Beer is like ice cream, says Urbanaut’s Bruce Turner. Once it was mainly vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, or all three together in a Neapolitan.
“And when Goody Goody Gum Drops came out I thought ‘that’s wild, crazy’ and now you only have to walk past a Duck Island store and see the weird and wonderful things that are being done with ice cream flavours. There’s a real parallel between ice cream and beer.
“People want a flavour experience and they want to be excited by something new. Craft was one of the first to go wild with it but now it’s happening with other beverages.”
We’re talking about Urbanaut’s new Kihi (Kiss) sub-brand that’s launching with a mixed six-pack of ciders flavoured along the lines of Pal’s RTDs — blueberry, strawberry sundae, tropical fizz. Later they plan to bring in a hard lemonade, a ginger beer and, eventually spirit-based RTDs.
It reflects trends we’ve seen strongly in America. Even cult craft brewery Sierra Nevada now have a “day drinking” range of fermented cocktails (aka RTDs) such as Mimosa and White Sangria produced under their Strainge Beast label.
Firestone Walker, another brewery, synonymous with craft in California has the Cali Squeeze range of fruited beers.
Here, Good George were one of the first breweries to move strongly into this space, starting with gin during Covid lockdowns but now moving firmly into the “crafted cocktails” space and Garage Project still have Dirty Water as a side-brand seltzer. Relative Queenstown newcomer Double Cone have also gone early in this category with a Hard Lemonade. And Sawmill have just released a ginger beer as well.
For Urbanaut, they’ve arrived in this position for a simple reason: it’s what people are telling them they want.
“The backstory is that we’ve always wanted to do new things, try new flavours, push boundaries, innovate,” says co-founder Turner. “A lot of that had come from me at the start but now it’s from the wider team.
“We’ve planted the seed of ‘this is how open we can think, and this is how free we can let our ideas run’ and now, when we have NPD [new product development] meetings, I try not to get too involved and let other people run with it as that’s where new ideas come from.”
“And then taproom staff tell us what people come in and ask about.”
With a number of young women on staff, the ideas are not what traditionally older male brewers usually come up with. In taking on the staff and customer feedback, Turner said the next move was to let the staff run with it.
“I don’t know a lot about cider flavours and other drinks, so we put out the idea that the staff could form a collective and decide what would taste great, what they’d like to drink, what their friends like and what people in the taproom are into.
“And we would say `yes we can make that’ or ‘we think we can’ and do some trials.”
The collective is made up of four women and two men and Turner wasn’t even sure who they were: “They didn’t let me join the group so I don’t even know who’s in it.”
It was the group who came up with a new name, Kihi, which means kiss in te reo. “It’s light, fun and caring,” Turner says.
The Urbanaut are tapping into a younger audience with this range in a clear sign that if breweries are going to flourish have expand their portfolio beyond beer. So Urbanaut are now in the beverage market rather than just the beer space?
“I think so. I see that as the future, rather than having craft beer pigeonholed you have to be adaptive to what people want.”
And it’s not as if these flavours and the Kihi tone are a million miles away from what Urbanaut do now, with their Blender series and other beers like Jam Donut Hazy IPA.
“A few years ago, when we pitched a Jam Donut Hazy IPA, we made sure it tasted really artificial and sweet, we release that every six months and people go crazy for it. I can drink one but there are people that come into the taproom and can drink a few, and I was like: ‘OK that drinker exists and I didn’t know that’ … but if that’s what they want to drink we’ll look after them.
“We make beers people say they want to drink.”
And Turner sees no problem with a brewery being a drinks business.
“If you go back 30 years in the UK, breweries made all the range of drinks. [Yorkshire brewery] Sam Smith’s had all their beers and then there was Sam Smith’s soft drink, Sam Smith’s orange juice, Sam Smith’s mixers…
“And we realised have all the equipment here to make a lot of beverages.”
Another reason they are heading in this direction is that non-beer beverages tend to cater for a wider audience, such as those who are gluten-intolerant.
“We looked at doing a gluten-free beer for two years and I can see why there are not many out there because it’s really hard to make it taste good.”
The Kihi range is a testament to Urbanaut’s ability to tap-in to a younger audience. More than many other breweries, the self-styled “party” brand knows how to reach Gen Z.
Turner says that’s part of their evolution.
“I think it’s evolved from the people who have joined us on the way and we’ve trusted them when they’ve said ‘this would be really cool’.
“We don’t shut things down, we’ll give it a go, and if it works, sweet — if not, we gave it a go. And as a result that draws in people to the taproom who are from a modern era that we founders are still learning about. We’ve realised now that while we want to make beverages that suit our loyal customers who have been with us from the start, we also see what the future will be for socialising with drinks and when you look at it that way, it’s really a broad market.”