After keeping a low profile for a few years Martin Townshend is back on track.
Townshend Brewery leapt to fame with the Champion New Zealand Brewery title in 2014 – a stunning feat for a small brewery that was practically a backyard operation in Upper Moutere.
But things went awry for the acclaimed brewery thanks to some bad batches of beer brewed under contract at Tuatara as Townshend tried to meet the demand created by his award-winning beers.
Stung financially and hurting from the disaster, Townshend hunkered down and tried to focus on his local patch around the Nelson area. A move from Upper Moutere to a Motueka – with the brewery and taproom relocated to the famous Toad Hall has seen Townshend’s fortunes turn around.
“Life’s good. Things are ticking along nicely and we’ve just taken on a sales and marketing manager … things are dandy actually. We’re really starting to get back to where we were a few years back and it’s a nice little business.”
Townshend said the shift to the more populous Motueka township had helped “enormously” but added: “Our whole attitude’s changed – we’re much more focused on local and we’re getting enormous support and it’s heaps of fun.
“I do think the quality of the beers has gone up with less pressure. We’re doing things correctly rather than more ambitiously, if you know what I mean.”
Townshend had to work hard to convince people to trust his brand after a push to go national took him into contract brewing deal with Tuatara.
Ironically Townshend’s problems started when they were crowned champion brewery by the Brewers Guild of New Zealand in 2014.
The award drove a huge increase in demand for his beers around the country. Faced with a choice of upgrading his existing, small, brewery or having his beer produced off-site, Townshend struck a brewing and distribution deal with Tuatara, based in Paraparaumu. The plan was to lift volume as well as move to 330ml six packs instead of the usual 500ml single bottles for his most popular beers.
The beers brewed by Tuatara included Black Arrow Pilsner, Sutton Hoo and Aotearoa Pale Ale.
It was a plan, Townshend thought, that would take his brewery to the next level. But things turned sour as bottle after bottle of beer gushed on opening. Townshend reckons he was getting 15 to 20 emails a week from unhappy drinkers. “The feedback from the public has been absolutely devastating.
“It’s been so heart-breaking,” Townshend said in 2016, “and this ordeal has hit my passion enormously hard but I’ve learned a lot about myself … I’ve become a much stronger and resilient person.”
Outgoing Tuatara chief executive Richard Shirtcliffe, who has since joined Coffee Supreme, says the beers were laboratory tested for an infection and “all came back negative”.
He believes the problem was caused by an over-estimation of demand for Townshend’s beer in six packs and as a result the beer spent a long time in unchilled storage and, because some of stock was unpasteurised, refermented in the bottle.
For his part Townshend didn’t realise the beer would be stored unchilled and he didn’t pasteurise the beer on advice from Tuatara. He feels he put too much trust in his contract partner. “I perhaps didn’t make as prudent decisions as I should have and I have to take some responsibility.”
But he also believes adamantly that regulations should be introduced to show where and when a beer was a produced so everyone involved in the process can be held accountable.
“Even though that beer has got my name on it – we didn’t have a single thing to do with it. I think contract brewers should be required to show where the product is made, by whom and when.”
Townshend, via an announcement on Facebook, announced the end of the arrangement in June.
The post went on to say: “We now have a new focus for distribution in-house with closer monitoring through producing high quality small batch beer, with an eye towards local brewery expansion to meet the demand rather than an outsourced approach.”
Shirtcliffe responded to the post saying: “The whole Tuatara team wishes you the very best, and every (thoroughly deserved) success. You’re a hugely talented brewer, a helluva character, and a top class bloke. We’ve loved working with you, and we (TB & TB) can be jointly proud that we made it possible for Townshend to have a crack at 6 packs, and be ranged nationwide in retail.”
The irony for Townshend is that his own brewery capacity is now limited by the fact he is contract brewing for others, including Choice Bros and Horse Box.
He is focusing on “small batch, high turnover … that’s how we’re going to maintain our reputation from now on”.
Longer term he will continue to concentrate on English-style beers and said customers can expect an increase bottle size and a renewed focus on bottle-conditioned beer designed to age.
In the medium term he wants to concentrate on restoring the public’s faith in tsuch well-loved beers as JCIPA, Old House ESB, Sutton Hoo and others by focusing on “small batch, high turnover … that’s how we’re going to maintain our reputation from now on”. And he seems to be doing just that …
Longer term he will continue to focus on English-style beers including a barley wine, a style he hasn’t brewed before, and other traditional recipes.
Customers can expect an increase bottle size and a renewed focus on bottle-conditioned beer.Dedicated Townshend supporters can still get his bottled beer by ordering direct from the brewery at townshendbrewery.co.nz.
I for one, won’t be giving up on Martin and his beer. He’s a craftsman and character – who makes beer full of personality – and I reckon he’ll be back winning awards soon enough.