A pair of enthusiastic and entrepreneurial friends making beer by the bucketful decide to launch a brewery. With a repurposed auto shop, an abundance of creativity and a thirsty community, their brand takes hold. Growth follows, and with it pride, and a whole lot more work. In a matter of years there’s new facilities, more fans and a whole lot more beer. The beer flows out further to new lands and new fans, and what was once an experiment on a half-barrel pilot brewery is now recognized around the world. It’s a by-the-numbers story that could apply to any number of the thousands of American craft breweries, but there’s one crucial difference in this story: it’s set on the other side of the planet in New Zealand.
I first tasted a Garage Project beer back in the summer of 2012 when a friend returned from a trip to his native Wellington with a knapsack stuffed with tee shirt-wrapped bottles. He traveled regularly between New Zealand and L.A., and each trip meant more new Garage Project beers to try. Today, you no longer need a friendly Kiwi to bring you samples. Garage Project brews have been imported since 2016 and are distributed around Southern California, and a new nationally-distributed collaboration with Stone Brewing (also featuring London’s Beavertown Brewery) is the brewery’s widest exposure yet in the States — and the next phase in Garage Project’s U.S. invasion.
This invasion started with an infiltration on a smaller scale. Back at the end of 2012, Garage Project co-founder Jos Ruffell turned up unannounced at Stone Brewing’s Escondido headquarters with a few bottles of beer and talked his way into a meeting with some Stone brewers and brewery founders Steve Wagoner and Greg Koch. It happened that Ruffell visited Stone on the night of the culmination of Stone’s 12-year Vertical Epic project, and he was invited to attend the celebratory dinner where he further ingratiated himself with the Stone leadership.
Prior to starting Garage Project in 2011, Ruffell worked in New Zealand’s video game industry, which meant frequent travel to America frequently where he fell for craft beer. When back in Wellington he often decompressed from the long hours of the entertainment industry at the beer geek haven Hashigo Zake bar with his childhood friend Ian Gillespie. Gillespie’s older brother Pete was a brewer himself who’d trained in the UK and brewed in England and Australia. The elder Gillespie wanted, as most brewers do, to launch his own brewery, and the trio decided to give it a shot under the Garage Project label with the idea to brew 24 different beers in 24 weeks to be served at Hashigo Zake.
“We didn’t want to just start a beer brand,” Ruffell says, “For us it was important that we were a brewery from day one, even if that meant brewing just 50 liters at a time.” Beer brands with no equipment abounded in New Zealand’s scene at the time; there is no law against a company buying taps at bars, and many brands would invest their capital into branding and pay-to-play tap space instead of building breweries of their own. Pete Gillespie was a brewer, and he wanted the control and the freedom that running his own brewhouse allowed. Of course breweries are not inexpensive, and modest startup funds meant Garage Project would have to make due with a half-barrel pilot brewing system, but this constraint also had its upsides. “Since we didn’t have to go to the bank early on, they didn’t have us by the short and curlies,” Gillespie says. “You can be a lot more creative when you aren’t worried about making repayments to the bank on day one.” Ruffell adds: “We were able to take risks that we wouldn’t have taken starting with a 10, 15, 20 barrel system. We could be a lot more relentless and aggressive.”
Garage Project’s rise from humble beginnings in a Wellington petrol station to international renown took relentless creativity and aggressive explorations into the fringes of beer, but it was a flair for the dramatic that catalyzed the brewery’s success. At Beervana — New Zealand’s largest beer festival — Garage Project built a reputation for out-sized booths and performative showcase brews that drew long lines. Red hot pokers, carefully-poured double (or triple) layer beer parfaits, and wild ingredients captured the attention of festival attendees and sparked conversations about the inventive brewers.
Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson attended Beervana in 2013 and Garage Project made enough of an impression that he invited the Kiwis to pour at the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival in 2014. That event was the first large scale exposure in America for the brewery, and curious drinkers formed one of the longest lines of the day for a taste of the dramatic Two Tap Flat White. A nod to the antipodal coffee specialty known as a flat white (basically a 6-ounce latte that’s topped with milk frothed to a velvety texture called “microfoam”), the beer was actually a combination of two separate brews (hence the “two tap”). A rich imperial coffee stout served as the base while a sweet cream stout served on nitro topped the dark stout with fluffy foam.
Two Tap Flat White captured the essence of what makes Garage Project noteworthy. It is creative and inventive in concept and execution, but more importantly it works as flavorful beer. The first sip emphasizes the sweet nitro foam, and you taste the richness of the stout on the second sip. As the two layers meld into each other the experience just improves with the lactose-heavy top layer softening the roasted bitterness and alcoholic bite of the coffee stout. It becomes more than the sum of it’s components.
“I think you can tell if somebody has done a beer just to get a reaction out of people,” Pete Gillespie says. “I don’t think we’ve ever done that. Anything that we’ve ever done - even if it perhaps had outlandish ingredients - there’s a very good reason for it. Hopefully anyone who tastes the beer will realize that the beer was worth it, that it wasn’t a stunt, it wasn’t just to get people riled up.”
And there have been some outlandish ingredients used in Garage Project beers, from the relatively pedestrian spices and exotic fruits, to New Zealand native medicinal plants, to Katsuobushi (fermented fish flakes), to recent use of hemp seeds and fibre in one of six beers inspired by the silk road, to this year’s standout of Beervana: Aardvark, which features a few heaping scoops of Atta cephalotes, A.K.A the lemongrass ant.
“That was cool. It sounds like a stunt, so we did lots of bench trials,” says Gillespie, “and anted beer just tasted genuinely more interesting and fun than non-anted beer. So I think that was a win.”
Apart from the more wild additives, Garage Project is adept at using more common items from New Zealand - namely the distinctive Southern Hemisphere hops and the grapes grown for the thriving New Zealand wine industry. They’ve also opened a second facility in Wellington, dubbed the Wild Workshop, to explore sour beer, wild yeast and wood aging. Dozens of different beers are cooked up each year, and the brewers have tried to avoid the idea of a flagship beer or core lineup of regular releases.
“You only learn when you’re doing new things,” says Ruffell, but the pace at Garage Project can be withering. Gillespie’s been hospitalized for exhaustion and forced to slow down while Ruffell has built a reputation as one of the most ceaseless travellers in the industry. “I thought Greg (Koch, Stone Brewing founder] traveled a lot, I don’t think he holds a candle to Jos,” says Stone’s Senior Manager of Innovation Jeremy Moynier. “I run into him all over the country, at the strangest places.”
The industry connections and fortuitous meetings have helped Garage Project get a foothold in America’s craft beer scene, and apart from collaborations with Stone, Sierra Nevada — in this year’s Beer Camp Across the World project — and European breweries such as Nøgne Ø, it is connections, partnerships and collaborations back home that keep the brewers creative juices flowing.
“It’s more stimulating to do collaboration with people that aren’t brewers,” says Ruffell. “When you get in the room with a chef or a musician or a designer, the conversation about what they do is quite fascinating, and ideas [for beer] come out of that.” A conversation with New Zealand’s champion barista was the creative spark for Two Tap Flat White. “Just watching him construct this beautiful cup of coffee — watching a real artist at work was really inspiring,” says Gillespie.
Another homegrown connection made at the Hashigo Zake bar was Andrew Balmuth who’s Global Craft Trading company ships containers of American Craft beer across the globe, and who supplied the Hashigo with much of it’s American and Japanese beer. Balmuth’s Nephew Eli Raffeld started Craft Imports LLC to bring some international beers into America, and they began discussions about importing Garage Project brews. The talks lasted for years as Garage Project struggled to fill orders on their home island and with the increasing demand in nearby Australia. In the meantime Garage Project joined Stone Brewing and another brand under the Craft Imports banner: Japan’s Coedo Brewery. That collaboration - Tsuyu Saison - mixed ume plums and red perilla leaf and was aged in freshly emptied New Zealand chardonnay barrels that were shipped to Japan in a refrigerated container.
The new Stone / Garage Project collaboration is equally complex. The renowned Beavertown Brewery joined the team for the Fruitallica brew - a pungent mashup of double IPA and exotic ingredients. A 20-foot refrigerated container full of delicate golden kiwi fruits was shipped to California from New Zealand for the brewday, and fresh yuzu and a dose of habanero peppers joins a blend of Southern Hemisphere and classic American hops.
Former Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele got the ball on the collaboration between the three breweries rolling, but delays in the sourcing of ingredients (namely those golden kiwi) meant the collaboration wasn’t brewed before he departed Stone. “It seemed like a natural partnership,” says Steve Gonzales, Stone’s Senior Manager of Brewing and Innovation. “They’re really good at packing flavor into beer.”
While these globe-spanning collaborations are logistical challenging, just getting beer from New Zealand on to American shelves can seem even more daunting. A handful of different Garage Project beers have made the voyage, including the Death From Above IPA (featuring mango, Vietnamese mint and chilies), the collaboration with the New Zealand Ballet: Hops On Pointe, and a few of the brewery’s wine-based blends: Sauvin Nouveau and Rose de la Vallee. But the brewers have avoided sending many of their most hop-forward creations (A three week ocean voyage means it takes more than a month for beer to get from the brewery to SoCal shelves). Further complicating things are the large-format 650ml bottles which have landed stateside at a time when the beer consumer is moving away from the bomber as preferred package.
“It’s ironic,” says Ruffell, “We’re really a can-heavy brewery. We started canning in New Zealand in 2013, but we always planned to ship bombers to America.” Garage Project beer is distributed by Stone Distribution in Southern California (some of their beer also makes it to Las Vegas and Chicago, and soon to the Bay Area), but even the veteran distribution company has found it challenging to market Garage Projects inventive, and often expensive beers. “I feel like sometimes we’re a square peg in a round hole,” Ruffell says about fitting Garage Project into the American market. “We’re a different beast than what Stone is used to, but we’re both working to make it work.” They plan to emphasize more unique draft brews going forward, and Ruffell says he’s excited about presenting some of Garage Project’s more theatrical special event beers in California.
Even after all the internet buzz, industry goodwill and excited coverage in the beer press, you can be excused for wondering why you should seek out Garage Project when the market for local California beer is perhaps the most exciting, and congested, in the country. Why would the two ambitious brewers from the other side of the planet even bother with exports and all that travel and added expenses of opening the U.S. market?
“You can be a big fish in the small pond of New Zealand, but unless you get that acknowledgement from overseas you haven’t really made it,” Ruffell says. “We’re not doing it for sound business reasons,” Gillespie adds, “It kinda just feels good.”
The desire to earn your stripes on the world stage seems a part of Kiwi culture, a reaction to the isolation inherent in existence on a remote island. “I think ultimately all Kiwis sort of grow up looking out on the world,” explains Ruffell. “It’s always exciting to try things from around the world, and I think for us part of it is just repaying that back. So someone in the states might hopefully taste something we’re doing and be excited by it. Hopefully we have enough of a voice and are doing something that unique and people will want that experience of beers brewed in New Zealand.”
John Verive is Southern California native and freelance writer dedicated to growing the craft beer scene in Los Angeles. He’s is a Certified Cicerone®, the founder of Beer of Tomorrow (www.BeerofTomorrow.com), and he covers the beer-beat for the Los Angeles Times. John loves lagers, session beers, finding perfect pairings, and telling the stories of the people behind the pints; you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @octopushat and @beeroftomorrow.
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