Andrew Childs lowers his 195cm frame on to a bar stool and pops the top off one of his irreverently amusing Behemoth beers.
Apart from being New Zealand’s tallest brewer, he’s also arguably one of the best-qualified – having spurned a career as a lawyer for the hard graft of making beer.
Leaving the regimented world of legal argument for the fun of beer might seem irrational but, as Childs himself says: “If I wanted to follow the rules, I would still be a lawyer. When I left the legal profession people said: ‘are you crazy?’ But I don’t have any regrets. I wanted to make brewing my life.”
Childs – a qualified barrister and solicitor – was a legal policy analyst for ACC when he quit law for brewing.
In retrospect, he believes he studied law for the wrong reasons.
“I read too many John Grisham books and thought a career in law would be like that … I found it really hard going. It didn’t come that naturally for me. I know so many people who have left the legal profession and I think that’s because law works you so hard you find out what you really want to do.”
A child fascinated with beer
Childs’ long-winded route to brewing was seeded as far back as his childhood.
His family holidayed in Nelson and one of his abiding memories is visiting the old Mac’s brewery in Stoke to buy ginger beer. At 11, he was using money from a paper round to buy beer mugs.
“I don’t know why I started collecting beer mugs, but I just loved the 1980s styles you’d find at the Salvation Army stores – I liked the idea of collecting them.
“I did a paper at school – maybe in fourth form – on the history of alcohol. It was about 40 pages long, but it was definitive and my teacher so loved it she wanted to keep it as a reference book. It’s not like either of my parents were big drinkers, but I was fascinated by alcohol and the culture around it.”
As an adult, that fascination morphed into an appreciation for flavour, but brewing didn’t enter the equation until his late 20s when he asked some of his best friends to put a spin on a New Year’s Eve tradition and make resolutions for him. “One of them said, ‘you always wanted to home brew’ – and, two weeks later, I was home brewing.”
Wellington in a Pint breakthrough
He joined a group of avid Wellington home brewers and a breakthrough moment came with Wellington In A Pint, a Wellington-themed home brew competition in 2013, where four winners brewed their beer with a commercial partner as part of a four-pack to promote Wellington.
“That was the first sign of how the Behemoth approach to things would work,” Childs says in a self-deprecating reference to Behemoth’s rapid-fire approach of making a new beer every couple of weeks. “We entered 13 beers, which was 8 per cent of all entries. Four made the top 32, two made top 16 and one was in the top four.”
That was a coffee brown ale – called Celia Wade Brown Ale – a reference to the mayor of Wellington at the time. It was also an first indication of how Childs would approach his business – clever marketing, a little bit of politics and a lot of fun.
“That beer was the best publicity we could have got. That is what I love about beer – the creativity – there’s nothing else like craft beer for how crazy you can get about names and recipes.”
At the time, Childs was brewing under the moniker Tall Tale Ales. “But that was too much of a mouthful. I googled ‘Behemoth’ and found no-one had taken it. I was 6-foot-5 and a big guy so it suited me, but in America they also call the big brewers – AB InBev and Coors – the ‘behemoths’, so I thought it was ironic, as we were doing such small batches.
“But the name is becoming less ironic by the day.”
Churly is born
Five years on, it’s easy to lose count of how many different beers Behemoth has produced. It’s approaching 120, with around 40 coming out in 2018 alone. They are mostly hoppy beers, with a variety of names referencing popular culture – movies, politics, TV shows, books – all held together by Churly, a grotesquely charming bald, toothy creature who was born of luck, rather than planning.
“One of our designers had drawn this character and he was doing the thumbs-up and we thought, ‘that’s great for a new beer we’d called Chur!’. And then we realised we could do other things with him. It just happened naturally – we didn’t think, ‘let’s come up with a concept and run with it’ – it was a happy accident-beer that turned into 110-plus beers. We named him Churly because he first appeared on the Chur! pale ale.”
Churly has donned a number of guises, changing costume for each beer and occasionally being transformed to film and TV characters such as Otto from The Simpsons, The Dude from The Big Lebowski, Jules Winnfield (played by Sam Jackson) from Pulp Fiction … and Donald Trump.
Behemoth is among a swag of breweries that have been criticised by Alcohol Healthwatch for using cartoon characters – the argument being bright labels and cartoon characters will encourage kids to drink. Childs doesn’t quite laugh off those concerns, but he’s unrepentant.
“We think of it as adult cartoons – we reference The Simpsons, Family Guy – we do things that aren’t meant to appealing to kids. Tasty Beverage has Sam Jackson from Pulp Fiction – and that’s not for kids. Sure, it’s bright and colourful, but adults like bright and colourful as much as kids do.
For the most part, the ideas for Behemoth’s many labels come from one source.
“I get people saying to me, ‘your marketing team does a great job’ and, I say, ‘what marketing team?’. It’s just me, making up stuff I think is funny. I do reference a lot of popular culture, but my dad used to run movie theatres and I worked at a video store – this is why I do these things, because I’ve watched way too many movies. And if, I think it’s funny – even though it’s a bit teenage boy – then I know there’s lots of other people that share that sense of humour. Sometimes, we do it better than others.”
Dump The Trump propels Behemoth into orbit
The beer that propelled Behemoth into national consciousness was last year’s rendition of Dump The Trump – Childs giving voice to his disapproval of the US President.
When the beer came out, the Behemoth Facebook page was besieged by American (and Kiwi) right-wingers, who posted abusive messages and loaded the page with one-star reviews to take down the overall rating. The beer community rallied around and inundated the page with five-star reviews to counter the negative ones and Childs appeared on prime-time TV.
The irony is that the attention pushed Behemoth to a new audience.
“The exact opposite happened to what these Trump-tards wanted – they wanted to bring us down, but it helped propel us to a new level.”
The real joke is that Dump The Trump wasn’t new, nor was it was the first anti-Trump beer Behemoth produced. “When we first did Dump The Trump, Trump was a candidate who no-one thought had a s… show of becoming president – it was preposterous and it still is – the beer was a joke. And then he got the candidacy and we thought, ‘let’s do it again’. And then he won the election and I was just shell-shocked; and I thought, ‘I’m not brewing this again as it’s not funny anymore’.
“But then people were calling for him to be impeached, so we did Im-Peach-Ment (a sour peach ale) and we said we’d keep doing that until he got impeached or left office – two years later we’re still doing it. But I thought, ‘this [impeachment] is taking too long – let’s do Dump The Trump again and it had only just started hitting the shelves when it all blew up.”
It’s not always been so peachy for Childs – there are scars that hurt a lot more than the hate-mail and abusive phone calls he still gets from Trump fans.
High level burns test resolve and relationship
In late 2015, the brewing industry was rocked by news of an industrial accident at 8 Wired Brewing in Warkworth, where Childs was making one of his beers under contract with 8 Wired assistant Jason Bathgate. A brew kettle exploded under pressure, coating Childs and Bathgate in hundreds of litres of boiling sugary wort (unfermented beer). The burns were deep and extreme. The pair were air-lifted to the burns unit at Middlemore, where they stayed for a number of days – but the full recovery, both physical and emotional, took many more months.
Childs looks down on his scarred arms and says: “I still get really upset about it – I look down at my arms and see these big patches of distorted skin pigment and think, ‘that’s really messed up’. The more time goes on, the less you think about it – but it’s taken a long time and I really wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemies – it is the most unpleasant thing I’ve been through. High-level burns are just horrible.”
And yes, he had doubts about going back to brew again. “But it also made me prove my resolve. Once the drugs wore off, my attitude was, ‘this sucks, but I haven’t worked this hard to stop now. There was no going back – I was still a one-man band at that point – and I had to make up mind and just do it. I want to see how far we could take this just to see how far we could take it – if you give up early you’ll never know how far you can go. So the burns were just a speed-bump, in the end.”
The accident also sealed Childs relationship with Hannah Miller, now his wife of two years.
Miller, born and bred in Portland, Oregon, is a New York-trained chef and butcher who has worked in some of the world’s best restaurants, as well as doing adventurous stints in Antarctica cooking for scientist at a US base there – “a great way to save money,” she says.
She and Childs had been dating only nine months when he ended up at the burns unit. At the time, she wondered if their relationship could survive the trauma.
“I had to decide – we’d been serious for four months when that happened,” Hannah says. “I was in shock and it was so much, so draining. I was complaining to my mother that I was so tired and stressed that I lost 2kg in a week. I was overwhelmed and said to mom, ‘why am I doing this?’. People were saying, ‘Hannah you’re a saint’, but I felt exasperated. My mom said, ‘he’s your boyfriend, you’re not married, you can leave – or if you care about this guy you’ll stick around. The only option you don’t have is to stick around and complain about it’.
“That made me really mad, but it also made me think about it and I decided, ‘yeah, he’s the guy for me’. He proposed a few months later and my answer was, ‘yes, yes, yes’.”
The couple are now married and in business together.
The Lady Butcher
“I was always adamant I wouldn’t work with my partner – I’ve seen it tear other people apart,” Miller says, “but I haven’t looked back and we very much run Behemoth together and I absolutely love it and it’s so much fun.”
Miller has her own business, A Lady Butcher, that supplies charcuterie and smallgoods to a number of top restaurants, as well as Farro Fresh and Moore Wilsons.
Behemoth and A Lady Butcher are about to come together under one room, with Behemoth crowd-funding to build a brewery-bar-restaurant-butchery. After five years as a “gypsy” brewer, Childs wants his own place near the top of Auckland’s Dominion Rd. But it will be more than a brewery. Hannah’s business will also be on the premises, as well as a bar and restaurant.
“This will be the culmination of everything I’ve done in my career,” Miller says. “All these seemingly random things I’ve done are going to come together.”
Her ethos as a chef and butcher is driven by a meeting with legendary chef Fergus Henderson, of St John in London. He’s regarded as the father of modern-day nose-to-tail cuisine. “I was 18 and meeting him changed my life. I had never heard of nose to tail, never eaten liver, pig’s head.”
From doing butchery in restaurants around the world, she developed a passion for charcuterie and curing, which is the heart of her business.
The new premises – to be called Churly’s – will offer visitors a view of both the brewery and Hannah’s 1000kg meat-drying fridge. The restaurant will have an on-site butcher and focus on nose-to-tail eating, with beer to match. “The menu will change every day based on what cuts we have and we’ll make our own burgers and sausages,” Miller says.
For Childs, who remains unabashedly ambitious, getting a “home” for Behemoth is just the next step on a journey that has seen Behemoth become one of the most-popular craft beer brands in the country – they even out-scored Garage Project to be voted the country’s top brewery by members of SOBA (the Society of Beer Advocates) – a decision Childs calls “gobsmacking”.
“We’re doing well, but it’s not a success yet,” he says. “No matter what we’re doing we’re only getting started.
“One of the things about me is that I’m never satisfied – yeah, I’m doing well, but I’m not doing as well as that guy. That’s a driver. There are things we want to achieve that we haven’t come close to yet.”
The irony is that Childs, who was once “called to the bar”, will be making his future at a bar of another kind.