Good Beer Hunting

Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking with Jos Ruffell of Garage Project

Wellington, New Zealand is a special beer city—the kind that’s fizzing with an energy you can’t quite put your finger on, because its source is so dynamic. It’s a city that demands several days’ of your attention, making sure you’ve had more than your fill of its multi-layered food and drink culture before you head back to wherever you call home.

Jos Ruffell—along with brothers Pete and Ian Gillespie—established Garage Project in a former gas station on Wellington’s Aro Street back in 2011. Their initial recipes were crafted on a tiny, 50-liter SabCo Brew Magic system. And they eschewed having a core lineup, instead focusing on an increasingly diverse and eclectic series of brews that included myriad styles common and esoteric. The brewery grew rapidly until its Aro St. home was full, and its founders are currently exploring new avenues to meet demand.

The result of this search is a partnership with the Brewing Studio, a contract brewing operation in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay region. It’s a state of the art, German-designed-and-built production facility. Garage Project is one of several New Zealand breweries that will use the space to expand capacity, putting people on the ground there to ensure that quality expectations are met as some of its best selling beers gradually become the core lineup they never planned to have.

The Brewing Studio frees up time and space at Garage Project’s original space, too, allowing it to go back to its roots of experimentation and innovation—including Wild Workshop, their new barrel aging and wild fermentation project. And since the brewery’s finally meeting demand in New Zealand, it can continue to grow its export business. Already distributing to Australia, Sweden, Norway, and three states—California, Nevada, and Illinois—in the U.S., Garage Project’s latest move could see that list expanding soon. 

GBH sat down with Ruffell to talk about its partnership with Brewing Studio, its Wild Workshop beers, and the challenges facing a modern, New Zealand brewery.

How has the popularity of New Zealand hops helped develop New Zealand’s beer scene?

We’re fortunate to have that resource right on our back doorstep. However, I don’t think New Zealand breweries have yet created a signature style of beer from that resource. Maybe New Zealand Pilsner is heading that direction, but I don’t know that we have the combination of yeast and hops right, or whether that hop even exists.

I think it’s probably the same in the UK or the U.S.—it’s like ice to Eskimos. People always want to have something different, so if you look around the New Zealand breweries, I would wager that a significant number them will spend more money on U.S. hops than they do on New Zealand hops. In the same way there are U.S. and UK breweries that would spend as much on New Zealand hops, if they can get them, as they currently do on their own domestic hops.

You want to bring in interesting yeast from White Labs or Wyeast? You’ve got to pay a premium to bring it over. The per-kilogram price we pay for American hop is substantially more than what you would pay anywhere else in the world.
— Jos Ruffell

Do you think the popularity of New Zealand hops globally is related to the growth of a brewery like Garage Project?

No, I don’t. I think we’ve always wanted to be known as a brewery that’s doing interesting and progressive things that’s based in New Zealand, not necessarily a New Zealand brewery that’s making New Zealand beer. If you look at our most popular beers, you’ve got a couple like Pernicious Weed and Hapi Daze that are 100% New Zealand-hopped. However, for the most part, our beers are all American hopped, sometimes loaded with adjuncts and have other unusual things going on.

We’re very active on the New Zealand hop scene, though, and for the last few years, we’ve been a go-to R&D brewer for the hop-breeding program here. We do trial hop beers, up to 24 each year, based on selections of which there are often only 2-3 kilograms of material in the world.

How did that relationship with New Zealand hop growers come about?

We won the specialty beer trophy at the brewers’ guild awards in 2013. Part of the prize was a chance for us to come visit the breeding program, and there were a lot of hops they were saying they just couldn’t get brewed with. At that point, they were still pretty focused on the larger companies like the Lions and Heinekens of this world. We just put our hands up and asked if we could get involved. That led to things like our hop trial series of beers, which is a really fun project.

What’s the feeling locally with regards to Tuatara selling to DB Breweries (a subsidiary of Heineken Asia Pacific) and Panhead Custom Ales selling to Lion (a subsidiary of Japan’s Kirin Brewery)?

There were different reactions from different breweries. For Panhead, it was a surprise and a bit of shock to me because it was a brewery that was only in existence for less than three years.

They still seem to be pretty well respected within the Industry.

I think it’s hard to tell how importantly people view independence and choice here at the moment. We at Garage Project think it is really important. Over here, this is a conversation that’s only really just starting to play out and I guess time will show how people’s opinion of these breweries will change. Customers will vote with their wallets.

We’ve gone through this unique moment in the last five years of brewing history. You just need to look at a graph to see the sea change that’s happened in market share and brewing increase. I think the next five years are going to be pretty turbulent as well. New Zealand definitely has a few more acquisitions ahead of it, as does Australia.

New Zealand is a relatively remote country with a very small population. What are the challenges involved when trying to develop a brewery?

One of the persistent challenges is the landscape of the tied tap environment. It’s gotten better, but when we started, Lion and DB had venues that were tied outright to their brands. You just walked in and every single bottle in the fridge, every single line, everything was just locked. These days, they’ve eased that and opened up some guest taps. I think they got to the point where they were running those 100% or nothing deals and they had a few too many people saying they’ll take nothing.

This has, unfortunately, led to a situation where we have small breweries buying up taps, too. This makes it tough when you walk in bar, which extensively looks like its a free house, but 60% of the taps will actually be locked up to certain breweries.

The other big challenge is the cost of importing the ingredients we want to use in our beers. German and British malts have to come from the other side of the world. You want to bring in interesting yeast from White Labs or Wyeast? You’ve got to pay a premium to bring it over. The per-kilogram price we pay for American hop is substantially more than what you would pay anywhere else in the world.

By not signing up for tens of millions of dollars worth of debt, you remove a risk that, for some breweries, can be a step too far sometimes, like what happened with Speakeasy in San Francisco. With that amount of debt, you have huge pressure to perform immediately, and if things don’t work out, then suddenly you’re in a difficult position.
— Jos Ruffell

How has New Zealand beer culture changed over the last 10 years? What’s different now?

Ten years ago, there was craft beer, but it was very traditional and [made] tightly to style. There were a few seasonals and the odd special release, there were beer events and beer festivals. I just wouldn’t say there was necessarily the energy of new releases and beer being brewed in a way that was pushing boundaries like we’re seeing now. Which we probably played a decent part in creating!

What triggered the change that led to the diverse brewing culture I’ve experienced here?

U.S. influence. [laughs] People going out, trying things, bringing ideas back, new breweries setting up. People like Kelly [Ryan, head brewer at Wellington’s Fork & Brewer] and other New Zealand brewers have spent time overseas and come back with a lot of experience and new perspectives. This then all linked in to to the growth of sales opportunities and new bar opportunities. A whole new beer ecosystem has come along, and at a rate that’s lot faster than people can think. It is amazing how quickly things have changed, but I still think we have a long way to go.

It’s very much the same in the UK. Our beer scene is almost unrecognizable compared to how it was five years ago, yet it still feels pretty young when compared to the U.S.

I went to London as a beer drinker for the first time in 2009 and I was a little bit naive. I was just expecting to walk into any pub and have great cask ales and I walked into the first few and it was just wall-to-wall Foster’s and Stella Artois. I was pretty shocked, but then I found my way to The Rake and Utobeer, and loaded up with bottles. I took a bottle of [8 Wired Brewing’s] Hopwired to Evin [O’Riordain] at The Kernel when he was still on his original 500L system.

I experienced Meantime and The Kernel, but there’s not much else I remember encountering back then. Fast-forward to going back three years later and it was just mind blowing how the scene had exploded. I think Logan [Plant, founder of Beavertown] says it best in a pretty casual way: London is an ale town. It has always been an ale town. It’s a beer-drinking town.

It feels like Wellington is very much at the center of New Zealand’s craft beer culture. Why do you think it happened here and not another big city such as Auckland or Christchurch?

Wellington is the seat of government, so there’s a lot of government workers here. You’ve also got a lot of corporate headquarters here based around that. As a consequence, you have a lot of young professionals living in Wellington. People basically graduate from college and then when they go down the professional path, their first post university job is in Wellington. The city has a young population compacted into a small area as the city is compressed by the hills and harbor. As such, all the bars are basically walking distance. When I moved here, I went about four years without owning a car. I just didn’t need it. 

In Wellington, we have this amazing collection of cafes, restaurants, and bars. We also have a really great live music and arts culture here including things like the Fringe Festival and the New Zealand Arts Festival. Our film industry is here too, and this combination has created a city where people are up for trying new things and having a good time. Auckland has world-class restaurants now, and it has some phenomenal bars, but it’s just kind of spread out, so that it makes harder for people to get around. They’re coming along very quickly but Wellington is really the hub and the heart of beer in New Zealand.

I think increasingly that, if you are going to play in a meaningful way in another country, you need to have boots on the ground and plant roots.
— Jos Ruffell

Tell me about your involvement with B Studio

We’ve always tried to grow and we’ve always tried to do things in a different way. When we were setting up, we looked at a number of things, and we decided to get a tiny system that would make us no money but that would allow us to start in a way that was really unique. So we got a little 50L SabCo system in. Part of the thinking was that breweries don’t set themselves up in a way where they can try lots of new ideas. They always kind of get settled on a core range, so we didn’t want to start with a core range. We also sort of had this philosophy that you don’t learn new things unless you’re doing new beers.

We’ve grown with a philosophy that we always want to do new ideas and new beers. Last year, I think we did 43 new beers. We’ve resisted having a core range, although we now have beers that we try and make semi-available all the time, such as Hapi Daze and Pernicious Weed, but sometimes we struggle with that. We got to a point about two years ago where we needed to make the decision about where we were going to get to the point of not having production capacity at our Aro Street brewery, and whether we should build a production brewery of our own.

So we did The Wild Workshop. This is our distraction, our diversion. We’re really excited with the idea of doing a mixed fermentation site, actually bringing in native New Zealand yeast and trying to find a wild terroir in New Zealand beer. I think if we got to the point of making 10% of the beer in the Wild Workshop as we do at Aro Street, we would be very happy here. This is going to be tiny, but it’s more of scratching our creative itch. 

Alongside that we had a couple of guys approach us looking for advice. They own three large wineries in New Zealand. They run what are basically closed-door wine making facilities, so they don’t have their own brands. Some of the top wineries in New Zealand use them as overflow capacity, drop off their grapes, put people in there, have very specific instructions about how the wine should be made and treated.

These are insanely high-quality facilities and they wanted to do the same for beer. It sounded interesting to us. We've never contract brewed in New Zealand, because we weren’t happy with potentially playing by someone else's rules, [but] this was an opportunity for us to help design a whole new brewery. We started engaging and went to Europe a couple of times to scope equipment for them. 

I don’t like it when people brew beers and don’t tell you where they are coming from. We’re deeply involved in the design and build of the brewery and we’ll have our own people on the ground there. This is an amazing opportunity for our brewers to get experience on equipment that is world-class, and the thing that is really exciting me, and Pete, and really the motivator behind it, is that it now frees up space at Aro Street where we can now brew even more crazy beer. [laughs]

How’d you do that? It seems like you are pushing the boundaries pretty hard already.

We’ve got some pretty cool things lined up. It’s important to bear in mind that this is not just about the beers we’re brewing there. By not signing up for tens of millions of dollars worth of debt, or doing the things you have to go through to get to those production breweries, [we] remove a risk that, for some breweries, can be a step too far sometimes—like what happened with Speakeasy in San Francisco. With that amount of debt, you have huge pressure to perform immediately, and if things don’t work out, then suddenly you’re in a difficult position. 

You’re now exporting beer to the U.S. What spurred you to enter such a competitive market place and how do you stand out within that market?

We want to be one of the best breweries in the world, and so we want to have a presence there to see if we can stand out in that market. It’s definitely a challenging market, but if we look at the longterm view, we ultimately see a future where, much like the wine industry in New Zealand, there will be a decent chunk of our production going overseas or being consumed overseas. Eventually the future for us in America is that we will actually be in America. We’ll have a presence there in terms of an actual taproom. I think increasingly that if you are going to play in a meaningful way in another country, you need to have boots on the ground and plant roots.

What’s the timeframe for opening that U.S. taproom?

It’s something we’d like to see in the next 18 months. We’re putting a pretty big focus on it.

Q+A by
Matthew Curtis