It's been almost 18 months in the making, and yesterday, just down the road from the giant salmon and New Zealand's longest bridge, Dominion Breweries ferried a group of 150 publicans, internal stakeholders and a few filthy journalists to a farm near Rakaia to launch the newest brew in the Monteith's range, an ultra-premium, hyper-local, "serious beer" called Single Source that aims to tell the story of what's inside the bottle and recognise those responsible for creating it.
Kiwi beer drinkers aren't really renowned for their refined palates. But that's slowly changing, as evidenced by the decline in the mainstream category and growth in premium (at present, craft beer, which includes Macs and Monteiths, has around 10 percent of the total beer market and there was an 11 percent increase in the number of craft brewers last year). The wine industry has done a good job of telling consumers what different regions and grape varieties bring to the table, so to speak. But according to Monteith's head brewer Tony Mercer, the story of beer hasn't really been told, something he and the team hope to change with this beer and its focus on the suppliers, Charmay barley grower Bill Davey and Ngatamoti hop grower Ian Thorn, whose family have been growing hops in the Nelson region since 1928 (interesting beer fact alert: hops only grow at certain latitudes).
Steinlager Pure was hugely successful because it focused on nature and ramped up the New Zealand connection. Single Source seems to have taken that trend even further by zeroing in on the region, not just the country, and adding traceability to the mix. In some ways, it could be seen as the alcoholic equivalent of Icebreaker's Baacode, which allows wearers to find out what farm their garment came from.
“It’s important to understand the source of ingredients before making a top quality craft beer. If you don’t understand the source, you’re not going to understand the finished beer,” says Mercer. “We’ve looked at every single aspect of the beer; we figured if we did what we’ve always done we’d end up with the same results. We wanted to create something with real interest that reflected the influence of our unique land and climate. We wanted to be able to almost taste the locations the crops were grown in.”
If you believe the presser, the hops have "a delicate aroma of lemon peel and pine needles, layered beneath a clean spiciness and soft herbaceous undertone". And the bottom fermented batch brewed pilsner itself? "Inside the pale, straw coloured lager is a flavour that begins with a soft bitterness building delicately with an aromatic balance of citrus and spice, ending with a sharp, dry finish" (it's fair to say Colin Meads, the go-to spokesman on the simplistic joys of the past and avowed hater of change and modernity, would presumably be rolling in his grave if he heard a beer described like this. Or, given that he's still alive, might be best to say he would probably be quoted as saying 'Wouldn't have been like that in my day').
To increase the personalisation of the beer, the signatures of the three main men also grace the good lookin', black, double kilned and apparently quite expensive bottles, which were chosen because light, both from the sun and from fluorescent sources, is the enemy of beer (apparently Steinlager Pure also toyed with the idea of a black bottle, but it was too pricey).
“I guess what makes this beer different, is that nothing is left to chance," Mercer says. "It’s a bottle full of interest—the best ingredients, the most meticulous and passionate craftsmen producing it, and the best brewing processes. After a long, hard journey I’m pleased to release a beer that tastes of the land and the people [hopefully after they've showered] that helped produce it.”
Typically, breweries buy their core ingredients from co-operative organisations (Malt Europe for the malted barley and NZ Hop for the hops), which means the provenance of the beer is largely unknown. So Grant Caunter, DB's innovations guy, believes this level of traceability in a beer is a world-first.
It's certainly a very good lager. But to me and a few other early tasters, it wasn't blow your socks off material. The selling point is the scarcity, the story behind it and the beautiful bottle/packaging courtesy of Designworks. And there should be enough consumer curiosity to ensure a successful launch, but whether New Zealanders will continue to pay $35 a dozen or around $10 a bottle on-premise when there are similar beers on offer for much less or more interesting tasting beers from smaller craft brewers remains to be seen (surprisingly, our suggested slogan 'Single Source, Double Kilned, Triple Price' didn't tickle any DB fancies). Still, it does lay a good platform for other varieties that could be made in the same way.
For most drinkers—and for many food purchasers in general—there is still a large disconnect between the product and the process it needs to go through to get in the gullet. Interestingly, even some of the DB marketing folk admitted they didn't really know how beer was made until the idea for Single Source was tabled and the journey to find the best suppliers began.
"Premium isn't enough. It's about transparency, about origins, about giving the complete picture to the consumer," Gaunter says. "There's a space for this. No-one's talking about beer in this kind of way. And [during research] consumers asked if there was a product that could explain the process because they didn't know anything about it."
Peter Gordon is also a believer in this local ethos and, in a tie-in with his own Beehive Craft range, which is being PRed by Haystac, the PR agency for Single Source, he agreed to design the menu for the Rakaia launch lunch.
The whole project was another example of agency co-operation, with Running With Scissors as the central hub, Designworks creating the visual identity, Terabyte on digital duties, as well as Haystac, Events Direct, Apollo, Static Communicate and copywriters Bob Moore, Simon Pound and Rachel Wallis.
“Everyone has had to adapt, to think more about every detail, to ensure we’re being true to the beer and the people who have made it," says Monteith's marketing manager Russell Browne. "If we’ve done our job right then people will take an extra moment, as they take their first sip, to see if they can taste the land, climate, craft and ingredients that make Monteith’s Single Source unique.”
There won't be any big TV campaign for the beer, primarily because it's such a niche, top end product. And, as Friday O'Flaherty from Running With Scissors says, they’re not really making ads, they're just telling the story. And cinema is the perfect place to tell those stories, he says. As such, Zoe McIntosh, a talented New Zealand film and documentary maker, was enlisted to capture the making of the beer and the stories of the people involved.
In what could be seen as something of an indictment of the marketing fraternity, more than a few mentioned that not having to make anything up for a new product launch was quite a novelty. As O'Flaherty says: “We just had to make sure we shared it exactly as it was, and Zoe has an incredible talent for making people feel comfortable in front of a camera and presenting their stories in an honest and natural way. You can’t help but feel like you really know Bill, Ian and Tony after watching Zoe’s documentary.”
It is the first of eight short documentaries. It will also screen in selected Rialto and Event Cinemas, The Academy Cinema and The Embassy Cinema, from Thursday 25 November, in conjunction with cinema tastings.
Those attending Taste Auckland will find the new beer alongside the full range of craft beers and the public launch is taking place in the 29 Monteith’s Craft Bars around the country from 5pm -7pm on Friday. It's also available for purchase online at www.singlesource.co.nz.