Obituary: Terry McCashin  January 18, 1944 –October 31 , 2017

Younger Kiwi beer lovers may not know it, but they owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Terry McCashin. When the former All Black and his wife Bev opened their Nelson brewery in 1981, they broke the stranglehold of New Zealand’s two major brewers, Lion and DB.

Although he wasn’t a big beer drinker, Terry saw a gap in the market. “It was a straight commercial motive. I’d been a publican for seven years and knew how annoyed the public were.” The two big breweries would buy up pubs and replace whatever beer had been previously served with their own, whether patrons liked it or not. Long-established brands would be deleted with no regard for consumer choice. “They just did whatever was easy for them back in the brewery.”

In his 1994 book The Story of Beer: Beer and brewing – A New Zealand history, author Gordon McLauchlan recalls, “Terry McCashin and his wife were publicans before they went on a visit to Europe. They met up with a man called Jim Pollitt, a Kiwi who had been living in Britain and Europe for a long time and had become a brewer for the famed Danish firm of Carlsberg. They came to New Zealand, managed to get the first brewing license issued in many years, took over the old Rochdale Cider factory in Nelson and set about building a brewery.”

Not content with opening New Zealand’s first new independent brewery for half a century, Terry and Jim’s beers were different from the mainstream beers. Instead of making sugar-laden and caramel-coloured beer like the big brewers, most of the range were brewed according to the famous German beer purity law of 1516. Mac’s Gold (a golden lager), Black Mac (New Zealand’s first new-generation dark lager) and Mac’s Real Ale (a blend of the other two) were made with just four ingredients; malted barley, hops, yeast and water. Kiwis embraced the idea of these so-called “natural” beers and they soon attracted a cult following.

But the two big industry players weren’t impressed at the prospect of an upstart competitor. Terry struggled to get supplies of essential raw materials, most of which were controlled by the duopoly. Finding outlets for the beer was even harder; Lion and DB not only ran the country’s pubs but also owned most of the liquor wholesalers. “We thought that if all else failed we would make a living selling direct from the door, and that basically was what we did for the first three years.”

In a rare interview for The New Zealand Listener magazine in 2013 Terry recalled how the duopoly’s attempts to conspire against him backfired. Eventually the brewery-owned liquor outlets had to give way to consumer pressure, Terry said, “They were getting embarrassed about it. So then they took our beer, but they thought they would fix us by putting the prices up – make it so dear no one would want to buy it. They made it the same price as Steinlager, and all it did was increase sales. It shifted Mac’s into the premium price bracket.”

Associated Bottlers, another big brewery-controlled company, attempted the same tactic, by repeatedly raising the price of the bottles it supplied to Mac’s. Eventually Terry found it was just as cheap to get his own bottles made – and that too turned out to his advantage, because the Mac’s bottle’s distinctive shape and rip top lid helped promote awareness of the brand. “Everything DB and Lion did to slow sales down actually had the reverse effect,” Terry recalled, chortling with delight.

Chris Little top, and Terry McCashin at the Stoke Mac’s brewery in 1981.

Mac’s continued to thrive until 1999, when the McCashin family sold the brand (but not the Nelson brewery) to Lion Breweries. Under Lion’s ownership the Mac’s beers outgrew the Nelson brewery and production was subsequently transferred to Wellington, Christchurch and finally to Auckland, after the Christchurch earthquakes.

In his interview for The Listener Terry spoke of his reluctance to sell Mac’s to Lion but noted the deal enabled him to keep the brewery, because Lion’s interest was only in the brand. “I wanted to ensure the brewery would still be there for the following generation,” Terry said. Accordingly, once the 10-year restraint of trade clause expired, the McCashin family re-started brewing at the Nelson brewery. Since 2010, Terry’s son, Dean, and his wife, Emma, have produced a range of craft beers under the Stoke brand.

With brewing experience at UK brewers Greenalls, Bass and Cain’s, Tracy Banner arrived in New Zealand in 1994 and was employed by McCashin’s to take over brewing from Jim Pollitt and John Duncan a year later. Tracy made changes to the Mac’s beers and developed several new products before transferring to Lion when the Mac’s brand was sold.

Having spent a third of her brewing career at Mac’s, Tracy, now head brewer and part-owner of the Nelson-based Sprig & Fern brewery and pub group, has fond memories of her time working for McCashins: “I remember every couple of months Terry would walk into the brewery with trays of cakes and pastries for the team”.

Often referred to as the “matriarch of Kiwi brewing”, Tracy cites Terry as an inspiration to herself and other pioneering Kiwi craft brewers such as Richard Emerson and Carl Vasta.

My own memories of Terry date back to the mid 90s. In the years that followed, I met him several times at industry events where he was representing Mac’s in an ambassadorial role. I recall a quietly spoken, but highly motivated individual, for whom public speaking seemed to be a necessity rather than a pleasure. When talking about Terry, to me the Kiwi term “staunch” seems entirely appropriate.

In The Listener interview Terry said he took great pleasure from the remarkable proliferation of craft beer labels since he made his lonely stand. His importance to the burgeoning growth of the New Zealand brewing industry and the diversity of beers we drink today should not be underestimated.

Cheers Terry.