Editor Michael Donaldson reflects on a changing New Zealand beer scene
It’s been a momentous few weeks for three of New Zealand’s oldest craft breweries.
First Emerson’s (established 1992) opened their new brewery, then, sadly, Mike’s in Taranaki (established 1989) announced the parent company White Cliffs Brewing had gone into liquidation and – to finish on an upward spiral – Harrington’s (established 1991) celebrated their 25th birthday as a family run business on July 15.
We cover all three of these events in this edition and while each may tell a different story there is a common theme – perhaps best summed up by Carl Harrington when looking back on his 25 years in a family-owned business: “It hasn’t been bloody easy”.
It was sentiment echoed by Richard Emerson as he reflected back over the tough times – grafting hard and often underpaid for nearly 20 years before gaining a reward when he was able to sell to Lion.
We’re used to celebrating the success of New Zealand breweries – we’ve seen the rapid growth of Garage Project, Panhead (now sold to Lion), Good George and too many others to mention – but behind all those feel-good stories is a grim reality: making money in beer is damn hard.
Historically we’ve seen what happens when the margins are so slim – only the big-volume businesses Survive.
We will never go back to the grim days of the late 1970s when our beer market shrunk to a duopoly but there’s a word of warning in what’s happened to Mike’s.
The market for interesting and flavoursome beer continues to grow but as competition intensifies and punters become more discerning and more loyal to a few trusted brands, breweries that deliver over-priced and/or inferior beer will be exposed.
When I wrote my book Beer Nation – the Art and Heart of Kiwi Beer in 2012, there were approximately 70 breweries in New Zealand. Those I talked to at the time thought we could possibly sustain in the realm of 120.
We’ve now got around 150 – from the nano-sized operations like Craftwork in Oamaru to giants like Lion and everything in between.
The trick now for all these brewers – whether they want to stay as a family-owned business like Harrington’s, sell to a big player as Emerson’s have done, or just avoid the financial woes that have plagued Mike’s – is to keep pace with the ever-changing market, find a point of difference, innovate, and deliver quality products at a reasonable price, all while retaining their passion. Or as Stu McKinlay says of Richard Emerson, to “get obsessed and stay obsessed”.
It’s quite a challenge and not one for the faint-hearted. So I raise my glass to each and every brewer who pours their heart and soul into a business to make the beers we love.