Cassels in the sky

Richard catches up with the Cassels family to talk about their entirely wood-fired brewery


If the Cassels family had a motto, it would surely be “if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in the most difficult way possible”. Why else would someone choose to build an entirely wood-fired brewery, from scratch, with no instructions and very little in the way of extant examples to follow? For an answer, we must travel back to the early 1980s, when brothers Alasdair and Winton Cassels discovered the joys of all-grain home brewing, competing for the approval of family and friends in Christchurch, New Zealand, with little more than a giant pan and a wood-fired range.

In the background at these sunny afternoon tasting sessions was Alasdair’s son Zak, watching and learning. But it wasn’t until the Summer of 2008 that the Cassels’ long-standing passion for brewing got serious, thanks to a memorable team brew day at the family home in Marlborough Sounds, involving Alasdair, Zak and his brother in law Joe Shanks.

“We’d got our hands on some Motueka Sauvin hops and some organic pale malt from Dunsandel, which we used to brew a fresh, hoppy pilsner,” recalls Zak. “When tasting day came around, we were blown away! After that success, I think we all began to dream about building a bigger craft brewery, and it just seemed right that it should be wood-fired to match our home setup.”

Some hasty Googling for “wood fired kettle” turned up worryingly little wisdom: a brewery in Dortmund, Germany, which had a brick kettle (now pretty much a museum piece) and a Belgian brewery called Caracole. Undeterred, the Cassels set about building their own 200-litre wood-fired kettle, from basic design all the way to fabrication and installation. Fortunately, Joe had trained as an aircraft engineer with Air New Zealand and, apparently, there are enough similarities between an old-timey brewhouse and a Boeing 737 to get the whole project off the ground.

Even with Joe’s skills, the brewhouse took he and Zak a good few months to complete, but they were ready for their inaugural brew in September 2009. That first batch, a Pilsner, was ready by November, less than a year after the summertime family brew day that had kicked it all off. The home-made design worked like a charm but, as Zak says, the overall setup was still a little Heath Robinson.

“When you think of the equipment used in brewing, you’re generally thinking of a high-tech system made up of shiny steel components,” he says. “But our approach in the early days was far more primitive. We used to cool our fermenting lagers by using a garden hose to spray cold water onto blankets which we wrapped around 200-litre plastic drums!”

If something's worth doing, it's worth doing in the most difficult way possible

When the beer was good, it was great, but getting it consistent was a real challenge. By February of 2010, the team had hatched a plan to build a craft brew bar on the site of Christchurch’s original tannery, as well as constructing a larger-capacity kettle and mash tonne, and hiring a professional brewer, Nigel Mahoney.

2010 was a big year for Cassels: Nigel’s second brew on the wood-fired kettle – a dunkel, no less – was an instant hit, winning bronze at the 2010 BREWNZ awards. It also saw the arrival of some 600-litre conditioning tanks and fermentation vessels, as well as a hand-operated bottling machine. A local artist, Scott Jackson created a lino cut of the old tannery building to be used on the label and soon Cassels’ beers were a familiar sight in bars and restaurants in Lyttelton, Sumner and Christchurch. Everything was on a very promising trajectory.

Then, on 22 February the following year, Christchurch was hit by a devastating earthquake, and so was Cassels.

“Our brewery really got hammered in the earthquake,” continues Zak. “We lost a lot of beer and sustained extensive damage to our plant. After a week or two of scratching our heads and wondering what the next step forward was, we started to pull together ideas for something bigger than before. It was such a sad and hopeless time for our city, so the time was right to do something positive.”

The building the brewery had always occupied was in good shape structurally, so the team got to work on it, taking on an army of can-do tradesmen who poured their enthusiasm into the project. A short and extremely intense one hundred days later, Cassels was ready to launch. From the rubble emerged a bar, a brewery, a cafe, a music venue and a restaurant.

We lost a lot of beer and sustained extensive damage to our plant

Despite the success it has subsequently enjoyed on its home turf, it’s taken almost another decade for Cassels to turn its attention to the UK, though Britain is now one of its key target markets. As this issue goes to press, Zak himself will be driving around the UK in a van full of kegs, preaching the Cassels gospel, with a particular focus on areas and bars that are hard to reach through the big distributors. He’ll also be taking part in a couple of collaborations along the way, including with Head of Steam, which will be serving the beer at its pubs across the country.

“I’m really looking forward to sharing the brewery’s story with people in the UK – you never get tired of talking about beer to other people who really care about it,” concludes Zak. That’s one of the reasons we’re so excited about pouring at Brew//LDN this year, it’s a chance to meet the ordinary punters who will hopefully fall in love with our beer.” 

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