Rather than lament Covid restrictions that limited venues to 100 people, Bootleg Brewery in Hamilton used the opposrtunity to do something good.

When Omicron started its sweep of the country, the Bootleg Sessions were born: music gigs at the brewery’s Matangi base limited to 100 people with all the proceeds going to the musicians.

It was sparked in part, said Bootleg co-owner Fraser Graafhuis, when Hollie Smith posted on Instagram about having to cancel a tour. She wasn’t alone as artists around the country were forced to abandon events.

But Bootleg turned the problem around.

“While most people were going ‘poor me’ we thought, ‘why don’t we do a gig for 100 people?’.”

The brewery — co-owned by Graafhuis, his siblings Simon and Natalie, Jaden Hatwell, friend Nick Binnie and brewer Elton Ward — had plenty of contacts in the Waikato area and in the music industry.

“We knew the Kora brothers and asked Francis if he could come and play. The answer was quickly ‘Shit yes, let’s do it’.”

Francis Kora, brother Laughton and drummer Stan Bicknell played the first Bootleg Sessions gig on March 21 and since then Job Toogood, twice, Katchafire and Hollie Smith have played to intimate crowds limited to 100 inside the old dairy factory where Bootleg is located.

The sessions start early by music standards, around 7.30 and dovetail nicely with Bootleg’s peak time which is late afternoon and early evening.

Bootleg sessions

Jon Toogood performing

at the Bootleg Sessions.

“Bootleg is place to come and chill and then head home,” Graafhuis explains. “It peaks in the afternoon so after 7.30pm is not busy so we thought why not have these gigs — it’s good for us, and we’re helping musicians.

“We’re selling a seat $100 but we don’t get a cent, apart from the beer sales, all the ticket sales go to the musicians.”

Every session has sold out in the blink of an eye and Graafhuis thinks the model could be rolled across other breweries around the country. He says limiting the tickets to just 100 created a sense of FOMO but he also appreciates that it worked well for them because they have connections in the wider Waikato region and they also tapped into local acts.

Getting the likes of Katchafire, Toogood and Smith to perform was easier once the Kora brothers and Bicknell had kicked off things.

“Getting Francis Kora to play was significant —he validated that we were genuine about what we were doing. Francis is the central person in Bootleg Sessions, so we really owe him for everything. Without him, Bootleg Sessions would not have been possible. He such a humble, great person, who’s worked hard for the benefit of his fellow musicians.”

Bootleg have recorded all the sessions and Graafhuis has a yet-to-crystallise idea about turning it into a documentary.

“We’d been talking about an idea – a documentary almost – around music, the brewing business. The personalities in both would be entertaining.”

Graafhuis is hoping to get other top-name acts such as Bic Runga or Annika Moa “and we want other people to open their venues for them”.

Bootleg sessions

For anyone who believes in karma, or the universe giving back, the first of the Bootleg Sessions coincided almost perfectly with the judging at the New World Beer & Cider Awards where Bootleg were reward with a Top-30 spot for their T Straight Burnout Smokey Stout.

The gap between the awards judging and the announcement in mid-May was critical for a tiny brewery like Bootleg.

They brew all their small-volume bottled beer on site in Matangi, doing batches of just a few hundred litres. Their bigger-volume canned products such as Apehanger IPA are contract brewed at Crafty Canners in Auckland.

To make the requisite amount for the New World promotion meant dedicating the entire brewery to T Straight.

“We usually have a list of up-and-coming beers up on the wall and for a while it was: ‘T Straight Smokey Stout, T Straight Smokey Stout, T Straight Smokey Stout’. People would ask ‘why are you brewing so much T Straight?’ and we’d have to say: ‘We can’t tell you’.”

Bootleg entered the beer consciousness with a roar a few years ago when they took out a trophy at the Brewers Guild Awards with their Apehanger IPA when they were a fledgling contract brewery. They then bought the brewery at the old Matangi dairy factory formerly known as Control Room Brewing, which was set-up by Larry Muijlwijk.

T Straight was the first beer Bootleg brewed in the new brewery and it’s as Hamilton as it gets — a reference to boy racers doing burnouts on the Te Rapa straight.