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Friday, 01 February 2019 12:13

Always look on the bright side of life – the story behind Whistling Sisters

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I am often being asked to, “tell me about that new Whistling Sisters place”. So, here you go. I spent some time chatting with Bede Roe (part-owner and sales person) and Dale Gould (head brewer) for this piece. It was great fun. Bede has an infectious energy when talking about the brewery and its background, and the vision for the future.

It is also great fun visiting Whistling Sisters on our Craft Beer College tours. We go “behind the scenes” and into the brewery for a look-around. And, a nice brewery it is indeed. It was designed and engineered in Nelson, making it one of the few, if not the only, New Zealand made breweries in Central Wellington. Despite Nelson being close to home, it took a long time to build.

The 2016 Kaikoura earthquake had an impact. The brewery and restaurant building was in the design and construction phase. When the quake struck, the consulting engineers were called away to prioritise the assessment and remediation of existing, occupied buildings. It was a bit of a set back, along with the imposition (by the local council) of the $16,000 extractor on the brewing kettle. Steam is now collected and condensed to go down the drain rather than being vented outside. But, on the bright side (!), they’re looking at ways it can be recycled and re-used.

The mention of looking on the bright side is a nice little segue into the title of this piece, and the background to the brewery and its restaurant – The Fermentery. It might surprise some people. Even though the story is on their website, there’s been criticism of the name due to it being owned and run, primarily, by two men; Bede and his business colleague Russel Scott. Russel has shares in the brewery and owns the restaurant. People might not see the commitment, and time, put in by Bede’s wife, Angie, when they say this.

The Whistling Sisters name is painfully close to Russel and the Scott family’s hearts. This is one of the reasons none of the team make a big deal about it (even though, arguably, they should). Russel and his wife Elwyn, sadly lost a beloved daughter – Karen Louisa – to secondary breast cancer in 2015.

As her cancer progressed Karen Louisa took a passionate interest in work to find a cure and to support women with the deadly disease. The family wanted to honour her legacy, setting up the Karen Louisa Foundation with a focus on generating funding to provide direct assistance in supporting patients with secondary breast cancer. The Scott family used their networks, and businesses, to run events and raise money – quiz nights and auctions – and soon realised that they were being supported by the same set of friends and customers. For the Foundation to continue, it needed a more sustainable income.

On New Year’s Eve 2016, Russel sent Bede a text, asking him if he still wanted to start a brewery. “I thought he was pissed”, Bede chuckles. But, a brewery was a dream that he’d talked about over the years with wife Angie. He spent 15 years at Lion Nathan including as their sales representative for Steinlager in the United Kingdom. During that time, he watched the beer scene develop in New Zealand, noticing some of Lion’s traditional products being swapped out by the likes of Gisborne Gold.

The beer scene was something Bede and Angie wanted to be a part of but never really had the start-up capital needed, especially after a few failed hospitality ventures in Hamilton. Russel could provide that capital, if Bede and Angie could provide future support to the Karen Louisa Foundation; through the profits from the brewery. It was a risk for them – as they thought there were tracking towards retirement – but the lure of the dream was too strong. So, a deal was struck.

The name Whistling Sisters was chosen to reflect the brewery and restaurant’s charitable goal, and the Scott family’s focus on finding the good from a sad situation.

When you're chewing life's gristle,
Don't grumble,
Give a whistle
And this'll help things turn out for the best.
And...Always look on the bright side of life.

Those of you old enough to know the song, know the chorus is accompanied by a whistle.

Bede comments that since the start of the dream, all those years ago, the beer scene and “the market has become more discerning, it’s really, really changed”. But, his background, Angie’s support and Russel’s networks have been really helpful in establishing pathways to bring the Whistling Sisters beer to market.

As well as leveraging established networks, Bede’s focused on building new relationships. Along with sales, he does most of the deliveries himself.  He finds that the time spent dropping off and picking up kegs provides a great opportunity to talk with bar and restaurant owners.

As a newcomer to Wellington, one might have though brewer Dale would have to build new relationships as well, but he and wife Gemma have comfortably slotted in. They’ve come via Blenheim, where Dale spent some time brewing with Renaissance. Prior to that, Dale worked in a few breweries in Australia with quite the pedigree. He started at Mash Brewing in Western Australia and spent time at Stone and Wood.

Dale’s got a long history in the industry with his dad being a General Manager at Dominion Breweries (DB), and then owning the rights to supply and distribute beer – in beer tankers – at Eden Park. He remembers climbing into them to scrub them out as a skinny little tacker at the time. So, he certainly knows the old sayings about brewing being more cleaning than anything else!

Cleaning skills, qualifications in brewing from Edith Cowan University and in  engineering, and considerable creative flare has seen Dale create quite the range of beers; some of which have been missed by the beer community. This is, in part, because beer people are not the sole focus. Dale comments that it could actually limit their potential reach in an increasingly crowded market. He notes the long list of beers that compete for taps in beer bars and how long it takes to work to the top.

So, when Whistling Sisters launched, it was with a core range, all under 5%, designed at building brand loyalty in restaurants and bars, not necessarily beer bars. That said, as a beer person, I thought their original Golden Ale was a treat and it’s a shame that they’re not making it anymore. It wasn’t all that well named. Those who like a traditional Golden Ale were likely surprised by the beer’s dry, spicy finish from the Belgian Ale yeast. Those that like a Belgian Ale yeast, and who should have liked the approachable ABV over a warm Wellington summer, never would have known it was a feature of the beer.

The Golden Ale was an interesting reflection on the impact of marketing. Something the team continues to think about in the description and sale of their beer. Bede’s really keen on using “balanced” and “structured”. When questioned to clarify what he means by this, his point is beer without rough edges and without a particular focus on a single ingredient.

Bede doesn’t want Whistling Sisters to be making big, bitter hop bombs, seeing that there’s enough of these in the market. He’s got nothing against them – neither does Dale – but they don’t want to try to compete with the likes of Epic and Garage Project. (They have, however, succumbed to producing an IPA as so many people ask for the style over the bar. We’re still IPA obsessed in Wellington, and New Zealand generally).

As a brewer, Dale has a real bent for brewing with herbs and spices; often with a South East Asian or East Asian flare. His Rooty Toot Toot has ginger, galangal and turmeric, and this year carrot thrown into the mix. It’s a gose, with a gorgeous hue and just a subtle saltiness. For me, the real surprise with this beer is not the flavours – they work and they do what they say on the label – but, the mouthfeel. It is rounded and slightly oily, and gives the beer more oomph than you might expect at 3.8%. It is delicious.

The inspiration for all the spiced beer comes from Dale’s love of Ballast Point’s Indra Kunindra – a stout brewed with Madras Curry, Cumin, Cayenne, Coconut, and Kaffir Lime Leaf – once available at Hashigo Zake but now no longer in production. Dale’s treasuring his last few bottles.

Herbal notes also come through in the Whistling Sister’s Italian Pilsner – Prima Dana – but are purely driven out of the use of the Dana hop. A strain of Styrian Goldings, the notes about Dana talk of citrus characters. But, I didn’t find them in this beer. It had an aroma and flavour profile I’d not experienced before. It was beguiling. I find it fascinating and think it well worth trying next time it comes on tap. I can totally see it match with some of the cured meats served up in the restaurant; the carbonation will cut through some of the fat, and the herbal, bitter characters of the beer should balance the meat’s sweetness and compliment the spices they’ve been cured in.

We finished our chat talking about what the team is looking forward to in the new year - year two. Dale jokes about brewing a million litres, but on a serious note reflects on the great opportunities for growth into the future.

Bede is keen on the brand getting out into the market and to beer events, and both talk about constantly refining techniques in the brewery. So many brewers talk about each and every brew being an opportunity for improvement, and Dale’s no different here. They’re keen on setting up a little lab, to do more detailed testing and grow a more detailed understanding of their beers.

They’re also looking forward to bottling. A new bottling machine has been purchased, along with 1,200 unique bottes that they’ll be looking to fill in coming months. At two bottles at a time, it’s going to be a labour intensive, labour of love. But, if there’s one thing that really stands out in this interview, it’s that Bede does love it! Just look at his recommendations for the beers you must try before you die. They’re all Whistling Sisters’ own! It’s clear he’s ever the salesperson.

The final questions, for a bit of fun

What’s in the fridge and what are you drinking at home?

Bede

Bede has been drinking a lot of their Riveting Rose. I know this as he’s commented on having the odd sore head over summer thanks to it. It’s a dry, blackberry wheat beer and super easy to drink.

Dale

Dale’s got some Sassy Red from Mac’s in the fridge for a visiting friend. He says it’s not as good as it used to be, but is still pretty good! He’s got his last bottles of Indra Kunindra, and some Rhyme and Reason Pale Ale for summer drinking. The rest are big, wintery type drops like vintages of the Garage Project Mutiny on the Bounty.

What are your “beers you must try before you die”?

Bede

Ever the salesperson, Bede chose exclusively Whistling Sisters’ beers to answer this question – Riveting Rose, the Coconut Milk Stout and the Rooty Toot Toot. He’s very brand loyal, and will always choose Lion Nathan over DB! And, I know he likes a Steinlager.

Dale

No surprises here – Dale’s first pick is the Indra Kunindra, and then, what must be a polar opposite – the Mahr’s Kellerbier drunk fresh from the source in Germany. Another favourite for the same reason was the San Gabriel La Rossa Di Verona, or Red Beer of Verona drunk by the Colosseum.