Peripheral visions

Richard Croasdale meets the team behind cult kiwi brewery Outlier Cartel, to find out where they get their inspiration, where they disappeared to for four years, and what the future holds


I like to think of New Zealand’s Outlier Cartel as being a little like 1980s TV mercenaries, The A-Team; elusive, resourceful, and coaxed out of hiding only for projects worthy of their unique talents. 

Founders Mark von Nagy and Carlos de la Barra met as neighbours at a seemingly doomed house party, as Mark recalls: “We were living in an apartment block in Oakland, where people come and go all the time, and I hear a knock on my door. Usually the neighbours never say anything unless they’re complaining you’re too loud or something like that, so I was a little bit worried. There’s three fellas outside and they say, ‘Hey, we're having a housewarming party across the way would you like to come?’ And I said ‘sure!’ Carlos had invited the entire block. I was the only one to show up.”

Despite the unpromising start, the two immediately hit it off, talking about beer and Vienna (both Carlos and Mark’s wife were born in Austria) and eating enough schnitzel to cater a flat party of 30 people. 

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect; Mark was working in IT, but has always been a creative, foodie soul, while Carlos was frustrated in his job at a large commercial winery. Hanging out with increasing frequency, their conversation inevitably turned to beer, and the prospect of working together on the kind of small-batch, free-wheeling brewery project that would give both the creative outlet they desperately needed.

“Carlos is absolutely great, because I could throw out absolutely crazy, off-the-wall ideas, and he’ll either say ‘yeah, I can make that a beer,’ or ‘let me think on that,’ or ‘that's a little bit too crazy’. Everything I've learned about beer has just come from rubbing shoulders with Carlos. Prior to him, all I knew was lagers and stuff like that – I didn't really have much knowledge.”

Outlier Cartel was formed a short time later, in 2015, contract brewing with a local partner (after a long and, at times, halting search). A lot of its beers were daringly unfamiliar to New Zealand, including a gruit and a beer with cacao nibs and kola nuts. The gamble paid off though, and Outlier quickly became an underground hit among the beer intelligentsia, thanks to the sheer weirdness of its beers and – crucially – the intuitive and technical brilliance of Mark and Carlos, who managed to keep things very drinkable.

“Our creation process was very much based around stories or concepts,” continues Mark. “We had an online board, where I would post pictures and stories, and put in a name and some kind of commentary or narrative. Like, for instance, with our Cloudburst beer, I learned about the technique of seeding clouds with silver to make then rain, which in turn made me think, instead of silver, what if we could do that with hops and different ingredients, and then you hold out your mug as it rains beer?

“So, sometimes I’ll kind of give Carlos the concept and he runs wild, or sometimes he'll give me the ingredients and see what I can work with. So we're always kind of spit-balling and riffing on each other’s ideas.”

Unincumbered by any particular ambition beyond scratching a creative itch – and hopefully selling some good beer – Outlier Cartel was by design a pretty informal, flexible arrangement. So when in 2019 Mark and his wife decided to move to Vancouver, and Carlos was offered a dream position with Omnipollo in Stockholm, there was really no drama.

“When Carlos told me about the Omnipollo offer, we obviously discussed whether that would mean the end of Outlier, but because of the way it was set up, we knew we could just put it on hiatus for as long as we needed,” says Mark.

“The plan was always to come back to it at some point though because… well, we really, really loved it. As a business, we weren't super financially successful, but we kept things going comfortably, and had a really good reputation. If you’d talk to a regular person on the street, they possibly didn't know our brand, but whenever I met another brewer, they absolutely knew us. We won a couple of awards in New Zealand, like I think Cloudburst got beer of the year in New Zealand in 2018, which was a really cool honour. It just felt good to be part of!”

The pair kept in close contact all through lockdown, as Carlos’s reputation grew through his tenure at Omnipollo, then latterly as head brewer and winemaker at Beer52, emailing one another with recipes and ideas for cool future collaborations. For Outlier Cartel’s 2023 reprise though, Carlos and Mark have returned to its classic, highly-rated weizenbock, Apricity. 

“We’re obviously remote these days, but the fact that Carlos was still able to take that recipe and precisely recreate it is pretty amazing. Apricity is a very beloved beer among people who know Outlier. It was arguably the one that put us on the map as well, and that was part of the reason Carlos wanted to do it again, and I was stoked, of course.”

One thing that has changed since those heady days in New Zealand is that Mark no longer drinks alcohol, which – along with shifting trends among the wider public – has given the pair a new perspective on where the brewery might go in the future.

“I think not being able to drink as much has made me a lot more focused on flavour, and I know that's always top of mind for Carlos,” says Mark. “So we've also discussed potentially doing some unusual styles of non-alcoholic beers and things like that, because I think the styles currently being brewed for that market are quite narrow. I also see that a lot of younger people are now not really getting into alcohol because it's quite expensive and not necessarily great for their health.

“So it would be really, really interesting to see us maybe tackle a range of beers like – just to throw it out there – what does a non-alcoholic gruit look like? Because once you start swapping hops out for other herbs and things, there’s a lot of very original flavours you could introduce, rather than simply trying to make something still taste like a pale ale without the alcohol.”

Does non-alcoholic gruit sound like an obvious recipe for success? Perhaps not, but sometimes it’s the most outlandish plans that produce the most inspiring, memorable beers at the end of the day. And you’ve got to love it when a plan comes together.

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