Most people in their 50s are starting to relax and slow down, but Michael O’Brien and Lee-Ann Scotti are just getting started. Rebecca Ryan talks to the Craftwork Brewery owners about opening a new barrel room and tasting facility in Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct and celebrating five years of brewing hand-crafted Belgian-style beer.
Few breweries have burst on to the New Zealand craft beer scene quite like Oamaru’s Craftwork Brewery – and owners Michael O’Brien and Lee-Ann Scotti say they have never been so busy, so exhausted or so broke.
Celebrating five years in business next month, they have acquired somewhat of a cult following for their commitment to brewing small, idiosyncratic batches of Belgian-style beers.
“It’s funny for me to be in this sort of trendy scene,” Mr O’Brien said.
“It’s just sort of symptomatic of a lot of my life – you think that what you do makes perfect common sense and it turns out it’s really weird.”
Three weeks ago, they opened their new barrel room and tasting facility in Harbour St, giving the “nano-brewery” (smaller than a micro-brewery) a public presence and providing much-needed storage space for the business which had grown out of the basement and single garage of Ms Scotti’s Tyne St home.
So far, business was going well.
“We picked a figure out of our head that we wanted to achieve daily, financially, and we’re achieving that,” Ms Scotti said.
Friends and family had been a huge support, but a lot of curious locals and tourists, and even a small number of international beer geeks, had also been coming in to wish them well and have a beer.
Oamaru artist Watts Davies had helped with the interior design, and it had all come together just as they imagined.
“He’s just somebody that understands what we want – and he never says ‘oh no that’s too hard’, which is really nice,” Ms Scotti said.
The Harbour St space would be primarily a barrel room, and their vision for the tasting room was “a nice space for people to come and enjoy good beer and talk”.
They will continue to brew from Ms Scotti’s Tyne St home and at Rhyme and Reason brewery in Wanaka, where they own a 1200-litre fermenter.
One of the hallmarks of their beer is that they don’t rush it – and having a fermenter at Simon Ross and Jess Wolfgang’s Wanaka brewery freed them up to experiment with sour beers in Oamaru.
“We planned that, in a way, to try to make some money, because at our scale up at the hill at Lee-Ann’s place, it’s just not economical,” Mr O’Brien said.
While visitor numbers at the tasting room would decrease in winter, they were looking forward to the cooler months to start experimenting with more Lambic-style, spontaneously fermented ales.
It was a risky beer to make, because so much could go wrong – but there was a lot of demand for it, and this will be their fourth winter brewing it.
“Each barrel is different, because you don’t have exactly the same microbes every night. So it is a bit like wet photography, you know, a surprise – you just don’t know what you’re going to get, which is a bit exciting in this world,” Ms Scotti said.
They had been steadily growing their outlet over the past five years. In New Zealand, their beer is sold from Kerikeri to Dunedin.
Becoming widely-known for their barrel-aged sour beer, they recently sent their second pallet to London and in May they are sending beer to Melbourne for Good Beer Week.
Mr O’Brien continues to run his bindery, as well as his Bookbinder’s Retreat accommodation, and with the build on top of that, it had been difficult for them to dedicate much time to brewing.
“Since this build has started we’ve done two brews at home and one over in Wanaka,” Mr O’Brien said.
“I think now that the build is finished we can hopefully have some sort of pattern. Well, a pattern will emerge and we’ll get into a bit of a routine.”
Winning gold medals Australian International Beer Awards (AIBA) had been a contributing factor to their growth.
“If you get medals then obviously that means people go ‘Oh, they must be pretty good – they’re not just some pokey homebrewers from Oamaru’,” Mr O’Brien said.
“Because we are isolated, it’s really helpful to get feedback, too. If we were in Wellington with other brewers, you’d get a lot of that criticism from other people.”
Their first Beervana experience in 2016 was another real turning point for the brewery.
“I felt like the character Russell Crowe going into the Colosseum – it was just Jfrightening,” Mr O’Brien said.
“But we were a massive hit and that really gave us a big thrill. It really put us on the map with the beer geeks which is why we did it, and it worked, but it could have been a spectacular fail.”
Their best-selling beers over the past five years were Saison Zest and Grisette – but the most highly thought of was Bruxelles ma Belle, a spontaneously fermented sour ale, aged on Waitaki apricots.
At present, they are rated as the second best brewery in New Zealand on Untappd, an international app where social media meets beer ratings and users rate and review each beer they drink.
“We know that we appeal to a certain type – and it’s not that we’re catering so much to that person, because we actually make beers that we like and we just happen to like all sorts of Belgian styles, Mr O’Brien said.
“There’s a very small and growing group of people who are just fanatical about it and we’re also fortunate that we make the difficult-to-make sour beers, which means that they’re more highly regarded.”
The rise of the craft beer scene was definitely “some sort of fad”, but they saw it as a good thing for Craftwork Brewery.
“In Brussels in about 1900 there were about two or three hundred breweries and then it shrank in the the 20th century down to one – and now it’s starting to grow again,” Mr O’Brien said.
“It was the rise of multinationals and the sweetening of taste through Coca-Cola and the Americanisation of culture, also the German larger breweries dominating, so this whole craft thing is a kickback.”
Times were changing, and the current trend was basically a reverse of industrialism.
“That’s brilliant for us, because that’s what we’re about – making the craft ourselves, by hand,” Mr O’Brien said.
“In our case, serving it directly to the customer is the old definition of what a craft person was.”
They have “so many” ideas for the future of their business, but they are taking it one step at a time.
“I can see this year and that’s about it,” Ms Scotti said.