Before Growlers there were Riggers. Before Riggers there were Flagons, and leading the take-away craft beer evolution in Christchurch, New Zealand, was Harrington’s Breweries. Pioneering the region’s packaged craft beer since 1991, Harrington’s was recently applauded with the 2012 Brewery of the Year title awarded by the Brewers Guild of New Zealand.
Harrington’s Breweries was established in 1991 by John Harrington after he reitred from 15 years of running hotels and, before that, a stint operating an early rendition of the now popular ‘food truck’ selling whitebait, savaloies and smallgoods to mining towns across the west coast of the South Island. Big John’s vision was simple and compelling, “to brew a well-priced good beer for the people”.
Starting out in Kilmore Street, close to the Christchurch central business district, Harrington’s 1,200 litre brew house initially brewed three beers – a lager, a draught and a dark beer – selling out their weekly production within a day of release. Quickly scaling up to a 2,500 litre brew house on the same premise, Harrington’s was soon regularly selling out or beer within two days of releasing new batches.
John Harrington had tapped into an unmet need for locally brewed, locally owned, fresh craft beer that has seen his business grow over 21 years to now include a hefty range of 25 beers, 4 ciders, Ready-To-Drink Spirits and wine. With six of Harrington’s own bottle stores across Christchurch, in addition to the brewery bottle shop, the locals have the luxury of dropping into one after work to fill up a ‘Rigger’ (2 litre PET bottle), ‘Growler’ or ‘Flagons’ (if you still have one of these prized 2.25 litre glass containers) with brewery fresh beer. Harrington’s own brewery truck delivers fresh beer, straight from their tanks, to these bottle shops which can then be dispensed fresh to drinkers in take-away and refillable containers.
Harrington’s 2,500 litre brew house at Ferrymead was a victim of the devastating earthquakes in 2011, one of which caught head brewer Mark White by surprise whilst filtering beer in the mainstay 7,000 litre brewery on Ferry Road in Woolston. In darkness, fast thinking Mark moved the beer to the conditioning room and saved the beer after first saving himself. After the quake, insurers wanted to shut the brewery for months but John’s son Carl Harrington and the brewery team managed to get things up and running within three weeks of the devastation, shoring up tanks that had sunk into foundations and fixing cracked floors.
I was lucky enough to visit Carl, Mark White and brewer Matt the same day he was hosting Carl Vasta and Blaire of Tuatara Brewing from Reikorangi on the North Island’s Kapiti Coast for lunch. Carl, Mark and Matt were proud of recent accolades and excited to announce they had just signed-off on plans for a new brewery site in Wigram, which will have separate rooms for the brewery, conditioning room, keg room, bottling and a brand new canning line. They hope to have the new brewery up and running in a years’ time, ready for Christmas 2013. My Harrington’s tour with Mark and Carl confirmed the clear need for more room to move. They have been utilising every inch of the existing space for a tank or another piece of brewing, bottling or malting equipment.
In addition to brewing a vast range of their own beers, ciders, RTDs, as well as now bottling wine, Harrington’s is also lending a helping hand to a number of the more recent entrants into the Christchurch craft brewing scene by providing contract bottling services. Their clients include Three Boys, Cassel’s, and the Twisted Hop. These new players are affectionately referred to as the “cyber brewers” by Mark, who still does his own brewing calculations by hand. He marvels at how much has changed in his 21 years at Harrington’s. Mark learned to do everything on the job and qualified as a brewer by studying and working simultaneously. There was no Beer Smith computer program when Mark was pioneering the recipes that have become a mainstay of craft drinker’s repertoire in Christchurch and beyond.
Harrington’s is now HACCP certified and has its own water treatment facility (an essential piece of capital following the earthquakes) plus milling and boiler facilities. For Mark this unfortunately means for no sours or barrel aged beers, as much as he would love to try his hand at these newly emerging beer styles in NZ.
Harrington’s use predominantly New Zealand hops when they can get them. They pointed out that over 90 per cent are exported now, with the United States a big customer. Therefore, stocks can often run out in February, two months prior to harvest. Gladfield Malt from Dunsandel featured in their mill house and a full yeast propagation programme made up of 1 month, 6 months and 1 year old batches, along with their own treated water, helps Harrington’s produce consistently high quality craft beer.
At lunch Carl of Harrington’s and Carl of Tuatara shared stories from the past, recalling how selling craft beer in New Zealand has not always been easy. The 1990s was particularly tough, drinkers would turn their nose up at a wheat beer and demand that it should be a clear as opposed to cloudy.
Times have changed and Carl Harrington noted the biggest challenge for the industry today in his mind is keeping up the momentum. He mentioned how the sale of Emerson’s to Lion was at first a big surprise but then not really a surprise when he thought more about it, given Richard Emerson held only a 5 per cent stake in his own brewery and most of the shareholders were in their 70s.
It was a real pleasure to spend a couple of hours in the company of Carl, Mark and Matt from Harrington’s and to meet Carl and Blaire from Tuatara in the midst of a busy day at the brewery. It is great to see Carl and the family so firmly in control of their own destiny at Harrington’s. Carl explained that his Mum still does the books and Dad still turns up every day at 8am for work at age 71. He cooks the toasties and heats up the pies for staff tea breaks. The family atmosphere was unmistakable, enhanced by the fact Carl was looking after his newest little Harrington while his Mum ran some errands. The two Carls joked how they had also done a “son swap” with each of their now adult sons having worked a stint in each other’s breweries for a time.
As I left, Carl and Blaire from Tuatara were off to visit Three Boys, Twisted Hop, Cassel’s and Wigram Breweries before heading to Pommeroys Tavern where they were to be the stars of a tap-takeover that night. The collaborative giving and encouraging nature of the brewers to each other was very clearly and genuinely evident.
A gracious host and always the innovator, Carl Harrington gifted me a possible new trend in the fill-your-own craft beer evolution – the 3 litre swing top stubbie. Noting that it’s hard to find a fridge big enough to hold them, as well as weighing 4 kilograms when filled, I am not sure the Rigger or Growler is under threat yet. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to taking it filled with home brew to my next Home Brewers Club meeting and I will equally enjoy telling the story of where it came from and how I look forward to seeing what comes out next from the innovation factory that is Harrington’s Breweries.
On my way out I picked up the Harrington’s Brewer’s Reserve Range of beers to enjoy at home. These four beers all have higher alcohol than the rest of the Harrington’s range. The ‘Big John’ Reserve, with its dark malt with a hint of bourbon, is a well-deserved icon in the range and the newly crowned Gold Medal winning ‘Baltic-Ler’ Baltic Porter brewed with a lager yeast was a fantastic complement to barbeque lamb, beef and sausages, which had no problem standing up to big flavours of the food.