Tuesday, 18 December 2018 10:47

Fork Brewing: Champion Small New Zealand Brewery 2018

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The team from Fork and Brewer might have been the only ones in Wellington surprised about being awarded Champion Small New Zealand Brewery at the 2018 Brewers’ Guild Awards. Head Brewer Kelly Ryan is known and loved in the brewing community and has 18 years’ worth of experience under his belt. The brew pub was a top pick by many. It’s one of the great places we visit on our Craft Beer College beer tours.

We spoke with Kelly and part-owner Colin Mallon about the background to Fork and Brewer / Fork Brewing / Fork Brew Corp; winning their champion brewery award; their new branding; and the things they were most looking forward to into the future. Where do I begin? Both Kelly and Colin are always up for chat…

When asked about the background to Fork and Brewer, Colin reflected on the changes to the Wellington (and New Zealand beer scene) since he arrived in town in 2004. In the early days, the old Malthouse on Willis St, Bar Bodega and Bar Edward in Newtown were about the only places you could buy a beer that wasn’t a premium lager or New Zealand draft. Colin spent his beer time at the Malthouse. Convenient, as he worked there. He didn’t frequent Bodega as he was often propositioned to buy or sell drugs. And, he wasn’t all that keen on Newtown at the time! (As a long-term resident, I can assure you that I upsold its general excellence).

When the Malthouse moved to Courtney Place in 2008, it established itself as a destination beer bar. It made the move at a time when the craft and independent beer scene in Wellington and New Zealand started growing. Colin and his business partners – all with interests in Tuatara Brewing at the time - saw an opportunity to further invest in Tuatara’s growth and in the growth of the beer scene. They started planning to build a new brew bar and brewery.

At the time planning started on the Fork and Brewer, there were no breweries in Wellington. Mac’s Brewery on the waterfront had been shipped out by Lion Nathan. This happened long before Lion changed the signage. Little did Colin and the team know how long it would take to turn their plans into a reality and how much would change over that time.

Fork and Brewer opened for the Rugby World Cup 2011 but didn’t start brewing until a year later. The location, considered perfect due to its proximity to the old Malthouse, proved a challenge in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes. No one wanted to sign-off on the engineering specifications for a brewery built upstairs.

Colin laughs, “if I have one piece of advice for anybody starting a brewery – don’t do it upstairs - ever”. There are stories abound about the team’s sizable and strong mates helping haul the brew kit up over the balcony and wheel it through the bar on skateboards! One consequence of the building challenges is that Fork and Brewer is one of the safest (and best) places to be in an earthquake. Let this be a point of note to all in Wellington during our next big series of quakes.

From the first brew in 2012 until now, a goal has been to have a broad range of beers on offer – to cater for a diverse clientele and a range of tastes. In response to a question about the number of “suits” often seen in the brew pub (and ok, I also said “sausages”), Colin comments that with their new banking partner, they get detailed statistics about who’s buying their beer. The gender balance is pretty much equal. Forty-five percent of the payments over the bar are made by women. That’s something they should be happy with as there is a real need for beer and the beer scene to become more inclusive (not just because of women’s purchasing power).

Kelly comments that he “wants everyone to be able to walk into the bar and find something they like to drink”. He’s asked around – both here and overseas - and has yet to find a fellow brewer or a brewery with as many of their own beers on tap. When I visited, there were 39 Fork Brewing beers being poured, from a peak of 43 beers a few weeks earlier. It’s an impressive effort from a 1,000 litre brew kit and a 50 litre test kit in a tiny space. Kelly is brewing like he’s in a big production brewery.

The pressure on Kelly, and on the kit, seems only likely to increase in light of the decision to establish the new “Fork Brewcorp” brand and as a result of winning the champion’s award. I asked about both, starting with Fork Brewcorp. Colin reflected that when Fork and Brewer first began, it was hard to market their beers; one reason was the small size of their batches which could sell out over their own bar. This led some around town to question the need for buying a Fork and Brewer beer that could just as well be drunk at the Fork and Brewer itself.

The small batch size is being addressed by the Fork Brewcorp contract brewing their core range (of four beers). They are working with different brewers and breweries that they admire and that have particular expertise and experience in the style they are looking to brew. Their Tainted Love – a passionfruit and juniper kettle sour – is brewed at Hallertau, long known for being one of the first to deliberately brew and condition sour beers in New Zealand. The Hallertau Funkonnay is legendary and the Tainted Love is also capturing hearts. It won a bronze at this year’s awards and was in the Capital Times Beer Necessities six pack being described as elegant by the judges.

Tainted Love was first brewed in collaboration with Ben from Gigantic Brewing in Portland, Oregon. Collaborative brewing and great collaborative kettle sours seem to be a core skill of Kelly’s. While we’re talking, I drink more than one Barbed Wire. It is a rhubarb kettle sour brewed with 8 Wired’s Søren Erkison. It is on my “beers of the year” list. Pouring a rose pink in colour, and with spritz, Barbed Wired has an earthy and slightly funky character referencing both the rhubarb and the bacteria used in the kettle. It. Is. Delicious.

The team have chosen Liberty Brewing Company to make their Golden Handshake Pilsner. Another bronze medal winner. Liberty also brewed the first few batches of the Hyperlocal and Alpha Geek. These last two beers have since moved production to BoneFace Brewing in Upper Hutt’s Brewtown. This gives Kelly the advantage of easily being able to join the brew day and brew with the Fork house yeast.

The Hyperlocal is a must-try from the newly branded range. It won a gold medal as Godzone Beat in 2015 and was the Champion New Zealand Pale Ale that year. This year it took another gold so can truly be regarded as a representative example of the NZ Pale Ale style (although I’d note the hop profile has changed over that time). The beer is well-balanced, making it highly drinkable. It showcases both the citrus and mineral character of Riwaka hops and fruity punch of Nelson Sauvin.

The four Fork Brewcorp beers are just the start of what Colin hopes is a cohesive brand to take to the market. When I asked about the brand’s inspiration, the 70s style, Colin chuckles and compliments their designers who have quite the background in beer, having worked with Tuatara and Panhead Custom Ales. The designers pitched an American muscle car theme which Colin thought would be too macho for the brand (and I’d say would also have been too Panhead) along with the brown, orange and beige retro theme.

Colin comments, that he “grew up in the 70s and in hand-me downs”. He wore them “through the 70s and far too far into the 80s, having three older brothers”. He comments that he can “play the brand as straight or as serious as we want…without detracting from the quality beer”. At this point, Kelly pipes in and notes that his Fork Brewcorp suit is tailor made from his days playing rugby in Korea! He might be modern-day modelling for the brand, but the rest of the images are originals.

The idea behind the new branding is to appeal to the youngsters, who find the brand fun, as well as the crowd who lived through the 70s and can reminisce. During this bit of the conversation, Kelly notes that when he “got into brewing, brand was the number one thing, and we’re now in a place again where brand is the number one thing”. He comments that “you can put an average beer into a glass and if it’s got a great brand people will buy it. That’s something I don’t agree with”.

For Kelly, it is all about the beers. He wants to give them some personality and sees the Brewcorp beers as the start of small family. It is all about “putting a quality beer in your glass”. Colin thinks there’s only so long you can get away with an average brand but agrees that the quality of the beer is important. Happily, Kelly has never had to dump a batch of poor quality beer of his own (touch wood) but would be happy to do so. Colin agreed – he doesn’t want anyone to have a pint of their beer and say, “that’s terrible”. Both agree it would damage the reputation they’ve built.

Continuing to build that reputation and to leverage from their championship win is something Colin is looking forward to in the new year. They’ve just hired a new General Manger for Fork and Brewer and the Malthouse which will give Colin some much needed time to focus.

As the sole brewer at Fork, Kelly doesn’t have time but he is keen to get some basic lab equipment into the brewery (and put some of his brewing, and microbiology and food science skills to the test). This is part of his constant focus on improving his beers and will support his creative desire to try new things.

So, it sounds like we can expect to see more Fork Brewcorp popping up in good bottle stores and bars around the country, and possibly beyond...And, we can expect Fork Brewing to continue to produce a huge range of beers. Get in there and try some. Ask the staff what’s new and what’s tasting great to help narrow down the decision making. And, never shy away from a tasting tray.

The final questions, for a bit of fun

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

Colin has a range of tonic in the fridge. I failed to ask why, but presume it is to go with gin! There’s definitely an emerging scene in New Zealand (and a great collection at the Malthouse). He also had a case of Epic Rhonda delivered as wife, Lou, is a fan. Along with that, there’s some Quartz Reef Pinot Gris from Central Otago.

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

Kelly had the great luck of a fine wine and dining experience the weekend before our chat where the Delinquente 2018 Pink Pet Nat. He bought a case which is lucky as it has now sold out.

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

This is a seriously challenging question for just about everyone! Colin starts with two classics – the Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus and Rodenbach Grand Cru. Epic Lager is also favourite and a must try that Colin puts on the list.

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

Kelly is a fan of the gloriously sour (in the true sense) of 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze. His story of the creation of the Les Amis Du Brassage Saison also puts it on the “must try” list. There’re just a few bottles left at the bar so get in quick. Kelly also rates the wonderful Timothy Taylor’s Landlord which has been a gateway beer for more than one fan.