One of my personal joys from the recent New World Beer & Cider Awards, was seeing the return of Townshend to the national conversation after their Sutton Hoo American Amber Ale won a Top-30 award.
Chatting with founder Martin Townshend, the vibe is that the award came at the right time as the brewery looks to expand in the next year or so.
The rebirth of Townshend is a feel-good story for the ages – someone could make a great movie about it: Plucky Englishman sets up brewery in shed in rural Moutere. Wins awards, has cult following, makes an array of fascinating beers from English and Belgian classics to new-age American-styles. Hits the peak in 2014 when named Champion Brewery of New Zealand and then embarks on ambitious expansion plan that relies on a contract brewing model.
Things go wrong. It’s a disaster. Plucky Englishman thinks about packing it all in but digs deep and refocuses on his local area. Eventually moves from the relative isolation of Moutere into Mouteka. Business starts to recover – and – after 15 years as a one-man band, he hires a general manager and a brewery assistant. Brewery wins award. There are plans to grow again … how will it end?
I ask Townshend if the award is a stepping-stone to relaunching the “empire”.
He’s excitedly conservative in his response.
“It’s fair to say I did have the rug pulled under my feet a few years ago but I only had myself to blame – but we survived. And then Covid smacked us in the teeth and still, we survived.
“I like to think that when push comes to shove – until this point – I’ve been a survivor and that’s really exciting.
“But we are about to expand again – I say again, because I can never seem to keep up. I don’t know about an ‘empire’ but it is time for us to be a bit bolder.”
Two years ago, Townshend hired Antony Burke as a general manager and the pair have settled on a plan to grow towards capacity, get the business model correct and hopefully “hit cruise control”.
“it’s about trying to get a happy medium,” Townshend says. “It’s great to produce millions of litres a year but that comes with a bundle of headaches and I find it stressful enough producing what we do.
“I don’t want to be the size of Speight’s, but once upon a time when I had my issues – it was because I set my goals far too high and far too quickly and my inexperience let me down.”
Burke says growing the brewery is the only way to properly leave the past behind.
“The only way forward is expansion. We do have to continue to get bigger,” Burke says. “There will be a point where we will be at capacity, but we’re a couple of years away from that.
“We know people respect the brand – it’s just about making it more accessible. If people are able to find it at their New World or Liqourland, we believe they will buy it, so it’s about getting it back in front of people.
“The local market is going really well and it’s a natural progression to move out of the region and grow areas like Wellington and Auckland.
“We do get people popping in all the time saying ‘it’s so cool to come down here and find you – I love your beers so much but I can’t find them’.”
Townshend loves the fact people make the “pilgrimage” to Mouteka, where his brewery is part of the hugely popular Toad Hall café and shop.
“Our goal is to get all over the country – but I also think if you want the product, come and find us and we won’t let you down when you get here.”
Townshend is rapt that Sutton Hoo was the beer that picked up an award – it has been like a loyal dog.
“I’ve done heaps of beers over the years, but there’s a couple of beers that have always stayed with me and Sutton Hoo is one of them. Other bigger, bolder, hoppier beers have come and gone but this little beer seems to survive – a bit like me.”
What he loves about the 4.7 per cent Amber Ale is that there’s not many places to hide with it.
“I’m not disguising anything with a ton of dry-hopping or an amazing yeast,” he explains. “But because it’s not dry-hopped it’s been hard to have consistency year on year … it’s one of the few beers where I use Nelson Sauvin and that hop changes from year to year and it does affect that beer. It’s waxed and waned in its pint glass, if you know what I mean.”
The beer has its devotees – there’s a group in Nelson called Shag (Sutton Hoo Appreciation Group). “If it’s not on cask at The Free House, there’s some whingeing going on.”
Burke describes Sutton Hoo as a “craftsman’s” beer and when Townshend talks about it – you can almost sense he’s talking about himself.
“I’ve tweaked it over the years and it’s a terrific, reliable beer now.
“It maybe disappeared behind a myriad of other beers but now it’s come back out again – it’s just terrific.”