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The fastest growing company in the country isn’t just tinkering in that garage

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Having only just turned four, this was the first year the company was eligible for the annual index of the highest growth New Zealand companies.

“We never even remotely entertained the idea that we’d be number one on the whole list,” says Garage Project co-founder Jos Ruffell. “We started in a way which is the complete opposite of the conventional wisdom of how you should start and run a brewery. We started with a very small system and brewed a prolific amount of beer at the start. We brewed 24 different beers in 24 weeks. And we’ve just gone on from there, keeping up that pace. It’s not how you normally run a brewery.”

Garage Project’s phenomenal growth is part of the wider trend in the craft beer industry, which (as we’ve previously reported), has grown 42% in the last year, according to an ANZ report on the sector.

“People have a real desire to try different things at the moment in beer, and have flavours they haven’t had before,” says Ruffell. “I think it’s going to continue to see a lot more growth if you look at where we’re at compared to America for instance. They’re north of 12% of market share and in New Zealand we’re still knocking around the 3-4% mark.”

“Big doesn’t necessarily mean bad in brewing. It just depends on how it’s done. We visited a craft brewery in Colorado this year that’s 100% employee owned, generates over half their electricity from their solar and wastewater capture programme, have phenomenally challenging and interesting beers, and they’re larger and than Lion and DB combined. Over 200 million litres of beer a year.”

Image c/o Garage Project

Ruffell says that growth for growth’s sake has never been the goal of Garage Project, which brews, bottles and cans all its beer onsite in a garage on Aro Street. “We’ve grown in a way that felt right for us,” says Ruffell. “We’ve turned away opportunities to contract brew, or do other things that would have allowed us to increase our volume faster and capture opportunities, so we’ve probably turned away a lot of sales.”

Garage Project started four years ago with Ruffell and Pete Gillespie making beer in the garage they now share with over 30 employees, including those operating the cellar door (where you can taste and buy beer to take away) and the tap room (where you can sit and enjoy a pint).

While 664% isn’t likely to be sustainable for a brewery in a garage, if it can continue to ascend, Ruffell sees the brewery expanding out of the garage, but can’t imagine ever leaving it behind.

“We’ll look to do beers we couldn’t do there, but we’ll always keep our Aro garage,” he says. “It’s the heart of our brewery.”

The brewery’s method for its marketing isn’t so much about pushing an overarching brand, it’s more about the individual personalities of its distinctive and experimental beers coming together as a powerful force to make up the face of the brand.

For example its dark beer is labeled Aro Noir, with the label being influenced by film noir tropes, picturing a gloomy rendition of Garage Project’s Aro Valley headquarters.

Much of the artwork for its beers are also displayed inside the three’s Aro Valley hub, where even the exterior of the garage is a work of art in itself, colourfully and expertly painted.

Garage Project’s Ian Gillespie explains some of the ideas and reasons behind its creative marketing approach.

“The whole thinking behind the branding was that we wanted the beers themselves to stand out,” Gillespie says. “We wanted each beer to have its own personality … We work hard for them to have names that evoke a bit of interest so people will want to read more about what’s in them and the thinking behind them and each artwork should speak to what that beer is, what it’s about and who might like it, and who won’t.”

“We find people align themselves to different beers and their artwork as opposed to our brand per se. Our logo is often smaller, down the bottom.”

When asked if Gillespie thinks this approach has worked for Garage Project he says it seems to have. “Obviously there is a bit of extra work involved in each artwork, as it’s not a question of just changing the colour from green to pink and putting porter on it and just releasing it,” he says. “We wouldn’t have it any other way, we like the way it’s worked and we are not locked into a branding style that is going to go out of date.”

He says if a company realises things are slowing down, they might feel they need a rebrand, but Garage Project’s approach means it can stay fresh and agile. “It does kind of break all the marketing and branding rules because, short of our tiny and understated logo, there’s not a huge amount to draw a bunch of products together on a shelf, but it seems to happen anyway.”

The choice of artists really depends on the beer, he says. “Certain beers will have themes or you feel like it will fit a certain style of artist. Sometimes we’ll come across the artist and other times they’ll come to us. We use a group of artists quite regularly. We have done three or four beers with one then two with another then another guy has done six but it really comes down to the beer.”

He says for the Pernicious Weed label they wanted it to be reminiscent of a B movie poster with a classic colour palette, painterly style and a brash monster, so they called upon the talents of an oil painter. “We let the idea for the beer inform what the art should be like.”

He says with most beers, particularly core brews or special editions they will release posters and sometimes t-shirts, which are also sold in-store and on their website.?

Garage Project also took the innovative approach of using cans, not generally associated with highbrow craft beer, with Gillespie saying peoples’ doubts about cans are purely a perception issue. He says there are a lot of reasons why cans are better for beer, which Garage Project has been using since 2013. “There’s no light strike. There is a complete seal. A bottle is not a 100 percent oxygen seal, but if you have a can it’s a perfect seal. It’s lighter to ship in cans, as you’re not shipping glass weight, it’s beer weight, and cans are infinitely recyclable … the cans are all lined so there’s no tin touching the beer. It’s great.”

It’s been going very, very well,” he says. “Every once in a blue moon you get someone that says they don’t drink out of a can. They think of cans as being for industrial beer or not good quality beer, but fantastic beer has been going into cans for a long time, particularly in the States.”

Gillespie even goes as far to say he would be very surprised if there were many New Zealand craft breweries not canning by the end of this year. “You can already start to see some: Stoke, Panhead, and there are a few others coming through, Three Boys.”

As testament to Garage Project’s success, Gillespie says one of the main challenges for the brewery is keeping up with demand, but he doesn’t think this is such a bad thing.

“At the beginning, we were on 50 litres, so basically a glorified home brew kit … And we got a brew house that we realised as soon as we got it was too small. So now we’re on a 2000 litre tank and that’s one brew at a time and we brew up to three times a day. It also comes down to fermenting space. We could brew a lot more on the current sized kit we have.”

It makes a lot of different beers so it’s hard to stay ahead with that, organising packaging and time, he says. “And then you have to get the labels made and you’re trying to time it with releases. I think as far as the industry goes I don’t know if we deal with a huge amount of issues per se. I think at the moment we are nowhere near, demand for good beer is huge and continues to grow.”

“We are certainly a long way off from peak brewery and even when you hit peak brewery if you are making a good product and people know they are going to like it you are kind of safe, I think, on that front. We try not to get involved in it too much but I feel like the guys out there making good beer will continue to make good beer.”

However, he says he wants Garage Project to grow ahead of demand “so we never get to a point where we are chasing our tails and having to get rid of it [beer]. At the moment there is enough people and they want to get it. It’s always going to be a quality they can rely on.”

According to Stuff, most of Garage Project’s beer is sold in Wellington, with about 25 percent of production exported and 10 percent sold in Auckland.

A recent NBR article said craft beer currently makes up two to three percent of total beer sales in New Zealand, referencing a Frost and Sullivan report and said projections for the industry indicate growth in the region of 30 percent expansion for this year alone. However Tuatara chief executive Richard Shirtcliffe said craft beer accounts for about 12 percent of total beer sales as the report didn’t include Mac’s and Monteith’s brands owned by Lion and DB. 

Industry insiders say that while New Zealand exports over 90 percent of its hop production, generating $17 million per annum, we actually supply less than a single percent of the international hop trade.

So it’s fair to say that, as a nation, we’re a bit late to the beer trade. That slow start is speeding up however, with new research predicting that our craft beer exports could increase by up to 300 percent in the next decade.

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