I like to think I’m a tiny bit responsible for the creation of Three Boys — that it was in part the pain of having to mark my organic chemistry papers that drove Ralph Bungard from lecturing at the University of Canterbury and toward the formation of his future brewery.

Fast forward a (terrifying) number of years and Three Boys — the champion exhibitor at this year’s NZ Beer Awards — are part of the bedrock of Christchurch craft brewing.  They’re the second oldest brewery in the city, and some of my earliest and most formative craft beer moments have been through their output.  Years before the IPA explosion, Three Boys Golden Ale and Oyster Stout stunned my young, unrefined palate. 

Oyster Stout is still among my most drunk craft beers of all time.  Not necessarily one that I think about a whole lot, it’s just one of those beers that’s become part of me.  Whenever I see it on tap at a bar it’s like running into an old friend, and I think that typifies the relationship Christchurch itself has with Three Boys.  They are intrinsically part of the city.

The reason for that might be the unique trajectory that Three Boys has taken as they’ve grown.  Somehow becoming more local even as they grew.  You won’t find them on many supermarket shelves anymore but visit almost any bar or restaurant in the city and you’ll reliably find them on tap. 

“In the early days, we probably sold 90% of our product packaged with the remainder in keg. In the 18 years we have been operating that proportion has probably flipped. Draft keg beer is massive for us, it is something we have consciously driven as it works well for our local hospitality and our environmental ethos,” Bungard says.

Another thing incongruous with their super local profile is the size of the brewery, which is bewilderingly large for their local-first approach.  Even I have to take a second to remind myself just how much beer flows out of here in a year, and I’m not the only one.

“Visitors are often surprised at how large Three Boys. Particularly those from outside of Te Waipounamu South Island. I think that is perhaps because we are so locally focused. We do sell all over Aotearoa, but we really aim to look after our locals first and foremost.”

The bulk of their annual 500,000 litre production is Three Boys but they also contract brew for Ghost Brewing and do contract packaging for Beer Baroness and Burkes.

Sustainability has always been a core focus at the brewery and they’ve constantly striven for meaningful advances in their green practices.

“Social and environmental sustainability has been a Three Boys thing since day one,” says Bungard, adding that his wife Brigid Casey’s environmental science background helped inform Three Boys core values.

Three Boys social conscience
Ralph Bungard and Brigid Casey

“On the environmental side, we are 100% electric — including our boiler — which is very unusual for a brewery of our size. We have been plastic container-free since 2017, and right now we are swapping most of our gas process away from carbon dioxide to nitrogen gas and installing solar to help boost our electric capacity.

“One very unusual move from us in the last few months is to become a ‘merchandise free’ brewery. We thought long and hard about how we could make our merch more socially responsible like having ethically-sourced cotton T-shirts and such. After some thought, we concluded that the best way to become more environmentally friendly in this space is to just stop supplying some of the shit that clutters up our lives. If you need a T-shirt, beanie or sunglasses, buy one from a reputable, quality manufacturer whose business is to make all the right socially responsible decisions. But, if you need good beer, then come to us.”

Social responsibility is often less visible than environmental measures, but for Three Boys it’s just as important.  They are living wage accredited, and a sponsor of many music, art programs and galleries around the city.  Three Boys also stands apart from other brewers with their political presence.  Simply holding political views at all is a rare stance for a larger producer, but Bungard firmly believes that with size and influence comes responsibility.

“We deliberately try to use any small social leverage we have for good. I’m a strong believer in vocalising good social opinion — particularly in our current click-bait media world where we hear so much from groups vocalising shit social attitudes and opinions. Calling out national and local government and other businesses on below par performance or attitudes on social and environmental issues is not unusual for Three Boys, especially on our politically active Twitter account.

“I think that good, local businesses need to be more vocal on social issues and drive change for good — stand up for what you believe in and have the faith that your customers will admire you for it even if it is not completely their thinking. This is something that most businesses shy away from either because they don’t think or concern themselves about social-political issues or they are too worried about their share price to step into that social media maelstrom.

“Three Boys is in a sweet spot in some ways, being just big enough where our opinion can be heard and small enough to know our customers and hospitality understand our ethos, even if it is not a perfect match to theirs.”

Whether or not one shares their political views, the fact Three Boys are brave enough to get their point of view out there and stand by it is what makes them not just a member of the Christchurch community, but a mainstay of it.  That’s why whenever I raise another pint of Oyster Stout I feel just a little bit closer to it than the next beer along.