The most fascinating and nerve-wracking time to monitor a brewery’s fortunes is when it has just been purchased by a massive multinational brewing conglomerate. Will they do a Panhead, going from strength to strength? Or does it signal a big investment in a new plant and rebrand like Emerson’s? Will the brewery’s reputation get trashed, like that of the once-respected Founders?
In the case of Tuatara, though, the things which made it fascinating to keep an eye on all took place before they were purchased by DB in 2017. There was the legal battle between former owners Rangitira Ltd and The Malthouse Ltd over the valuation of the company, which went all the way to the Court of Appeal and ended with the former paying the latter $920,000. Then there was the employment dispute between the company and its former chief executive, Richard Shirtcliffe,
But the weird truly set in for drinkers when Tuatara rebranded just after the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards in 2016. The old branding was cohesive and easy to understand, albeit a bit agricultural in hindsight. The branding post-awards but pre-buyout was a proper hot mess. Previously based on style, the beers were given cringeworthy monikers like Mot Eureka (fka Pilsner), Weiz Guy (fka Hefe) and kAPAi (fka Aotearoa Pale Ale).
So, it was with much relief recently that Tuatara announced it was rebranding back to style names. At a media event held at its Third Eye brewpub in Wellington (full disclosure: DB paid for my travel to and from Wellington) Tuatara founder Carl Vasta and head brewer Brayden Rawlinson talked through the range and the reasons for the rebrand.
It is important to note it is not just a rebrand, but a full reworking of the Tuatara range. Gone are its Amarillo American dark ale, NZIPA Hopfinity, Sauvinova pale ale, Hi Res IPA and Double Trouble double IPA. In come a 5.5 per cent hazy pale ale, a light-bodied but punchy 6.1 per cent IPA, a strong hazy IPA Roughneck, Midnight Sun Baltic porter, and Primeval Tendency NZ IPA. Other beers, such as Helluva Lager, Weiz Guy and Mot Eureka, have gone back to their original style names.
Vasta said going back to style names was a reaction to customer feedback. Some pubs, such as The Malthouse in Wellington, refused to change the tap badges when the rebrand happened, such was their disgust at the new names. But why not make the change straight away? Vasta said: “commercial reasons”. That makes sense. After all, it costs a lot of money to print labels and boxes. Putting all those Helluva Lager boxes and labels on the scrapheap is not only burning money, but environmentally unchur.
The new branding is based around concepts already in the Tuatara cannon: the scales and third eye of the ancient lizard the brewery takes its name from. Tuatara has taken its famous textured bottles and put the scales onto their boxes. The third eye – something tuatara are born with – has been a feature of caps, but now makes its way to the front of every box and bottle. The six packs are coloured differently, something Parrotdog also does for its core range, while the larger 500mL bottles have different themes, yet still incorporate the third eye in some way. The navy tattoo theme of the Roughneck branding is a highlight and looks great on a t-shirt.
More importantly, the beer is good. While the Pilsner and Hefeweizen have always been excellent, it is the hazys which impressed the most. Rawlinson may be best known in New Zealand brewing circles for his Ninebarnyardowls wild and Belgian beer project, but it seems he knows his way around hoppy styles too. The 5.5 per cent hazy pale ale is especially quaffable, and gives that juicy, hazy hit everyone seems to want right now without pushing the alcohol levels too high. Putting a hazy hoppy thing into a six pack seems like a risk, considering the unstable nature of the style but Rawlinson says they have been subjecting the beer to forced aging, and it is still tasting great even when it is theoretically six months and older.
Not all the beers at the launch were amazing, though. The Baltic porter was one-dimensional, making some pine for some of Tuatara’s long-discontinued London Porter. Some of the other beers could also do with refining. But that would pull away from the great work done so far. They say you drink with your eyes. In the case of Tuatara, that first sip is all the better for the rebrand.