Three mates walk into a former props and costume warehouse and turn it into a craft beer brewery. It sounds like it could be the start of the joke but for the three friends behind Urbanaut Brewery Co it was the beginning of what has become a very successful business.
Based in Kingsland, Auckland the craft beer company opened its doors in 2017 (on the site that once housed First Scene) and from the outset the focus has been on brewing fresh, tasty beers and introducing beer lovers - and the unconverted - to different styles and flavours.
Some of these introductions are happening at a very local level, with the brewery operating a cellar door and tours allowing anyone who happens to be in the neighbourhood to drop in for tastings and buy the beer to take home.
“We see ourselves as being ‘beer experience providers’ rather than a brewery,” says cofounder Bruce Turner, who previously spent eight years working as an engineer at two breweries in the UK including London’s Meantime Brewery. “One of our goals is to introduce people to what beer can be.”
Collaborating and thinking up original products and projects - rather than a big marketing budget - has been Urbanaut’s best tactic for getting noticed and growing their brand.
“We’ve spent almost nothing on marketing. Instead we’ve focused on doing interesting things with good partners and thinking creatively about what we can bring to the market,” says Turner who co-founded the business with his longtime friends (dating back to their Rangitikei high school days) Thomas Rowe and Simon Watson.
One of these partnerships saw them team up with Metro to make a bespoke, limited edition beer that matched the magazine’s brand. The refreshing, slightly salty brew with horopito and kawakawa flavours was dubbed ‘Matchy Matchy’ and a range of restaurants were asked to create dishes to match.
Another partnership has seen them team up with the Karma Cola brand, to pair a can of Lemmy Lemonade with a can of Urbanaut Kingsland Pilsner for the ‘ultimate shandy’. Clever packaging, which sees the two cans stacked together in a single wrapped label, and easily peels open in the middle, is part of the innovation - made possible by the fact Urbanaut does all own its packaging (kegs, cans and bottles) and labelling onsite.
One of the brewery’s biggest product innovations to date has been their Urbanaut Beer Blenders. Using the same packaging innovation as the shandy, the brewery pairs two cans of different beer flavours (think Szechuan Kolsch and Yuzu Super Sour, or Milkshake Beer and Imperial Stout) allowing customers to drink them as they are or mix them together to create a unique blend. The product was launched at Beervana and went into 120 Liquorland stores nationwide and kicked off a special partnership with New World too.
“The beer blenders are going really well. As far as we can tell, what we’ve done is a world first. People had been blending beers in pubs and breweries but they’d never been able to take home a pack like this and do it themselves.”
The brewery which is now producing 300,000 litres a year, including some contract brewing for other craft beer brands like the Yeastie Boys, says sales are strong and they’ve got plenty more ideas and projects on the horizon.
Urbanaut is in the process of introducing new software to enable them to more closely monitor their inputs - specifically water, electricity and ingredient usage - and compare that to the beer outputs.
“You can lose beer at certain stages of the process and we want to understand if and when that’s happening and see if we can reduce and recover more.”
They’re also looking to improve their processes by introducing automation and doing away with some heavy lifting. The first step will be a new conveyor belt to transport 25kg grain bags which are currently hauled up a ladder and tipped into the vats.
Turner says Callaghan Innovation’s support has helped enable the company to invest in making their brewery more efficient and effective with automation and IoT.
“The backing from Callaghan Innovation has also meant that we can keep innovating and stay ahead in a crowded market. It’s allowed us to back ourselves and explore new packaging and flavour innovations.”
A recently awarded student grant will also be put to good use, supporting Urbanaut’s first foray into using food science to create innovative new products using their brews and byproducts.
While Urbanaut has had approaches from bigger breweries and suggestions for overseas expansion, Turner says the company’s focus on fresh means they’re not looking beyond Australia for exports right now.
With good sales and healthy cashflows, the three founders haven’t had to bring on extra shareholders since they started either. Turner says they have a simple business approach that is working well for them.
“We set targets from day one, we review them every six months to see if we’re on track and adjust if we need to.”
Updated: 19 December 2019