Terry McCashin: The duopoly buster

Pinning down the late Terry McCashin was no easy task.

When I started researching my first book, Beer Nation – The Art and Heart of Kiwi Beer, the first person pencilled in for an interview was Terry McCashin, who died suddenly yesterday, aged 73. The framework for the book pivoted on the year 1981 when Terry and his wife Bev set up Mac’s in Stoke, Nelson.

At that point in our beery history we’d lived under a true duopoly of Lion and DB for five years; and in essence it had been longer as independent breweries had been growing weak and unable to resist the giants for 30 years post-war.

I wanted Terry’s first-hand experience of those days, to document a story that hadn’t been told in full.

I’d tried many ways to contact Terry until I found a willing and eager intermediary in his daughter-in-law Emma, who admitted her father-in-law was disinclined to talk to media but she’d do her best to twist his arm.

Emma appreciated the value of getting the family story written, even it meant entrusting it to an enthusiastic but rookie beer writer. It was somewhere on the road between Blenheim, where I’d met the gently irascible Roger Pink, and Nelson when Emma rang to say Terry had agreed to meet me and gave me his number. I was on a road trip around the South Island: from Nelson, and a meeting with Emma and Dean McCashin, to Greymouth to see the characters at Monteith’s, to Christchurch to see Harrington’s, down to Washdyke (DB) and on to Dunedin for Richard Emerson.

Christchurch was just a few months into its new, fractured life as city recovering from the deadly 2011 earthquake. The roads were a broken mess of crumbled asphalt, orange cones and dust. The August sun shone brightly, only just countering the bite in the wind.

I met Terry at the just-opened Cassels & Sons brewery in Woolston. I’d done my research; I knew he’d been an All Blacks hooker back in the 1960s. He never played a test match but sat on the bench in the days when reserves only came on for injuries. I was expecting a big, tough bugger. So I surprised at his lean, wiry frame.

But it would be wrong to measure inner resolve by physical appearance. Especially with Terry McCashin.

He’d run a pub in the King Country in the 1970s which he described as having a Once Were Warriors feel to it. Fights? There were a few. “The fact that I played in the front row with the ABs gave me some mana and stopped me having trouble with the locals . . . a scrap would start and I would always manage to quell it. Then again, I was always sober and they were always full, so I had some advantage,” Terry told me.

In 1964, according to the All Blacks official website, Terry toured Australia with the New Zealand Under-23 team, playing in three matches. He moved to Wellington in 1965, working the garbage trucks as he battled for two years to make the Wellington A team. He did that in 1967, the year he played the first of his four All Blacks trials. He did well enough to be picked as a backup hooker to Bruce McLeod on a tour to Australia in 1968. McCashin played seven tour matches alongside the likes of Colin Meads, Brian Lochore, Ian Kirkpatrick, Fergie McCormick … he was part of a team that included several legends of the game. But sat on the bench in the tests, a position he held against France and again in 1969 for the two tests against Wales. He ended up playing 35 matches for Wellington but was overlooked for the All Blacks in 1970, and although he was never again a contender for the black jersey, he continued to play; there was a match against the touring Wallabies, and in 1977 he played three matches for Marlborough.

Terry’s motivation to get into brewing came from, first, the struggle he  and Bev went through to buy a pub. Every time they looked at buying one, either DB or Lion would swoop in and offer top dollar as they competed in an arms race to acquire the most hotels in order to control the distribution channels for their products.

Second, once he finally bought his own hotel he came to understand the mood of drinkers increasingly dissatisfied with the behaviour of the two giant breweries. “In the old days they put beer in and people drank it because there wasn’t much choice. I said to Bev, ‘These guys really dislike the two breweries … If somebody built another brewery you’d get a lot of sympathy because there’s so much anti feeling to the two big breweries.’”

Realising he could be that somebody, McCashin still stumbled into the business. He’d gone to Derby, England, to research rabbit farming but discovered a culture of microbreweries and was besotted and inspired by what he saw. He thought, “Struth, this would be easy to build,” and came back with the idea of a brewery on the farm.

“I started buying up bits and pieces of plant, some of which I bought off Lion and DB – they thought they were just selling them to a farmer in Picton. At one stage I bought three 1200-litre tanks from Auckland. The guys who put them on the truck filled them up with beer and delivered it to their mates on the way down. DB sold me the tanks but lost 3600 litres of beer for their trouble.” He was also buying up old dairy equipment, much of it way bigger than he needed for his microbrewery idea. “There were a lot of dairy factories closing up and it was as easy to buy a 20,000-litre tank as to buy a 2000-litre tank.”

For a time, however, the idea of the farm brewery remained just an idea, as McCashin calculated that he would have to sell off bits of the property to fund the brewery, and that would leave the farm undercapitalised. But as one door closed, another opened, then another. A series of very rapidly unfolding events took Terry and Bev from Picton to Nelson and into a brewing future.

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

First, the Rochdale Cider factory in Stoke, outside Nelson, went on the market. One Monday, the McCashins drove over to take a look. It dawned on them they could sell the farm to fund the move to Nelson, where there would be a bigger market for a small brewery. As they drove back home they decided to buy the cider factory. “That same day,” Terry recalls, “a real estate agent was selling a neighbour’s house about 200 metres along from the farm, and the owner had left keys with Bev for the agent to pick up and drop off. When the agent came back with the keys after showing the house, Bev asked him: ‘What did they think of the house over there?’

“‘Not interested.’

“‘Do you think they’d be interested in this one?’

“‘They might.’

“That was the Monday and on the Thursday we had a signed contract for the farm sale.” The following day, Terry drove to Christchurch, where the owners of the cider factory lived, to make an offer. It was lucky he didn’t wait until after the weekend. “I was still in his office when the phone rang and the bloke said, ‘Oh no, sorry, you’re too late – it’s all done.’ Turns out it was three guys in Nelson who had just got their money together to buy the factory.”

As Terry remembered it, the duopoly giants tried everything in their power to make life difficult for him.

First up, he couldn’t get malt. Back then, the only malt supplier was Canterbury Malt, which was jointly owned by Lion and DB. They were also the major shareholders in ABC bottling and they put pressure on his bottle supply.

The irony is that one of Mac’s big breaks came courtesy of a three-month strike at Lion Breweries, with Auckland literally running out of beer. A desperate wholesaler contacted McCashin. “He said, ‘How much beer you got down there, McCashin? Send up everything.’”

Other factors in Mac’s success included, according to McCashin, “the fact it was all natural at a time when people were starting to think about health, that we were an underdog against the big two breweries, and the number of Brits immigrating to New Zealand who wanted a different-tasting beer”.

McCashin might have been inspired by an anti-establishment rebelliousness, but he was in the right place at the right time to turn that rebellion into gold. Not everyone would have had the guts and determination to take on the two New Zealand giants but thank god he did.

Caption: Terry McCashin and prime minister Rob Muldoon share a drink at the official opening of Mac’s in 1981. Photo: McCashin Family