Tuatara Exporting Craft Beer

September 2015

Tuatara is one of four local craft beer breweries that have joined forces for exporting

Carl Vasta, executive brewer with Tuatara Brewing, began brewing beer as a backyard operation in the hills above Waikanae in the 1990s. Fuelled by frustration at a market dominated by a couple of big breweries making standardised brews, he and wife Simone brewed a range of “Polar Beer” ales and pilsners, initially for friends.

Tuatara was launched in 2000 when Carl and the owners of Bar Bodega and the Malthouse, early adopters of craft beer in Wellington, joined forces to launch the new brewery.

The next 10 years were tough. With fellow craft brewery, Macs, expanding into the Wellington market from the company’s Nelson base, the ‘craft revolution’ had begun. Tuatara rolled with the punches, in line with its philosophy that competition would build the market sector.

Tuatara Brewery based at Paraparaumu, north of Wellington, is now New Zealand’s largest craft/independent brewery making about two million litres a year. The company’s beers are sold all around the country and exported to 10 offshore markets including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and Sweden.

In February 2014 Tuatara pulled together four other Kiwi craft breweries, collectively targeting the UK market as the New Zealand Craft Beer Collective. By exporting collaboratively they are increasing efficiency, reducing costs and offering importers an attractive package.

What distinguishes craft brewers from makers of mainstream beers is that they batch brew, versus the continuous ferment of the mainstream breweries.

Tuatara Brewery head boy, Richard Shirtcliffe, says the company is in a wonderful growth phase as New Zealanders enjoy discovering a vast variety of beers and the market becomes more adventurous.

Each week truckloads of malted barley, wheat and rye arrive at the Kapiti brewery. These come from Gladfield and Cryermalt, suppliers to the New Zealand brewing industry. Hops mostly come from the Motueka area, purchased through Hops New Zealand.

Tuatara stores the malted grain then turns it to mash by adding boiling water to release sugars. From brewing to bottling takes three weeks for an ale and four weeks for a lager. A range of hop varieties lend distinct aromas and bitterness profiles to suit different recipes.

Richard says the company produces classic styles with a Kiwi twist, from accessible ales and lagers to seasonal varieties and more challenging one-offs, such as an unfiltered chocolate stout made by contact with cacao nibs. Styles of the moment are bitter beers with a big nose like recently-released Sauvinova made from solely Sauvin hops with the tropical gooseberry flavours of namesake, Sauvignon Blanc wine.

Historically, only malts, yeasts and water were allowed in beer and later, hops. Tuatara stuck to this formula until 2014, then diversified to meet market thirst for novel but trustable tipples. Imported yeasts were replaced with local varieties and rules relaxed to allow flavour additives.

Tuatara’s product management team works together to determine flavours, researching market trends then taking ideas through to development. This means leaning on Tuatara founder, Carl Vasta, to see whether a recipe can be made to fit a brief.

The company has dipped its toe into exports to Britain and in December 2014, it banded together with four other boutique breweries – Renaissance, 8 Wired Brewing Company, Three Boys, and Yeastie Boys – as the New Zealand Craft Beer Collective. They are increasing efficiency, reducing costs and maximising opportunities by sharing marketing logistics such as coordinating to fill containers, communicating to avoid undercutting and offering a mixed package of New Zealand craft beers.

Every month since February 2014, the collective has filled containers sent to Britain and expansion into the United States and Canada is planned.

The craft beers have gone down well in Britain where drinkers accustomed to malt-driven flavours have not caught up with a US-driven trend towards pushing hops up front. The New Zealand brews sit between the two styles, being aromatic and fresh but not overly bitter.

The collective has two simple rules for joining. Member breweries must have the capacity to supply and key staff should feel comfortable sitting down for a family dinner at one another’s homes.

For Tuatara, export is significant in volume though low as a percentage of total output and meeting New Zealand demand remains top priority. However, expanding overseas is regarded as an important step in forward thinking.

“New Zealand is a market of 4 million people and 30 million sheep which doesn’t lend itself to long-term business growth,” says Richard. “Why not introduce products you are proud of, offshore? It’s more long-term than sitting in Kapiti with our fingers crossed.”

Richard says he would like the business to develop a higher purpose than brewing beer. While keeping a family-type culture, he’d like to “employ 100 times more Kiwis, go carbon neutral and explore technologies for capturing and using carbon dioxide and installing photovoltaic panels on roofs.”