A new brew pub in Palmerston North is proof that if you build it, they will come, writes Jono Galuszka
This time last year, Palmerston North was one of the worst cities in the country to be a craft beer lover. Getting a pint of beer from the likes of Outlier Cartel, Hallertau or Tiamana in a local was as impossible as cutting concrete with a toothpick. There also seemed to be little appetite for a freehouse, with the after-work crowd seemingly happy to sink whatever they were offered at the bar they happened to end up at.
Head into Brew Union on a Friday night though, and you’ll see how wrong that assumption was. Since opening in March, the Palmerston North bar/restaurant/soon-to-bebrewery has been rammed full most nights of the week. No one is as happy, or slightly surprised, as owners Jules Grace and Murray Cleghorn; sales in Brew Union’s opening week were miles above the owners’ projected figures.
A brewpub is about as far away as you can get from the place Murray and Jules met – Starbucks. Murray’s job with the coffee giant involved him setting up jobs around the country, and he hired Jules to work at a Wellington outlet just down the road from The Malthouse. Murray says he lived in the city before he got his Starbucks job, going to Malthouse’s original Willis St location and sinking Tuatara while watching bands at Bodega.
“[The beer] was a bit different, and it was tasty,” Murray says, “but the fact it was craft beer hadn’t really clicked until around the time I met Jules.” That happened in Christchurch, Jules’ home city, where Murray was introduced to places like Dux de Lux. It was while in Christchurch that Murray started thinking about getting into brewing. Home brewing got him ready for taking on a production brewer’s job at Invercargill Brewing, before he was given an offer he could not refuse – running Starbucks’ US$100 million per year Indonesian operation. In the meantime, Jules took over and turned around an ailing Burger Wisconsin store. Brew Union’s burger menu is a nod to his time there.
The pair initially thought about opening a brewery, but Murray says it quickly became apparent a brewpub was the way to go. However, it was never supposed to be as big as Brew Union. The first concept was a dive bar with a 600-litre brewery. It’s safe to say Brew Union, taking up 700 square metres with a 1200-litre brewery, is well beyond that.
The pair looked at multiple locations around the lower North Island, but settled on Palmerston North for a number of reasons. Murray is a Palmy boy (he worked at KFC while studying at Massey University), while Jules was happy to move his family there. Jules says the city was the biggest in the country to not have a freehouse. They were sure they would have a winner, especially since the city’s Albert St Liquorland stocks a range of craft beer to rival stores in Wellington.
The bar has seen a wide range of people, from radio show hosts to district court judges, through the doors to drink from the 20 taps and single handpump. Murray says having the bar running before the brewery has helped them figure out their range. APAs, pilsners, golden ales and stouts have performed well, while the hand-pumped beers have been surprisingly popular. Murray says the planned core range of an IPA, pale ale, session ale and dry stout has probably changed to pilsner, mild/amber ale and stout, with bigger beers coming along later. “I’m sure there’s a market for us to do [big beers], but that would possibly alienate people. If the first beer we put on is a big IPA we’ll alienate more people than we turn on.”
SOBA members can enjoy a complementary pint of every new beer Brew Union brews, once they’ve got their own brewery up and running.