When Christchurch brewery Two Thumb opened the doors to their new Colombo Street bar and brewery the feeling amongst the team must have been surreal. Most successful brewers follow a natural trajectory as they grow in popularity and scope. Two Thumb had just gone from one of the city’s smallest breweries to one of the largest, and they had done it overnight.
So how did an obscure little outfit find itself suddenly standing at the doors of the big time? That’s a story which concludes with a remarkable collision of right place and right time but starts many years ago in a very different Christchurch.
Two Thumb’s current owners Dave Dixon, Mark Limber and new partner Andy Annable are the second keepers of the Two Thumb brand. It originally rose from the rubble of the earthquakes. Forest ecologist and aspiring brewer Clayton Wallwork began the Manchester Street site in 2013, naming it after the Mid Canterbury mountain range that was home to his family crib. Mark and Dave bought the brewery but decided to keep the Two Thumb name, as well as the mountainous iconography, now represented in the logo as a striking topographic motif.
The Manchester St site expanded over the years from a small ramshackle brewery into a slightly larger ramshackle brewery, gaining a bar and performance space along the way. The slightly awkward location and make-do aesthetic were typical of the post-quake Christchurch vibe, and that style is still represented at the venue today.
A bustling venue
The brewery became a bustling little harbour of life for the inner-city community, holding weekly and sometimes even daily events, from quiz nights and live music to mini beer festivals. The sheer pace of things going on seemed impossible to maintain, but the fact that they kept it up (and still do) is a testament to the dedication and energy poured into the place. But, successful as it was, the Manchester St brewery was simply out of room to expand any further.
There was always a vision to grow beyond the limitations of that original site, but being able to walk in, flick on the lights and turn the keys on a pristine brewery and ready-to-go bar was a scenario well beyond expectation.
Silver linings around the Covid phenomena have been diminishingly thin, but with the sector suffering under such dire uncertainty, anyone brave enough to be getting into the hospitality space rather than out of it is going to find some good deals out there. Two Thumb might have just found the deal of the century. Acquiring the brewery and building lease from Lion, with all relevant licences still intact was a hell of a thing for the team to pull off.
The fear at first was that The Fermentist would suffer the same treatment as the similarly ill-fated Harrington’s brewery, another Lion property in Christchurch whose much sought after-brewery was largely lost to the wind after being closed down.
The story of The Fermentist’s short and troubled existence is complex and fascinating, entirely worthy of its own article (watch this space). But the building itself was never at fault, nor the meticulously designed brewery. Modelled after Panhead’s (similarly stunning) facility in Wellington, the Colombo St brewery is a no-expense-spared marvel of design. The floor plan isn’t huge, but the space is exactingly utilised. The kettles and fermenters run down either side of the long brewing floor, forming a cathedral of stainless steel that towers up into the roof.
All of the much-espoused eco-tech that the brewery was built around is still functional, providing both solar power and solar heating which (weather dependent) allows brews to start off at close to 50degC rather than ambient temperature, meaningfully cutting down on power costs involved in bringing a kettle to the boil.
The potential capacity is 1.2 million litres per annum, which absolutely dwarfs the 50,000 litres of the Manchester Street site. Utilising such a vast increase in production space will demand a major effort to extend distribution, so the plan is to gradually grow into the space over time. In the meantime, that extra capacity will be made available for contract brewing. I’m sure there are a few indie brewers that would relish the chance to take that brewery for a spin, so expect there to be good interest on that front.
Along with the huge increase in brewing capacity, there was the challenge of crewing a whole new venue at a time when hospitality staff were notoriously scarce. Luckily the brewery had built up a large network of casual staff over the years, and many were keen to step up their roles. Just to prove that there’s no such thing as an easy ride in hospo, some last-minute hurdles did arise that have put the team to the test, but they’re adapting.
On May 6 the final customs sign-off arrived, and the inaugural batch was mashed in. There was only one beer it could have been: Yorkshire Bitter, Two Thumb’s English styled classic. Ever the hopeful advocate for real cask ale returning to the city, I had to ask whether that could be on the cards. They wisely didn’t make any promises, but the Yorkshiremen Mark and Dave especially would love to bring real ale back to Christchurch one day.
All of this was a brave move for Two Thumb, and the effort they’ve made here in defying the great hospitality depression can only benefit the Christchurch craft beer scene. An incredible brewery has been resuscitated after seemingly facing an early demise and we’ve gained an important new venue that’s perfectly situated to link the craft beer trail from south Christchurch to the central city. I can now hit my usual Somerfield spot at the Moon Under Water and strike out into the city on foot, with local craft beer never more than 15 minutes away. Truly the sign of a civilisation’s progress.