May 7, 2017

 Left to right: Jos Ruffell (Garage Project), Ken Grossman (Serria Nevada), Pete Gilliespie (Garage Project)


“This brewery is a work of art,” says Garage Project’s Jos Ruffell, on a scratchy phone line from North Carolina. He’s gazing up in awe at Sierra Nevada’s vast Mills River Brewery, a huge, ornate and sculpted building far from the craft brewing pioneer’s California roots.



This is adapted from an interview which originally ran on The Spinoff in February 2017.


He’s also looking up at a potential vision of Garage Project’s future. The madly experimental Wellington craft brewer has managed to be both a cult phenomenon here and overseas while also growing explosively enough to top the tech firms which make up the Deloitte’s Fast 50 in 2015. It has also thus far resisted the urge to sell up which is creeping through the New Zealand craft beer scene. Prompted by the sale of Tuatara to Heineken, announced in late January, I called Ruffell to talk about the sale, their continued independence and the importance of their relationship to creative communities.


What was your reaction to the Tuatara sale?

It had been rumoured for quite a while – so it wasn’t a complete shock. I think also when you look at it, Tuatara had taken on private equity funding from Rangatira. And at some point there has to be a return on that investment. So a little bit of disappointment, but also, knowing Carl [Vasta] and the team there – he’s been in it a long time, so I’m happy for them. But on the other hand, a bit of a missed opportunity.




How so?

We’ve seen the industry develop and grow in strides, and breweries like Tuatara have definitely been at the vanguard of that. So by being acquired, it just adds that little bit of confusion back into the market again. People might think they’re drinking an independent brewery’s beer, not realising it’s owned by a multinational. Then there’s the smaller pieces – Tuatara have put a lot of taps into bars and venues, where the venue might not otherwise have had a tap. Some of those are independent taps – but now they’re tied to Heineken and DB. So it’s a step back in that direction, with more tied taps in New Zealand than there were previously.


Have you been approached?

I think it’s fair to say that if you’re a brewery doing interesting things or have created a following – you’ll struggle to find one which hasn’t been approached. Not just in New Zealand and Australia, but around the world. The larger breweries are definitely seeing a dwindling market share, and a pretty significant growth in craft, and they’re looking to address that. It doesn’t trake much for a larger brewery to float an idea to a smaller brewery. So I think you wouldn’t find many breweries which hadn’t been approached or probed.



"We get inspired by [the creative community] and want to give something back".



What do you do?

We have an open mind about where the brewery, where the Garage might go. We started it to be nimble and light-footed and to move in different directions. But while we’re always interested in what ideas people might have, it’s nothing we’ve explored very deeply.


Describe your relationship with the arts and cultural communities – you seem to give away a lot of beer.

We kind of feed the creative community. We get inspired by it and want to give something back. When we opened the garage back in 2011, it was one of the few spaces in Wellington where we could actually work and not be hassled. Five years ago, councils probably weren’t so supportive – they probably saw our look as just tagging. But our brewery has always been covered in art, and it covers our bottles and cans. So for us to carry that on – we just like working those groups. We get inspired by them, and we get to put our beers in the hands of people who might not be beer drinkers. Or they might drink beer, but not have previously considered what beer could taste like.


I guess the packaging of your bottles tends to be an original piece, from the ground up every time. I guess that helps justify the support and the relationship with the street art community.

It’s really interesting. When you think about the labels, they’re a really interesting way for an artist to get their work out there. If someone does a can for us, the minimum run will be around 10,000 cans. That’s a lot of individual pieces of art, for people to grab and share and hold. It really helps the artists get exposure I think, as well. It can help people get a really good following. I think Autumn is really good example – she did the Calavera Catrina piece for us. I know she’s got a lot of fans from that can.



© 2017 by Duncan Greives


This is adapted from an interview which originally ran on The Spinoff in February 2017.



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