To find New Zealand’s Champion Small Brewery, you take a turn off the main road into Queenstown and head down the Frankton Marina. Altitude Brewing co-founder Eddie Gapper says it used to be a pretty grotty area — think muddy paths and abandoned kayaks — but Sugar Lane, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, looks a lot tidier these days.
Inside a warehouse-type building overlooking the lake, you’ll find the small brewery filled with skiing memorabilia, a true ode to the mountains that surround it.
Gapper and co-founding brewer Eliott Menzies count their lucky stars they managed to find this spot in 2018, after a long search for the perfect home. Getting that base sorted has allowed them to focus on growing the business — not to mention coming up with 12 medal-winning beers at the Brewers Guild Awards, enough to earn them the champion small brewery crown.
“It’s been a steep learning curve going into the hospitality business,” Gapper says. “But this direct customer relationship has been vital for us, and it’s now about half of our business, in terms of revenue.”
With Altitude beers in supermarkets, the business didn’t take a big hit from Covid but lockdowns did force them to hurry the creation and launch of their webstore, creating yet another revenue stream for them. “It was pretty painful for a while but the bounce back [from lockdown] was reasonably swift,” Gapper adds.
Not many businesses can say they’ve been steadily growing for the past 24 months but that’s what’s been happening at Altitude — and according to Gapper, they intend to keep the trend going. Off the back of building their webstore, they are continuing the digitisation of their processes, as well as planning bigger, better things for their brewery.
“We’re trying to drive more volume out of our existing system and we are looking to improve — both the physical space, our backend systems, but also the beers,” he says. “We’re going to get a container kitchen to put outside, get awnings and some more bits and pieces. We would like to see a return to our regular event schedule, more fun partnerships with other breweries and a bigger presence in Queenstown.”
With mobile canning machine now coming to the brewery, they’re hoping to sell more beers beyond their own space.
“It never stands still. There’s always new flavours, new techniques, new things we’re trying,” says Menzies, who learnt to brew after getting an unofficial apprenticeship at a brewery during a stint in Scotland to climb mountains.
Altitude’s tagline is beer “brewed for adventurers” and, through growth, maintaining that core identity has been a focal point.
“It’s all to do with the people, and the place,” Gapper says. “The people who work in this business are naturally spirited and have adventurous personalities. Then, our location also drives that. Everything about Queenstown is geared towards adventure, risk-taking, and trying new things.”
Living adventurously carries through to the company culture. They sponsor the Shotover Moonlight Marathon, that runs every year from Ben Lomond Station. They also have a deal with the Wild Things trail running community, sponsoring a collection of trails that people can run and then receive Altitude beer for their efforts.
“For us, it’s about keeping that connection to the community, to the outdoors, to adventure,” Gapper adds.