Lion NZ is celebrating 100 years in business and the irony is: the reasons behind Lion’s creation are as relevant today as they were a century ago.

Admittedly, Lion are a little slow out of the blocks for their centenary celebrations, as the formation of New Zealand Breweries (Lion’s precursor) happened in 1923, but they’ve been making up for it with in-house events around the country through the start of the year.

They’ve even brewed a special Lion Pale Ale, produced by the team at Emerson’s, which is not publicly available but might be found if you’re in the right place at the right time, or know the right people!

Lion centenary

New Zealand Breweries was created in 1923, driven by the strong temperance movement that existed at the time.

It was an era when New Zealand came perilously close to prohibition, a referendum in 1919 initially delivering a majority for prohibition before votes from soldiers still based overseas in the wake of World War 1 swung the tally the other way and New Zealand avoided the disaster that was prohibition in America.

Subsequent votes for prohibition were split by the government adding a third option “government control” which did enough to split the temperance vote, assuring it never gained a majority.

But there was still the capability for local voters create “dry” electorates and there were plenty of these in the early 20th century, particularly in the deep south.

The impact of local prohibition was a huge concern for Speight’s which was then the biggest brewery in New Zealand, with a nationwide distribution via ship from Dunedin to Whanganui.

Charles Speight, the son of co-founder James Speight, was instrumental in getting a group of 10 breweries together to form New Zealand Breweries.

The rationale behind bringing 10 breweries together — from Auckland, Gisborne, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin — had many layers to it.

The 10 breweries were: Captain Cook, Lion (more on these two in a moment) in Auckland; Barry’s in Gisborne, Staples in Wellington, Crown, Mannings and Ward’s in Christchurch, Speight’s, McGavin’s and Strachan’s in Dunedin.

What they did was form a separate company that took control of the brewing operations of the 10 members. This was to separate out brewing from hotel ownership, as back then virtually every hotel was owned by a brewery and the temperance movement had done a good job highlighting the evils of this kind of vertical integration, whereby brewers controlled the production, distribution and sale of beer.

So by splitting off the brewing from the pub ownership, they were able to put a PR spin on what they were doing: “Look! Separate entities.”

Bringing 10 powerful breweries together formed a great lobby group. In those days, the battle for hearts and minds of politicians was key in determining how (and whether) alcohol would be sold. Parliament consisted of “wets” and “drys” — pro- and anti-alcohol lawmakers and influencing them was critical.

So was marketing, in terms of newspaper advertisements and billboards, and Speight’s was a big spending in this area. But having nine others to share the fiscal burden of lobbying was important.

Finally, what the Big 10 did was set list New Zealand Breweries on the stockmarket — giving ordinary New Zealanders the chance to invest very little to get a stake in the nation’s brewing future. This was another PR exercise, as well as a capital-raising exercise — with the brewers understanding that by having “mum and dad” investors on board they also had a people’s army who would vote for continuance of alcohol sale and lobby friends and family to boot.

And this is why all that’s old is new again. The selling of shares to recruit supporters is no different to modern crowd funding. Forming a collective to battle through tough times is exactly what’s being touted for craft breweries today to survive these tough economic times.

And the threat of temperance is as real today as it was a century ago — not through voting and political lobbying, but through individuals choosing to drink less, switching to zeroes, taking a healthier approach to alcohol.


In Auckland, the Richard Seccombe’s Great Northern Brewery produced a “Lion” beer — with the upright Lion logo taken from Seccombe’s family crest. In 1915, because the brand was so important, the brewery became known as Lion. It was located on Khyber Pass Road in Newmarket.

Literally just down the road was the Captain Cook brewery. In 1967, New Zealand Breweries, which had already closed a number of the founding breweries, decided to merge the two Auckland production sites. They opted to move operations to the Captain Cook but to use the name Lion.

For another 50 years the Lion Brewery operated out of the site in Newmarket, before moving to The Pride in East Tamaki.

Given the economic force of Lion beers in the 1970s New Zealand Breweries eventually changed their name to Lion in 1977.

Steinlager Puts Lion on Global Stage

Esteemed beer writer Pat Lawlor hailed Steinlager as “one of the few gifts of this Atomic age” when it was released in the late 1950s after Finance Minister Arnold Nordmeyer presented his 1958 Black Budget. He hiked taxes on imported beer and challenged New Zealand brewers to come up with their own versions of European lager.

Steinlager and DB Export were the two creations from the respective breweries, although Steinlager was originally Steinecker — having to change the name in the face of lawsuit from Heineken.

In 1986 Steinlager went back to Europe and beat 800 beers to be named the best beer in the world at the brewing industry awards at Burton-on-Trent in England. The victory was so unexpected that even managing director Doug Myers was caught off-guard. “I didn’t even know we’d entered it,” he admitted, “and when the Auckland Star sent a photographer around to take a photo I didn’t have any in my office – we had to go out and buy some.”

The award got Myers thinking about New Zealand and its place in the world. He saw Steinlager as aspirational, representative of what New Zealanders could achieve on the world stage.

“I wanted to give New Zealanders what I felt they lacked, and still do to some degree, which was the confidence to look offshore and grab the opportunities. We were closed-minded and we were that way because we didn’t know any better.

“So I thought we’d sponsor yachting and rugby, which were the two sports in which New Zealanders were demonstrably good. The Rugby World Cup in 1987 came along and we paid $4m to sponsor it – at the time you couldn’t justify spending that sort of money on an amateur event but I did it anyway.”

Lion centenary

With the brand intertwined with All Blacks and sailing success it became a flagship beer for Lion.

Doug Myers — action man

Another thing that came out of the NZ Breweries’ formation that a profound impact on where Lion is today, is the fact it was a publicly listed company.

The public listing, allowed Doug Myers in 1981 to launch what is still regarded as one of the most audacious takeover bids in history, picking off 20% of the business at $1.90 a share, spending $27m of which $24m was borrowed against the future sale of his family business, NZ Wines & Spirits. It’s complicated story, too long to share here, but put it this way: he spent money he didn’t have, as he was waiting for a court to make an arbitration on the price of NZ Wines & Spirits. But it was all about self-belief and courage/madness.

Once Myers wrestled control of Lion he then went raiding across the Tasman. When fraudster Alan Bond went from riches to rags Myers was able to buy Carlton & United, Swan and Castlemaie Perkins off the disgraced former billionaire, creating a massive trans-Tasman company.

And it was Myers, when he decided to exit the business, who sold his shares to Kirin at $5.40 a pop, netting him around half a billion dollars.

Myers was a man of action but the decision he made was not to take action. He wanted to close Speights in the 1980s calling it “feral” …

SPEIGHT’s — All About Mates

When DB opened its Washdyke brewery in 1976 they stitched up deals to supply licensing trusts in the South Island. By then, DB also controlled about half the hotels in the South Island, having gone on a buying mission.

When beer started flowing from Washdyke, Speight’s manager, Jack Langford, was reported as saying: “Don’t panic!” In the long run he was vindicated; but at the time it almost marked the beginning of the end for Speight’s, for DB’s incursion coincided with Doug Myers’ takeover of Lion, and he was determined to rationalise the business, quickly closing a number of breweries. “We just shut breweries – it was a bit of a draconian way,” he admitted, adding that Speight’s was in danger of going on the scrap heap as well “because it was a bit feral. But we left it open, more for PR purposes . . . it turned out to be quite a good decision!”

Speight’s continued to suffer redundancies and cutbacks. Ironically, however, in hitting an economic wall, it made bold moves to distance itself a little from the parent company and re-forge its own identity. The revival dawned with an in-house competition to create a slogan that would inspire both the staff and the drinkers. The winner was Jackie Pepperkoon, whose slogan, “Follow the Stars”, was used for a while until someone had a brainwave and used second-placed Malcolm Campbell’s “Pride of the South” – a slogan that still appears on the label 30 years later.

A slogan however, was not enough, and times remained so tough that the brewery took the highly unpopular measure of closing the bar on the pump floor! Staff relations may not have been good at that point, but public relations were about to improve. Despite the Speight’s label on cans and bottles, the brewery itself had been known as the Dunedin branch of Lion Breweries. When it reclaimed its proud name and once again became Speight’s Brewery, sales picked up, prompting Myers to empower all his regional breweries to follow the same path. This resulted in the rebirth of regional brands such as Ward’s (repackaged as Canterbury Draught) and Waikato Draught.

Speight’s also ditched other Lion practices, such as using town water, returning instead to its famous well water. There were other tricks, too: sponsorship of a booming Otago rugby team, the brewery tours, and fuelling a student army that took a newly acquired love of Speight’s back to the North Island. And the real secret of its success the Southern Man advertising campaign.

Within months of Otago winning that NPC rugby title, beer advertising was allowed on television for the first time and Speight’s hit the jackpot almost straight away with the first of a series of ads featuring the late Frank Whitten, who would go on to find fame on Outrageous Fortune. It started, and probably didn’t get better than, the Perfect Girl ad. In a post-sharemarket crash environment the message was juxtaposing money and flashier, materialistic things – the pretty girl, the corporate box – against what really matters: a couple of guys having a beer, friendship, mates, something tangible and solid, and it struck a chord with people.

“That was the core of Speight’s – stable, honest, a good bugger. Not larrikin, not party, not taking the piss, just honest New Zealand values that we all align to,” said former marketing manager Danny Phillips.

As the Speight’s story grew, particularly in Auckland, Lion realised it had a winner and seized it as a national brand.

Today, it’s still that, but with a different tone: Speight’s Summit Ultra is easily New Zealand’s biggest brand.

Mac’s, Emerson’s and Panhead

This quick romp through history finishes with a rounding back of sorts. New Zealand Breweries started with 10 breweries coming together to weather an economic, political and social storm.

These days, Lion might be owned by Kirin, but it’s still a conglomerate of brands: Steinlager, Lion, Speight’s, Waikato Draught, Mac’s, Panhead, Emerson’s, and Little Creatures.