Wellington-based craft beer brewery Garage Project has grown from humble beginnings since Pete Gillespie, brother Ian Gillespie and Jos Ruffel started out in 2011 using a 500 litre “glorified home brew kit” to moving to a 2000 litre tank and say a large part of their success is not just the quality of the beer, but also its unique branding approach, hiring different artists to design the labels for individual beers. The brewery has also been a frontrunner in the canning of its craft beer, much to the scepticism of some. But it has worked. Demand is strong, and over 140 beers later, a slew of awards and a team that’s grown from three to about twenty, it’s showing no signs of slowing down yet.
The brewery’s method for its marketing isn’t so much about pushing an overarching brand, it's more about the individual personalities of its distinctive and experimental beers coming together as a powerful force to make up the face of the brand.
For example its dark beer is labeled Aro Noir, with the label being influenced by film noir tropes, picturing a gloomy rendition of Garage Project’s Aro Valley headquarters.
Much of the artwork for its beers are also displayed inside the three's Aro Valley hub, where even the exterior of the garage is a work of art in itself, colourfully and expertly painted.
Garage Project’s Ian Gillespie explains some of the ideas and reasons behind its creative marketing approach.
“The whole thinking behind the branding was that we wanted the beers themselves to stand out,” Gillespie says. “We wanted each beer to have its own personality … We work hard for them to have names that evoke a bit of interest so people will want to read more about what’s in them and the thinking behind them and each artwork should speak to what that beer is, what it’s about and who might like it, and who won’t.”
“We find people align themselves to different beers and their artwork as opposed to our brand per se. Our logo is often smaller, down the bottom.”
When asked if Gillespie thinks this approach has worked for Garage Project he says it seems to have. “Obviously there is a bit of extra work involved in each artwork, as it’s not a question of just changing the colour from green to pink and putting porter on it and just releasing it,” he says. “We wouldn’t have it any other way, we like the way it’s worked and we are not locked into a branding style that is going to go out of date.”
He says if a company realises things are slowing down, they might feel they need a rebrand, but Garage Project’s approach means it can stay fresh and agile. “It does kind of break all the marketing and branding rules because, short of our tiny and understated logo, there’s not a huge amount to draw a bunch of products together on a shelf, but it seems to happen anyway.”
The choice of artists really depends on the beer, he says. “Certain beers will have themes or you feel like it will fit a certain style of artist. Sometimes we’ll come across the artist and other times they’ll come to us. We use a group of artists quite regularly. We have done three or four beers with one then two with another then another guy has done six but it really comes down to the beer.”
He says for the Pernicious Weed label they wanted it to be reminiscent of a B movie poster with a classic colour palette, painterly style and a brash monster, so they called upon the talents of an oil painter. “We let the idea for the beer inform what the art should be like.”
He says with most beers, particularly core brews or special editions they will release posters and sometimes tshirts, which are also sold in-store and on their website.
Garage Project also took the innovative approach of using cans, not generally associated with highbrow craft beer, with Gillespie saying peoples’ doubts about cans are purely a perception issue. He says there are a lot of reasons why cans are better for beer, which Garage Project has been using since 2013. “There’s no light strike. There is a complete seal. A bottle is not a 100 percent oxygen seal, but if you have a can it’s a perfect seal. It’s lighter to ship in cans, as you’re not shipping glass weight, it’s beer weight, and cans are infinitely recyclable … the cans are all lined so there’s no tin touching the beer. It’s great.”
It’s been going very, very well,” he says. “Every once in a blue moon you get someone that says they don’t drink out of a can. They think of cans as being for industrial beer or not good quality beer, but fantastic beer has been going into cans for a long time, particularly in the States.”
Gillespie even goes as far to say he would be very surprised if there were many New Zealand craft breweries not canning by the end of this year. “You can already start to see some: Stoke, Panhead, and there are a few others coming through, Three Boys.”
As testament to Garage Project’s success, Gillespie says one of the main challenges for the brewery is keeping up with demand, but he doesn’t think this is such a bad thing.
“At the beginning, we were on 50 litres, so basically a glorified home brew kit … And we got a brew house that we realised as soon as we got it was too small. So now we’re on a 2000 litre tank and that’s one brew at a time and we brew up to three times a day. It also comes down to fermenting space. We could brew a lot more on the current sized kit we have.”
We make a lot of different beers so it’s hard to stay ahead with that, organising packaging and time, he says. “And then you have to get the labels made and you’re trying to time it with releases. I think as far as the industry goes I don’t know if we deal with a huge amount of issues per se. I think at the moment we are no where near, demand for good beer is huge and continues to grow.”
“We are certainly a long way off from peak brewery and even when you hit peak brewery if you are making a good product and people know they are going to like it you are kind of safe, I think, on that front. We try not to get involved in it too much but I feel like the guys out there making good beer will continue to make good beer.”
However he says he wants Garage Project to grow ahead of demand “so we never get to a point where we are chasing our tails and having to get rid of it [beer]. At the moment there is enough people and they want to get it. It’s always going to be a quality they can rely on.”
According to Stuff, most of Garage Project’s beer is sold in Wellington, with about 25 percent of production exported and 10 percent sold in Auckland.
Garage Project co-founder Jos Ruffel told Stuff earlier a couple of years ago it was sending nothing to Auckland. Garage Project customers were having to go on waiting lists and container loads of orders from overseas customers were being turned down because there was not enough beer to fill them, he said. "I know of a number of breweries around the country who are at capacity or are expanding and putting in more production."
"It's just been a constant battle of ours since we started," he said. “We've been able to send a bit more beer to Auckland but it's nowhere near what people want."
The brewery was upgraded early last year and already more tanks were being added to increase brewing capacity, he said.
Gillespie reflects on how much the industry in Wellington has grown saying "The closest place was Tuatara and that was out on the Kapiti Coast, but now North End are out there too, and there's ones [in Wellington] like Parrotdog, Panhead, Kereru, as well as nano breweries like Wild and Woolly as well as a bunch of other great ones.”
A recent NBR article said craft beer currently makes up two to three percent of total beer sales in New Zealand, referencing a Frost and Sullivan report and said projections for the industry indicate growth in the region of 30 percent expansion for this year alone. However Tuatara chief executive Richard Shirtcliffe said craft beer accounts for about 12 percent of total beer sales as the report didn't include Mac's and Monteith's brands owned by Lion and DB.
Industry insiders say that while New Zealand exports over 90 percent of its hop production, generating $17 million per annum, we actually supply less than a single percent of the international hop trade.
So it’s fair to say that, as a nation, we’re a bit late to the beer trade. That slow start is speeding up however, with new research predicting that our craft beer exports could increase by up to 300 percent in the next decade.
(UPDATE) And there are exciting things on the horizon, with Gillespie saying the Garage Project team will be opening a tasting room, which they hope to have open in September. "We're going to be opening up a tasting room in Aro Valley where people can come and enjoy our beers in an intimate bar setting. It will also allow us to continue to offer experiences that go 'beyond just giving someone a beer' and host people in our own space," he says. "We're really excited to keep the location within Aro Valley too as we're proud to be part of the community here and we feel this is just extending that in a positive way."
And with Garage Project being named the country’s best brewery in last year’s Society of Beer Advocates Awards (SOBA) it seems sensible for the team to just keep on keepin’ on, and that’s exactly what they plan on doing, Gillespie says.
“I would say what's next for Garage Project is honestly just to keep on trying to keep up with demand while making great beers that we're all excited about. Beer should be fun - so hopefully we can keep having fun making it and people will keep having fun drinking it!”