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Bitches and birds – startup craft beermakers have fun with words

ParrotDogThree Matts plus a whole lot of beer = Wellington's new darling, ParrotDog.

University is perhaps the best business incubator of all. The saying goes that necessity is the mother of invention, and for two students living in Wellington's dark, cold Aro Valley, necessity translated into brewing beer to save money.

And tinkering with homebrew has, for Matt Warner and Matt Kristofski, led to the birth of one of Wellington's most pursued craft beer labels – ParrotDog.

Matt Stevens joined the student Matts last year in April, bringing with him his CA and business acumen. “I didn't know much about craft brewing at all when I came into this.”

Nonetheless, he incorporated the company, crunched the numbers and assessed the viability of ParrotDog as a commercial venture.

Luckily for microbreweries, Wellington's craft beer scene is exploding. Three new craft beer bars opened last year: Little Beer Quarter (LBQ), the Fork and Brewer, and the TapHaus. And the well-weathered and slightly more authentic mainstays Hashigo Zake, Malthouse and Bar Edward are still making it their mission to serve up the best brews from around the country.

The ParrotDog guys have learnt over the last few months how to approach bars and get them to supply their beers, although being well-acquainted with the bartenders doesn't hurt.

This year, instead of contract brewing at Mike's Organic Brewery in Taranaki, they have purchased their own equipment, about to be sent over from China. By the time they are brewing at capacity they hope to be bringing out 200,000 litres a year.

“This year is going to be about seeing how much we can hustle," says Stevens.

Wellington has declared itself the Craft Beer Capital of New Zealand, although Nelson, Dunedin and of course Auckland would undoubtedly take umbrage with that, their own beer communities and bars being firmly established.

Currently the craft beer market share stands at around 9 percent, but that includes Mac's and Monteith's, now owned by Lion and DB respectively. The numbers indicate there are plenty more potential craft converts waiting unknowingly for the first hoppy hit to make them intimately familiar with such labels as 8-Wired, Tuatara, Yeastie Boys, Liberty, Epic, and Emersons.

Instead of typical small business competition, there is cooperation between craft beer breweries.   They work as a united front to try and coax the majority of drinkers who purchase beer produced by the two big beer barons over from the dark side.

One worry for ParrotDog and smaller brewers is that the popular hop varieties in Nelson sell out quickly.

“There is a real demand for good hops, and we can't get them from anywhere else,” says Warner. This is in part due to the boom of craft beer, whose selling point is quality – a catch-22 in some respects for the craft beer trade.

However, the Matts have heard this year's crop – being harvested at the moment –  is a bumper one, which should allow them to concentrate on the stack of other worries a small startup business undoubtedly has.

Showing his healthy respect for capitalism, Stevens adds, “I'm sure the free market will sort it out, someone will step in and fill the gap in the market.”

Love it or hate it, the name BitterBitch has been a revelation – bringing to mind either a genetically modified animal or an angry woman. Indeed, the branding sounds like the brainchild of a PR directed marketing campaign. It isn't. ParrotDog was meant to be the temporary name for the original homebrew Facebook page. It stuck.

“There was a parrot in the flat where we used to live," says Warner. 

“Yeah, and we call each other 'dog',” says Kristofski.

“But not me,” chimes in Stevens, the moneyman. “It would be weird if I did.”

The company's first commercial release, BitterBitch, was coined under similar circumstances. The guys had to scale up the production of their bitter ale for entry in the Beervana 2011 festival.

Warner says, “Scaling up a beer is a real challenge, it's not a linear process, we didn't know what the end result would be like. We thought it was going to be too bitter, so we named it BitterBitch.”

The idea was that the tongue-in-cheek name might help it sell. Combined with the crisp taste and citrusy hop flavour, it did.

The beer won the people's choice award at the Beervana festival. BitterBitch was the word of the night – a phrase that slipped off the tongues of the typical Beervana attendee with glee (think bearded male, 30-odd, belly in tow).

Steven Wells at Hashigo Zake, Wellington's cult craft beer bar, says, “Bitter Bitch is a really lovely drinkable IPA which just keeps evolving the more that they brew it. 120 litres were sold in an hour and a half on their launch night, a record for Hashigo Zake.”

ParrotDogAlong with the first child of the Dog –  BitterBitch (6.3 percent),  the second pup in the litter –  BloodHound, a red ale (6.7 percent) has also garnered a steady following.

More recently the Parrot has produced some offspring in the FlaxenFeather, a blonde ale (5.5 percent).

ParrotDog and its well-named brood are becoming the toast of Wellington's fashionable beer scene, and the guys regularly get requests (or demands) for more of their product from around the country.

The fact their brewing has been sporadic means the demand just keeps growing but, with their own brewery about to kick into action, 2012 should be the year for the three Matts.

They hold that advertising and marketing hasn't been hugely important, as the demand heavily outpaces the supply, but in another seemingly unplanned stroke of luck, a fourth Matt (more of a shadow player) created the ParrotDog logo from London. The graphic is both visually striking and memorable. And Kristofski's brother Sam made them up a 30-second video for "a bit of fun" that's characteristic of the brand and  the guys behind it – laconic, and more than a bit random.