For many of us, life resembles the story off Sisyphus – forever pushing that boulder up the hill.
At Garage Project, says co-founder Pete Gillespie, it’s the opposite.
“I often say that working at Garage Project is like running really fast down a steep hill. You know if you try to stop, you’ll come a cropper and it will fall apart – so you just keep running and trust.
Pondering 10 years of eclectic and electric brewing, Gillespie says it’s been a “manic swirl” that started with the ambitious launch project of 24 beers in 24 weeks that created a cult buzz about a brewery that literally was a “garage project” – with Gillespie, his brother Ian and co-founder Jos Ruffell brewing 50-litre batches in Ian’s garage.
That garage became real when they took over a petrol station in Aro Street, Wellington, and grew to encompass contract brewing at bStudio in Napier as well as their Wild Workshop brewery on Marion Street. There are also separate taprooms in Aro Street, across and up the road from the brewery, and Kingsland, Auckland. And there’s talk of a brewery in Australia.
But as the empire expands, the ethos of being nimble, versatile and fun remains.
At the time of writing, there were 521 Garage Project beers listed on Untappd. You need not be a maths genius to figure out the rampant pace of that original 24/24 series has continued over the subsequent 10 years with almost a beer a week – on average – released.
And look at the range. From simple lagers, through a range of hoppy beers, a raft of hazies, a surfeit of sours, dessert stouts, wild ferments, barrel-aged beer, and (dare we mention it here) there’s also seltzer, plus cider and natural wine.
Like a curious cat, there is no niche they won’t explore.
“We started with that hyper-prolific 24/24 series and it makes me really happy that we’ve kept that going. That has been essence of GP, a willingness to try new things,” Gillespie says.
“At times we’ve had to have a stern word with ourselves to rein it in to just one release a week – we often have two or three releasing at the same time and we’re conscious that we do run the risk of overwhelming everyone, including ourselves.
“But it’s hard when you have so many fun ideas crowding around and trying to come out.”
Gillespie says ideas “build on each other – things that spark your imagination when you’re doing one project will lead to other things”.
As we speak, he is working on the hardest thing he’s ever done: a non-alcoholic beer.
It’s something he’s wanted to do for a while – and he wanted to be the first craft brewery to release a zero ABV beer, but they’ve been beaten to that by a couple of others such as Beer Baroness and Kein, from the small Riverhead Cottage Brewery in north-west Auckland.
“The non-alcohol beer has been a real challenge.
“We’ve dumped more of that than we’ve dumped of anything ever. And we don’t often dump beers, but this has been such a learning curve.
“We were hoping to be at the front with this but we don’t want to release something we’re not excited by … but we’re almost there, touch wood.”
Here’s to Pernicious Weed
With a constant flow of new beers, Gillespie admits the brewery can be guilty of taking their eye off their core range.
“Being so prolific, it does sometimes take our attention away from some of our core beers and we realised recently we haven’t given them as much love in terms of promotion.”
He notes there’s also an element of the old Spartan practice – mythologised to some extent – of leaving young warriors to fend for themselves.
“These beers, when they succeed, it’s on their own back,” Gillespie observes.
But one of those long-standing core range beers is going to get its moment in the sun at Beervana, which will be as much about celebrating 10 years of Pernicious Weed as a decade of GP.
“I love that beer and I feel it’s stood up to the test time. People still love drinking it, people tell me it’s their favourite beer.
The all New Zealand-hopped double IPA (Nelson Sauvin and Rakau) was one of the first beers in the 24/24 series and was the first beer Gillespie poured at the official Garage Project launch at Hashigo Zake – which he recalls as a near disaster.
“That was very first beer we ever poured. We had three beers that we released for Beervana in 2011 and the launch at Hashigo Zake was packed, it was heaving with people, journalists, cameras … and I got brought up to the taps to pour the first beer and I chose Pernicious Weed. I did a ‘cheers’ and took a big swig and oh my god it tasted horrible. It felt like a nightmare when you wake up in a sweat and wonder if it’s real and in this case it was. But I poured some more and luckily it was just a bit of cleaning fluid still in the line and the next pour tasted all right.
“It was just about the worst launch ever … I was wondering what I would do: Bolt out of the bar and disappear forever?
“Pernicious Weed It feels like a classic now. IPA has changed and we’re seeing the ascendancy of haziness, but P Weed stands up super well. Nelson Sauvin is a real favourite of mine as it’s a hop that changes character depending on who it’s playing with, and in this beer it plays so well with Rakau and so rather than being at the winey end, it really shows the tropical fruit and grapefruit.”
The other two beers that were part of that initial Beervana were Trip Hop, a new world Extra Special Bitter, and Manuka Dark, a beer made with hand-smoked malt, which has faded out of existence.
“I had a pint of Trip Hop the other day and it was like putting on an old record. We taste it at work, but it had been a while since I’d had a proper pint of it. And I thought ‘Wow, this is just a classic’. Lots of juicy malt and not insignificant bitterness.”
I wonder how a beer like that keeps selling in this high-turnover world of ever-new beers that are increasingly about less intrusive malt and less bitterness. Yes, Trip Hop is delicious, but it definitely feels 10 years old.
But Gillespie notes plenty of GP fans are dedicated to those core range beers.
“As a brewer, I understand that everyone wants the new thing – and Garage Project offers that to people every week.
“But there’s something really wonderful about a monogamous drinker. Someone who soul-bonds with something you’ve brewed and keeps coming back to it.
“We have a chap who comes to our cellar door and he just loves Pils ‘n’ Thrills. That’s all he wants. As a brewer that’s pretty special to have somebody really love something you’ve done.
“And people do become deeply attached to beers and they are as much the owners of these beers as I am.”
Gillespie says that was salutary lesson he learned when the was at Malt Shovel Brewery in Sydney making the James Squire range – which could be described as the Aussie version of Mac’s.
“I felt our IPA there was lacklustre and I lobbied hard to amp it up and put more hops in it. I said no-one was going to notice and they would enjoy a better beer. The bosses caved in and let me do it and we upped the hops – and we got reams of letters and emails from people saying ‘What have you done to my IPA?’ It was a very humbling moment and taught me a valuable lesson that you don’t always know best and people do have an ownership of these beers.
“So when a beer becomes core at GP, we don’t muck around with it out of respect for people who love it.”
What’s left to achieve?
It’s a tough question, but I ask Gillespie – soon to turn 50 – if he feels he’s achieved what he hoped to when he set out on this journey.
“I didn’t think this far ahead,” he says openly. “I don’t know if it’s a lack of planning, maybe it is. I had enormous passion, I wanted to brew and I wanted to be creative and I wanted something that would facilitate that. I certainly didn’t have a business plan … it was never a case of ‘we’re going to grow to this size and here’s the exit plan’.
“If there was a plan, it was to start something that enables creativity and fun – and definitely we’ve achieved that. But have we achieved everything? If we stopped now, no. There are more things I want to do.
“But there’s lots of stuff that I never imagined would be satisfying but it has been. I never imagined the business growing – but it has grown and it’s like it’s got its own gravity and it draws in cool people and they become to be part of a team, and the whole thing gets bigger and gets more gravity and draws in more cool people.
“It’s the best bunch of people – really creative, fun, energetic people who love GP despite everything – because the pace and the workload is frenetic. It might look super slick on outside, but it’s super manic on inside and pace is frenetic.”
He points out that he saw a comment on a social media post recently that talked about “GP getting their PR machine to do something …
“But it’s just us. It’s all done in-house, although the artists are external.
“We’re a really tight team and everything is done through the team. All of the writing, all of the social media is done in-house. “
There are around 80 in the “house” across the variety of venues and breweries plus a large sales and distribution team.
Keeping it all so tight means they are not heavily reliant on anyone but themselves. “That’s something in my character – not wanting to rely on other people.”
But there’s another angle to keeping it so tight – and Gillespie observes the brand is almost too reliant himself and Ruffell, as well as Gillespie’s brother Ian as a brewing team manager.
“Ian is the brewery manager – but Jos and I are over everything. Whether that continues as we grow I don’t know – having your hand in everything as you grow becomes harder and harder because you’re spreading yourself thinner and thinner. For the sanity of everyone else we need to make sure we pull back a little.”
One thing Gillespie and Ruffell will never let go of is the creative input, which they approach from different angles.
“Jos is fantastic at keeping his finger on the pulse of what’s going on – the trends. One of his skills is to sense what is happening long before it does.
“I spend zero time looking at what’s going on in the world of beer; I dislike knowing what’s happening because it’s distracting, disruptive – even if you’re actively not trying to borrow from other people, subconsciously it does happen. So I try not to trawl the internet to see what is happening.
“Jos complements that by being all over it. Jos has been talking about things for years and quite often we roll our eyes and say ‘he’s on about that again …’ and suddenly it becomes the hot thing.
“I’ve learned that If Jos is interested in something then you better pay attention.”
The other complement to Gillespie is his brother Ian, who was part of the founding trio, but then went his own way for a while to learn how to make fine furniture. But he came back to the GP fold, first in sales and then on the tools in the brewery.
“In the beginning it was important to me that Ian didn’t get sucked into something I felt was my dream. Early on he was super closely involved because we were in his actual garage and he was around for all that early part.
“But I didn’t want him to be obliged to be part of GP because I could tell from an early stage it was something that was going to suck people in and take all their time and energy.
“So he went away and came back and worked in sales and then he wanted to get on tools, so he joined the brew team and now he runs the brew team.
“Ian is a lot of things I am not. He’s very good at organising things, I’m incredibly chaotic. He’s very fastidious and has a lovely attention to detail. And when he makes things out of wood, they are remarkable pieces of exquisite beauty whereas I’m more cottage and roughshod.
“He’s a great counter-point to me. I come in with chaotic creativity and Ian brings order to the chaos.”
A beer for everyone
The curious thing about Garage Project is that they’ve been able to truly democratise beer by creating a something for everyone approach; a far cry from past practice in NZ of giving everyone virtually the same thing regardless of which of the two big breweries created it.
You could make an argument that Panhead created a similar effect but they did it with single Super Charger arrow that cut through geographic and demographic boundaries, whereas Garage Project achieved the same popular reach with a scattergun loaded with glitter.
“One of the great pleasures has been introducing beer to people who are not beer enthusiasts.
“New Zealand has a vibrant craft beer community, and we love them and it’s great to bring cool beers to them, but it’s also really exciting to bring beers to other people, like those who have been mainstream beer drinkers.
“And then especially those people who’ve maybe been brought into our cellar door, perhaps with their partner and you can tell they don’t want to be there and they are not a beer drinker. And you say ‘do you want to try this?’ and then to see the look on their face when they realise their idea of beer wasn’t quite right is just wonderful.
“I’m always surprised at how everyone who tastes a beer experiences it in a different way and what we want more than anything else is that magic moment when you put a beer – something you’ve made – in front of somebody and they freak out and love it. And in 10 years’ of GP I’ve never got tired of that.
“Obviously when you get bigger there’s meetings, and pressures and money and complicated things but the thing that keeps us going is when people have a beer and love it.
“That’s the magic that keeps everything going.”