Nelson-based Founders Brewery taps into the craft boom with brand refresh and national distribution

Spanning over six generations and almost twice as many brewers, the Duncan family have been brewing Founders in Nelson for almost 160 years. But the company is thinking a bit bigger than boutique and its newly refreshed range of craft beers are now available around the nation. 

The brews are now in the hands of the fifth and sixth generations—John Duncan and his sons Matt and Callum—and after 16 decades of brewing, the family-owned business struck up a marketing and distribution partnership with Independent Liquor and let Barnes, Catmur & Friends go to work sprucing up its logo and packaging, with each of the six brews featuring imagery that relates to the era in which it was originally created (check out the wording on the labels here). 

“It’s a bit of a change for us and it’s quite refreshing,” says John Duncan. “We’ve had limited distribution in the past, but not as widespread as this. It’s always been our aim, but the craft thing has probably moved faster than we were prepared for … It’s certainly changing. Every time you open the paper there’s an article about craft beer.”

Craft beer is one of the few growth areas in the beer sector. But with so many players looking for their slice of the pie, it’s still tough going, and as head of the brewers guild Ralph Bungard said recently, because the typical craft beer lover usually wants to experiment with the many different beers available, there’s less brand loyalty

Duncan didn’t want to give details about the revenue or growth of the company, but he said success stories like fellow Nelson business Stoke, which was the South Island’s fastest growing business at last year’s Deloitte Fast 50 and other craft (or faux craft) brands, gives him confidence the investment will pay off. 

“It’s early days. It’s pretty much a relaunch and a new beginning. But I think there’s potential. And from the feedback we’ve received it’s gone down really well.”

In typical Independent Liquor fashion, it’s also running an online promotion on its new website to spread the word, with punters asked to play a range of weird games like Beard-of-War for the chance to win some beer, a personal brewery or a trip to the brewery. 

As well as the new look and wider distribution, Duncan says the Founders building on Atawhai Drive is also undergoing restoration. And, as the country’s main hop-growing region, he says Nelson is starting to benefit from the increase in domestic and international travellers who have “obviously done their homework” and are embarking on beer tours.  

“It’s not a pub crawl anymore,” he says. And because some of the family work in the bar/cafe (it’s also planted a hop garden so diners and drinkers can see what they actually look like), he says it generally gets some pretty honest feedback about the beers it creates. 

As well as the increase in beer tourism, he says the Nelson region is also benefitting from the craft beer boom, and there’s big demand from overseas for the local crop, with 80 percent of it exported. 

Elsewhere in Independent Liquor/Boundary Road Brewery land, the company has also recently announced the arrival of controversial Scottish beer upstarts BrewDog. And, given its aggressive attitude towards Big Beer, it is slightly surprising—or as beer writer Phil Cook says, hypocritical—that it decided to get into bed with the type of company it has so openly lambasted in the past. 

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