Normanby to set up his own brewery on the site that was later occupied by the first Normanby Dairy Company.

In March 1883 further competition arrived in Hawera with the opening of the Canterbury Bottling Company's outlet which brought in hogsheads of beer and stout from Dunedin.

The ownership of the Hawera Brewery changed several times during 1882 and 1883 and when John Burton again took it over in December 1883 he promptly set it ablaze, hoping to cash in on the insurance claim.

His plot was uncovered by police and Burton went to jail for 18 months.

In early 1884 a Mr Coad opened a new brewery at Manaia, a three-storey building on the Waiokoura Stream opposite the flour mill outside of town. This continued for some years until the building was renovated in 1899 as a meat extract works to process bullocks into a product like Bovril.

After a succession of owners, the Johnson Brothers of Normanby took charge of the High St plant, by then known as Hawera Brewery, and made beer and stout.

One of the Johnsons took charge of making malt vinegar, a line that fitted well with the brewing of beer.

In 1902 the brewery was connected to the new Hawera borough supply for the sum of [PndStlg]7 a year. Mr G H Swan, who was the owner at the time, renamed the concern the White Swan brewery. He had done the same with previous breweries he had owned in the Hawke's Bay. The name survived until his retirement in 1903.

A new owner in 1911 renamed it the Dreadnought Brewery in a patriotic gesture to mark the building of the [PndStlg]1 million HMS New Zealand. A further patriotic and populist gesture was made in 1916 when the brewery launched a label showing a medal similar to the Victoria Cross with the motto 'For Value' instead of 'For Valour'.

In March 1921 the appropriateness of the label was questioned in a Parliamentary debate on the status of the word 'Anzac.' However the questioner was assured that Hawera was proud of its two winners of the Victoria Cross and that further legislation to protect the Victoria Cross was unnecessary.

The VC brand was followed some time later with an 'OC' label which portrayed a jovial and monocled British army officer.

The Hawera Brewery continued to prosper. Its bottling department was opened in the Winter Show building to cope with the demand - so much so that a regular advertisement was run in the Hawera Star for empty ale and stout bottles at three shillings a dozen.

One frosty morning the manager looked out a window overlooking the bottle stack and saw footprints coming and going to the bottles.

He knew now how his most regular supplier of empty bottles made his pocket money and wondered how many times he had bought the same bottles.

As with almost all country breweries the Hawera brewery had by the 1940s acquired hotels and contracts for both keg and bottled beer. Gradually the major breweries Dominion and NZ Breweries in Auckland bought out small town breweries and closed them to replace their beer with their own continuous fermented product.

A A (Nugget) West worked in the Hawera Brewery for the last three years of its life as one of up to a dozen men who brewed and bottled up about 3000 gallons a week of OC Ale.

Nugget had not long returned from serving overseas in the New Zealand Army and found a job working alongside his father and brother congenial.

Nugget recalls how they filled little nip bottles of OC Stout and dispatched them to Waikato Hospital but he has never seen an example of this bottle since. The Hawera Brewery is now long gone, its site a neighbourhood playground where children play informal cricket games. The building was taken apart by local farmer Gil Brewer and he re-erected the brewery as a woolshed on his property at Matangara.

- Taranaki Daily News

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