Michael Donaldson talks to Carl Harrington about the family owned brewery’s 25th birthday
In a testament to family ties, on any given day at Harrington’s brewery you will find three generations of the family on the brewery floor.
Founder John Harrington is almost 75 but barely a day goes by when he’s not in the brewery he created he 25 years ago.
His son Carl is the current face of the business and Carl’s sons Mason and Quinn are on the staff. John’s wife Val still looks after some paperwork, while Carl’s wife Trudy is also involved in the day to- day operations.
In many ways it’s not a hell of a lot different to what it was 25 years ago when John, who learned business the hard way by selling fish and saveloys out of the back of a truck on the West Coast, launched his operation.
John and Val had been long-time, and successful, publicans in Christchurch through the 70s and early 80s and at 46, John thought he’d done enough to take early retirement. Their pubs were bringing in decent money without needing any direct involvement, but eventually the thought of getting out of bed each day with nothing in front of him, drove John crazy.
He’d always joked with mates that he would start a brewery and, as the legend goes, he took some inspiration from Gisborne’s Sunshine Brewery – the parents of Sunshine’s former co-owner Geoff Logan had moved back to Christchurch and played music at the Hillsborough Tavern owned by John and Val.
Encouraged by what Sunshine had done, John took the plunge and set up the first Harrington’s Brewery on the site of the old Ward’s Brewery on Kilmore St.
As he described it, the early beers were a draught, a lager and a dark – until the advent of the somewhat infamous 7.2 percent Ngahere Gold – a tribute to John’s old home town with the label in the blue and gold colours of the Ngahere rugby league team. There was also Big John Special Reserve – another big beer which these days is Scotch ale aged in bourbon barrels.
From the humble beginnings, Harrington’s grew into something of a Christchurch institution. At the height of their dominion they had two breweries – one in Ferry Rd and another in Ferrymead – two bar-restaurants, nine bottle shops and their own warehouse.
But life has never been quite the same following the deadly February 22, 2011, earthquake. The Ferrymead brewery was destroyed, some of the bottle stores were lost and the Ferry Rd brewery was severely damaged, with huge cracks opening in the floors.
A couple of years ago, Harrington’s bought the old Matson’s brewery in Wigram – the start of a strategy to consolidate the business.
Equipment salvaged from Ferrymead has been set up in Wigram and next month the family plan to close the Ferry Rd brewery and put all their operations under one, new, roof.
On top of that they’ve sold the bars and restaurants and are in the process of selling off five of the six remaining bottle stores, keeping just one associated with the new brewery.
“For our 25th birthday we’ve given ourselves a consolidation,” says Carl Harrington.
Surviving and flourishing for 25 years, he says, has been “a great achievement for the family – it hasn’t been bloody easy.”
And it’s been tougher since the earthquakes, not just because of the loss of production but due to other changes in the liquor landscape.
Harrington said running so many ancillary operations had detracted from the family’s core business of making beer – bottle shops diverted attention and resources. And besides, the shops were a so starting to sell more RTDs and spirits which also detracted from the brewery’s desire to sell more beer.
“The bottle stores have changed – they’re not our core business anymore.
“What we’re doing at the moment is a good smart move for Harrington’s,” Carl said. “Not blowing our trumpet, we’ve all worked bloody hard but it will be good to look at things a lot differently.
“It’s all about coming back to what we enjoy doing and what we believe we’re good at and want to get a lot better at, which is brewing, bottling and canning beer.
“I also think it’s important these days to have a face around the brand and it’s been hard to juggle all that other stuff and do all the things you want to do with your beer.
“We want to get back to our roots to be honest. We’re going to back to having a bit of fun and doing a few seasonals.”
Divesting their interests in bottle stores and bars has been hard, Harrington said, because of the connection and loyalty to staff.
“It’s not something we like doing. We have a lot of staff and a lot of people who have been with us a long time but it’s one of those things we have to go through. And there’s a lot of it going on in businesses around Christchurch.”
The other area Harrington’s has been consolidating is around the sheer volume of products. A visit to a Harrington’s-owned bottle store was once an eyeboggling experience for the sheer array of products.
“Yeah, we’ve learned over the years that having a huge amount of SKUs (stock-keeping units) is not the easiest thing to manage – I think a couple of years ago we removed about 100 products out of our line.”
The new brewery, when it’s up and running, will feature a hi-tech bottling line from Italy as well as a canning machine. Production capacity will be around 60,000 litres a week, making it a big player, especially in the Christchurch market.
To celebrate 25 years the brewery is doing a “deluxe” version of its flagship Rogue Hop Pilsner.
No matter how things change, however, one thing won’t change: Harrington’s will remain very much a family-owned and operated business.
“Dad’s still loving it – he’s here every day, mum still helps on the pay and I’ve got my two boys Mason and Quinn working in the business. Having three generations walking round the place is a pretty good feeling.”