Nobody likes pouring beer down the drain, but when the covid-19 pandemic threw some curveballs at craft brewery Urbanaut Brewing, its founders could at least fall back on their lifelong friendship.
“Covid brought new challenges and some soul-searching moments,” Urbanaut sales director Thomas Rowe says of the brewery he opened with childhood friends Bruce Turner and Simon Watson in 2017.
“But when you go into business with someone, a long history helps.”
The pre-covid world was frantic for the business as the frothy craft beer market couldn’t grow fast enough to sate thirsty drinkers. When covid hit and things were brought to a grinding halt, it let the Urbanauts step back from the noise and hand over more responsibility to key staff.
The initial March 2020 lockdown was challenging at times, but the onset of the delta variant and Auckland’s three-month hibernation really turned the pressure up.
Rowe says it was a “pretty low feeling” having to dump beer they couldn’t sell, but was grateful things weren’t worse.
“Tipping beer down the drain never feels good,” he says.
“All the restrictions also made the manufacturing process more difficult,” he says, pointing at strict social distancing criteria that stifled people’s movements along the production line.
In saying that, Rowe was pleasantly surprised by the change in drinking habits as people were blocked from sharing a pint at the local brewpub, but more than made up for it by stocking up at the supermarket, with Urbanaut’s growth in can sales outpacing the decline in keg sales.
Brewers from Marton? Yeah right
Urbanaut’s beginnings go back to the late 1990s when the trio, who met at Rangitikei College in Marton as teenagers, first found their taste for the beer industry at Massey University.
“University is where all three of us actually discovered our interest and love with beer and brewing,” Rowe says.
Those uni years delivered the brainchild of opening their own brewery, but it would be more than a decade before their much-talked-about dream became a bricks-and-mortar reality, coinciding with a beer-drinking public with a more refined palate.
Rowe says those years were spent wisely – the trio travelled and worked extensively around the world and focused on extending their knowledge of beer and the brewing industry in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan.
Their extensive travels inspired both their name, a play on the words ‘urban’ and ‘astronaut’, and their many beer flavours – the Hacienda Disco Beer, Harajuku West Coast IPA, El Dorado Hazy Pale Ale and more.
“Travel is a big part of our life experience that we wanted to bring through our beers,” Rowe says.
He says they played it safe when they first opened Urbanaut’s Kingsland brewery.
“We started out pretty conservatively with the first few beers that we launched."
But they started experimenting when they realised they needed to push the boat out to stand out in an increasingly crowded market.
“We’ve just gone further and further into the field of interesting and wild beer combinations,” he says. “We're constantly experimenting and pushing the boundaries.”
Their Prosecco Pilsner, Springfield Jam Donut Hazy IPA, Honey Jasmine Tumeric Hazy Sour and Triple Shot Espresso Scotch Ale are just some of the out-of-the-box flavours they’ve concocted over the past five years.
It’s not just the Marton brains trust that comes up with the ideas – once a fortnight all of Urbanaut’s 26 staff sit down to tease out the next big flavour. That’s been such a success that they’re on track to release 52 new beer flavours before the end of the year.
“We don’t limit ourselves,” Rowe says. “Urbanaut is always looking for new and exciting ways to do beer.
“If you just stand still and make the same beer, people will lose interest.”