Our beer, no longer here

Christchurch's central city brewery, owned by Lion Nathan, as it was in 2007. The site is to host a sports complex.
Christchurch's central city brewery, owned by Lion Nathan, as it was in 2007. The site is to host a sports complex.

For more than a year, passersby on the corner of Antigua and St Asaph streets have watched the gradual disappearance of the various buildings that made up Canterbury Brewery.

Demolition machinery has peeled away walls to reveal parts of the plant previously unseen from the street, and massive cylindrical stainless steel tanks have been exposed before being lifted clear from the redundant works.

The demolition and salvage operations are now drawing to an end, and the 2.5-hectare site, which is marked in the Central City Recovery Plan to be a large part of the city's new "Metro Sports Facility", should be clear within the next few months. It brings to an end more than 130 years of brewing on this site, and brewery owners Lion will no longer have a brewing operation in Christchurch.

Canterbury Brewery's Guinness was rated among the best in the world.
Canterbury Brewery's Guinness was rated among the best in the world.

Following the earthquake of February 22, 2011, the 17 buildings that made up the brewery were deemed a constructive total loss.

The brewhouse, the distinctive glass- fronted 1950s building on the corner of the site, had sunk 150mm, and a gap of about 100mm was created between it and the office block in St Asaph St.

The latter, which also housed the brewery's heritage centre, was built of unreinforced masonry and was badly damaged. There was substantial liquefaction through the bottling hall and the various yards, and the ground level had lifted or sunk in many areas, while a few sections (like the boiler house) remained steady in comparison, anchored in their firm foundations.

Lion operations director Simon Taylor says that unlike massive, modern brewing plants, the old brewery was like a rabbit warren, a wonderful conglomeration of buildings, alleyways and networks of pipes, with an overlying atmosphere of industrial noise and brewery smells.

Though brewery staff were shocked at the movement of the buildings during the 6.3-magnitude shake (an engineer who was conducting an audit on an upper floor exited via the stairs in world record time), no-one was injured.

There was a near miss when a huge concrete slab was torn from a warehouse wall and came to rest leaning against the adjacent building where a health and safety committee were meeting.

Demolition began in 2011, and some of the first buildings to go were the office block on the St Asaph St frontage, the bottling hall and the Maltexo factory (which produced malt extract) on the northwest side of the site.

Demolition was delayed when St Asaph St was closed for the demolition of the huge hospital chimney on the other side of the road. The brewery's own chimney, with the adjacent brewhouse, still stands strongly and will be one of the last structures to be demolished in the next few months.

With the new construction and insurance requirements that would be involved, Lion decided it was too expensive to rebuild the brewery in Christchurch. They are instead spending about half the $100 million that would have been required in upgrading their breweries in Dunedin and Auckland to produce the products that were made here.

The Canterbury Brewery was one of the smaller breweries in the Lion group and had earned a reputation of brewing versatility and innovation. It was here that many of Lion's beer brands were developed, including Steinlager Pure, before increasing volumes saw them taken up by Lion's larger, more modern plants.

The brewery had the flexibility and expertise to make overseas beers under licence, including Guinness, Kilkenny, Beck's and Stella Artois Legere, and was responsible for the country's entire output of these brands, along with most of the Mac's labels.

With the growth in the craft beer market there was optimism for the future, the brewery believing it was in a position to exploit its ability to produce short runs.

Not all parts of Canterbury Brewery were immediately closed down after the quake. The Maltexo operation was moved to another warehouse on the site, and was producing malt extract until March this year before being transferred to the Speight's Brewery in Dunedin.

Similarly, until March, the keg plant continued to operate in the finishing and kegging of Guinness and Kilkenny (the brewing of both had been transferred to Dunedin after the quake), but now the complete operation for these Irish brands is being handled by The Pride brewery in Auckland.

It should be remembered that in 1996 Canterbury Brewery's Guinness was awarded the best flavour for Guinness produced outside of Ireland (and was unofficially praised as the best anywhere).

Canterbury Draught has also had its days in the sun, winning gold medals in the Monde International Quality Awards in 1993 and 1994, and about this time was the biggest selling beer in the Canterbury region.

The Canterbury Brewery's production of Canterbury Draught for the bottled market has also been taken up by Auckland (which has produced it for the canned market since 2004). The production of Canterbury Draught for the tap market is now done from Dunedin.

Of the 210,000 hectolitres of beverages that were produced each year at Canterbury Brewery, about two-thirds are now being made in Auckland, and the other third in Dunedin.

Much of the brewery's equipment has been salvaged and transferred to the other sites, including several 1200-hectolitre tanks to Auckland, and smaller tanks to Dunedin.

Anything useful that can be extracted from the site has been removed (bottling machinery, pipes and pumps) and if it can't be used at Lion's other sites it is being sold to other businesses, or, as a final resort, sold for scrap.

Most of the brewery's 45 production staff have found employment elsewhere; some at the Speight's Brewery in Dunedin, others at similar plants around Canterbury, including the new Fonterra plant at Darfield.

The demolition brings to an end a brewing history on this site that stretches back to the early years of the Canterbury settlement. It was the site of William May's Crown Brewery (which dates from 1857), and after it amalgamated with nine other breweries around the country (in the 1923 formation of New Zealand Breweries) the site eventually absorbed the two other Christchurch breweries that were involved.

Firstly, Mannings Brewery (Ferry Rd) became a bottling plant shortly after the merger, its buildings being eventually demolished in 1940. The site was most recently used as the city bus depot.

Then, much later, in 1955, Wards Brewery (corner of Fitzgerald Ave and Kilmore St) shifted its operations to the Crown site. Some of its buildings still survive on its old site where Pomeroy's Old Brewery Inn trades today. It is interesting to note that before the end of the 19th century, its 40m chimney had to be demolished because of earthquake risk.

Ward's was the oldest brewery in the city, having opened in 1854, and its Ward's ale was succeeded by Canterbury Draught in 1990. The first of the Ward family to settle in Canterbury arrived on the Charlotte Jane in 1850. Today, the Ward name still features on the Canterbury Draught label.

In the weeks after the earthquake, Lion initially planned to retain the site and build a new warehouse and distribution centre, but within months discovered that the land was being re- zoned to "mixed use", something that would make the operation and its associated heavy trucking activity impossible.

Instead it is now consolidating the existing distribution hub in Hornby with its logistics partner, Linfox.

It seemed likely that being so close to the hospital, the site would become part of a health precinct. Instead the Central City Recovery Plan allocates the land to a large Metro Sports Facility on a strip that stretches along Antigua St from St Asaph St to Moorhouse Ave.

It would not be the first time that sport has been played on the site - in the 1950s and 60s a bowling green was used by brewery staff at its southern end.

A small part of the brewery may actually be incorporated into the new facility, as Canterbury Brewery has donated one of the brewhouse's four giant copper kettles to the Christchurch Central Development Unit.

With its dome shape extending into a flue, it is the sort of historical object that might become the centrepiece of a reception area. Lion hopes to find suitable homes for the other three kettles, perhaps in Lion-supplied pubs.

It is possible that the brewery could also be commemorated in situ with a display of historic photographs, as has been the case in Wellington at the Thorndon New World, once the site of the Staples Brewery.

The collection of memorabilia from the brewery's heritage centre, including old beer bottles and tankards, has been retained and should end up in a local museum.

No doubt, memories of the old place will also be kept alive by the hundreds of Cantabrians who have worked on the site.

Many will have memories of a friendly brewery that felt part of the community, one that worked creatively to gain efficiency improvements and always had the flexibility to produce a variety of short-run products.

Cantabrians should have a last look at the corner brewhouse before it completely disappears in the first few months of 2013.

It may be a while before another Christchurch building can paint itself red and black with such confident self-justification.



The Press