Harrington’s Breweries is marking 25 years as an independent, family-owned brewery.
The brewery sold it’s first rigger on 15 July 1991, from the building now occupied by Pomeroy’s and Stainless Brewing. It was the only independent brewery in Canterbury, one of just a handful brewing in New Zealand.
Founder John Harrington (pictured above) started the brewery as his third career. He left school at 15 to operate the family’s grocery delivery business, selling fish, smallgoods and baking to mining and milling towns on the West Coast.
His second career started in 1971 as a publican and pub owner in Christchurch. John and Valerie were so successful that John was able to retire in his early 40s. Then he got bored, and started brewing as a retirement hobby. A quarter century on, and that hobby brewery is one of the largest and oldest craft brewers in New Zealand.
“I had operated the van for 14 years, and Valerie had been involved for seven years, in the shed at home preparing the food for the next day. We sold the van business in 1971 – a wonderful business, it really was.”
Christchurch’s pub scene in 1971 was very limited compared to today. Every bar was tied to either Lion or DB, “and they only brewed one beer each, their draught. There wasn’t any lager around, not in ‘71.”
John and Val eventually owned several bars, and knew how to build a loyal clientele. “I was a good shouter you see! My way was spending time behind the bar, so when guys like you came in I’d fill your jug, fill your seven, we’d have a wee yarn and toast each other at the bar, and my bars were always full.
“We had a ball. We put travelling bands in. Dave Dobbyn was just one of Th’Dudes then. We had Midnight Oil play at the Hillsborough for a week.”
With the pubs and other properties leased out, John and Valerie had a good income from the rent and so John retired aged 41. “I had four years retirement and I didn’t really enjoy it. I wasn’t disgruntled, just waking up with nowhere to go is not my style. So therefore I said to myself, ‘I’m going to start a little brewery and sell beer to the guys who like to buy flagons and riggers’.”
Fine idea in theory. But in 1991 you could count our independent brewers on one hand. Mac’s in Stoke was the biggest, most successful and nearest, but it was 400km away.
“We started out with converted equipment. The mash tun was a 1200L vessel, double skin, the kettle was the same, and they were old milk vats. All the pubs had 1200L beer tanks in the cellar, and those were filled by beer tankers in the morning. So I got 1200L tanks from pubs and made the fermenters and conditioning tanks out of them.”
John recruited an old West Coast contact as his first brewer. “I knew Mike Holling from Ngahere. He was working in Christchurch and brewed at home. The guys who worked with him loved his beer so I asked him if he’d come and work for me. So Mike Holling was our first brewer, along with my oldest son Craig, in Kilmore Street when we first opened.”
That site was in the former Ward’s brewery, now within the Pomeroy’s complex, and it quickly proved to be too small. “We had so much demand we used to take the beer out of the conditioning tanks when it was just three days old. It should have been in there for at least three weeks. I knew early on we had done this wrong, so we would only sell from Wednesday through to Saturday because we had underestimated how popular it was going to be.”
John points out that there was a massage parlour/brothel above the brewery – “we moved out because of the fucking overheads.” This joke is nearly as old as his brewery itself.
The next step was a move to a bigger site on Ferry Road, with a brand new 7000L brew house. “I had Mercer Stainless Steel make the new equipment. That straight away gave us a lot of litres so we bought into bars and bottle stores and it’s just grown.”
The range of beers has grown from three – lager, draught and dark – to more than 40 produced over the years. Harrington’s won the coveted Brewers Guild’s Grand Champion Brewery award in 2012. John’s son Carl now runs the business. Carl’s sons Mason and Bo, and wife Trudy, all work in the brewery.
Harrington’s took over the former Matson’s brewing plant in Wigram two years ago, and is now in the process of closing the Ferry Road site and relocation all brewing and bottling to the Wigram site. Along the way another brewing site in Ferrymead was used to support Ferry Road – this brewery was KOed by the Canterbury earthquakes.
John Harrington started brewing at a time when beer drinkers were thoroughly loyal to one brand, and has gone on to see supermarket shelves full of New Zealand craft beer. John says the first challenge he faced was getting drinkers to change old habits, and today’s challenge is to get on supermarket shelves.
“You could get punched if you offered someone the wrong beer. I know one guy who’s up in heaven now, he was a big beer drinker but if he was at a party and Canterbury Draught wasn’t there, he wouldn't drink at all. At the beginning a lot of guys would try our beers and say I don’t like that, it’s too malty, or too hoppy even. Staunch beer drinkers like that won’t drink anything else but that’s changing.
“A lot of the competition is price related too. You’ll soon see Panhead 500mL bottles for $5.90 because Lion own them now. The other guys out there selling for $8.90 a bottle, their stock will sit there, and supermarkets are tough to deal with. They want stock turn, and customers want their beer fresh too. Price really does dictate sales today.”