“We’re not really brewers.”

I’ve come to Saint Leonards Brewing Co in Kingsland to speak to Vlad Petrovic and Rory Clarke about their journey from homebrew set-up to popular brewpub and their opening statement leaves me wondering if I’ve wandered into the VTNZ next door by mistake. And I’ve not even had a sip of the house saison yet.

“It means we are not bound by tradition and everything we do is done from the ground up,” Vlad continues, clarifying the matter. “We are very new to this industry and never worked in hospitality before.”

Saint Leonards’ journey from garage set-up to the brewery and beer garden on the corner of New North Road and Sandringham Road took just a few years and might considered swift by normal standards. However, most of what Vlad and Rory have done has been meticulously planned — whether it’s the beers themselves, the location, the branding or the business model.

It’s perhaps the dream of many homebrewers; do what you love for a living and serve your rather excellent beer to grateful punters in the sunshine.

I harbour similar aspirations myself and that is partly why I built a pub in my garage (although The Magpie isn’t as popular and the beer is probably not as good).

So how do you make the leap from making a mess in the garage at home to creating a buzz on the craft beer scene?

The pair began brewing when they wanted to drink a good Belgian-style saison but found they couldn’t readily buy one.

“The saison was the reason we started brewing,” Rory says. “We heard about these cool European beers, German and Belgian styles that we just don’t get over here, and no one was making saisons. So we had to home brew to get a fresh example.”

Saint Leonard's
Vlad and Rory from St Leonards

And ever since those initial brews, the pair have taken a continuous improvement approach to their brewing.

“Every time we brew something, we test it, we tweak it, and make it better next time,” Rory says.

Next, they started making a clone of Hallertau’s No 2 pale ale. The first attempt wasn’t great.

“We thought, that doesn’t taste right, maybe it’s the water,” Vlad says. “So we bought a reverse osmosis machine to make pure water. Then the second time it still wasn’t right so we thought maybe it’s the bottles, so we got a kegging system. Next, it was pH meters. And very quickly, maybe by our fifth batch, we were at relatively advanced levels of home brewing, I’d argue.”

Rory chips in: “It was very different from No 2 still, but the difference between the first batch and the fifth was night and day. We knocked those out over the space of three months and were having a blast with it and it continued from there.”

But not everything came good that fast.

“It took us a long time to get hazies right,” Rory admits. “It took us probably a dozen attempts. We had a problem where the lagers were hazy and the hazies were clear,” he laughs.

But that is a testament to the Saint Leonards ethos of sticking at something and working through it until it is right, through careful consideration of the factors and parameters.

At this point, Vlad and Rory were still brewing in their garage in St Leonards Road, Mt Eden.

They took a growler of the saison to a friend who ran Revelry, a bar on Ponsonby Road. As they drank it together, the friend, and soon-to-be business partner Ben Taylor, told the brewers: “Holy crap boys, this is good, we could sell this.”

Vlad and Rory initially laughed off the suggestion, telling Ben that with a 20-litre set-up they weren’t going to be selling a lot of beer, but an upscaled operation and brewpub was mooted — and with a fourth co-owner, Steve Ryder, Saint Leonards Brewing Co began to emerge from the garage.

It wasn’t going to be rushed, however, and it took three years to get from that point to where Saint Leonards is today. As with the beers, all aspects were to undergo close scrutiny.

“We went back and forth on the name,” Rory says. “But with the interest in German and Belgian styles, as well as the personal attachment we had to the name, it felt like we had a legitimate claim to it. It fits in well with what we are trying to do.”

Saint Leonard's

Vlad adds: “It evokes an imagery. People will say ‘that sounds European’ and I think that’s perfect.”

The same level of consideration went into their business model. Saint Leonards did not want to be fighting for shelf space in supermarkets but instead wanted a self-sustaining operation where they sold what they brewed themselves.

That meant the site of the brewpub was vital. They knew they didn’t want to be off the beaten track and wanted to be visible to passing foot traffic. It took some time before they found the sweet spot in the middle of Auckland’s beer mile.

The European-style beer garden sits well with the name, the decor, the branding and the beers.

What advice can they give other homebrewers dreaming of going down the Saint Leonards route?

“One of the things I found most interesting,” Vlad says, “was that most people we spoke to about this venture, especially brewers, told us ‘it’s nothing like home brewing, it’s a new set of skills, forget everything you know’, but, honestly, it just wasn’t.

“Almost everything scaled up just about perfectly. Admittedly we built a system that is relatively similar to a home-brewing kit. It’s a two-vessel, gas-fired system that’s not huge. Almost everything we learnt home brewing has been directly applicable to what we are doing now.”

And bringing a little bit of the homebrew ethic to a commercial operation has its benefits. Does everything need to be perfect, really?

Of the saison, Vlad admits: “It’s somewhat disjointed as a recipe because we didn’t really know what a saison was supposed to taste like. I mean, it’s got Citra and Amarillo in it. And it’s dry-hopped, so it’s not very traditional.

“But we ended up making this fun little gateway beer that has the qualities you expect from a saison – the glycerol, the mouthfeel, the dryness – but also hops that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to you if you were a hazy drinker.”

Rory adds: “We just wanted to make the beers we wanted to drink and create a place where we would want to drink them.”

Saint Leonards, 394 New North Road, Kingsland, is open Friday 3pm-12am, Saturday 12pm-12am and Sunday 12pm-8pm