Up the creek
It's been around the block, but Deep Creek remains on the cutting edge.
Monday 20 January 2020
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It’s early 2017 and Paul Brown and the other founders of New Zealand’s Deep Creek Brewing Company are in a meeting room at their bank. They’ve come in to secure funding for a new canning line, predicting that the New Zealand craft beer market is about to explode with hazy IPAs, pale ales, and sours - and all of them packaged in neat little cans. But their bank manager is having none of it. The bank would be more than happy to cover the costs of a new bottling line, so why don’t you just continue to bottle? Anyway, aren’t canned beers just a fad? “That was a tough conversation,” Brown says now, recalling the tense meeting. “Their perception at the time…[was that] cans were a low quality product.” They managed to secure their canning line in the end, and two and a half years later the brewery continues to thrive, on the back of brightly coloured cans of hop-forward IPAs, sours, pilsners, and more.
You can smell Deep Creek before you see it. The brewery, which they moved into in 2014, is based in a nondescript industrial estate on the other side of several steep hills from the Silverdale bus terminal that collects workers commuting to Auckland. The smell of fresh wort, commingling with compost from the neighbouring landscaping business, is confirmation that there is in fact a brewery based here. They’ve just concluded a brew, and out on the brewhouse floor brewers are mopping up and hosing away the tropical residue of pineapple puree they’ve been using to make one of Deep Creek’s fruited sours. Upstairs in an office, Brown cuts a more relaxed figure than in that stormy bank meeting in 2017; customs inspectors have just departed, and the brewery has signed off on their latest container of beer headed for the UK.
Deep Creek have been on this site since 2012 But this isn’t Deep Creek’s original home. To visit that, you’d need to get in your car and drive 20 minutes down the highway to the surf town of Brown’s Bay and Deep Creek Brews and Eats, the brewpub where Brown and his friends Scott Taylor and Jarred MacLachlan launched the Deep Creek adventure. Brown and MacLachlan had been brewing in their garages for a couple of years - “A lot of IPAs, pale ales, whatever we wanted,” says Brown. “Pumpkin beers, all sorts of weird stuff.” For a while they had feet in both camps - keeping their day jobs and brewing in the free time - but when they met fellow home-brewer Hamish Ward, they made the decision to junk their professions and go all-in on beer.
But back in 2011, there were a couple of issues that scared them off opening a production brewery. It was hard to get into bars or secure shelf space in supermarkets, there were already a group of well-established breweries out there, and the craft end of the beer market was still a niche supported by a core of like-minded craft enthusiasts. So instead they opted to open a brewpub. “We just thought if we opened a bar, we could have people in for the food, and convert those people over slowly to the kinds of beer styles we wanted to make,” says Brown.
One bar became two in 2013 and three the following year as the business took off. Deep Creek secured the lease for their Silverdale site in 2012 and started brewing in 2013, sharing the space with Zeffer Cider. Since 2017 they have had the building to themselves, and the 20 hectolitre brewhouse they installed operates six to seven times a week - and, like many larger New Zealand breweries, it makes Deep Creek beers alongside beer made on contract for other breweries.
Their perception at the time was that cans were a low quality product
The beers Brown and his team are making have evolved in the eight years they’ve been brewing. The styles have remained largely the same but the expression of those styles has moved on, tracking changes in the New Zealand market and in what drinkers are looking for. Read: increasingly hazy IPAs and pale ales, sour ales, and a growing interest in more niche barrel-aged beers. “Half our production now is hazies and sours,” says Paul.
“That’s something new that’s come along in the last three or four years.” Sarah MacLachlan, responsible for Deep Creek’s sales and marketing, agrees. “I think our hazies have definitely grown as a response to the market,” she says. “It was brewed because that’s what guys wanted to brew, but also because of the demand for hazies.”
When it comes to the explosive rise in sour ales - Deep Creek’s Tiki range of beers feature sour beers infused with guava, mango and raspberry, and lychee and grapefruit - there’s been growing demand from people who would never normally consider themselves beer drinkers for these kinds of beers. “It’s a great beer style for when it’s hot,” says Brown. “But it’s also a great beer when you’re hungover. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been hungover and I’ve been out somewhere, and I say I’ll just have a sour and then another one, and I’m away!”
The evolving New Zealand market has affected Deep Creek beyond adaptations to the brewery’s beers. For one thing, they have a lot more competitors now than they did when they started. “When we started there was, like 73 breweries. Now there is around 220,” says Brown. “And every time I check it’s probably another five.” To keep ahead of their rivals they’ve got to make sure that every single batch is on point, and Hamish and his team are much more willing now than they might have been in the early days to dump batches that don’t meet these heightened quality standards. “The brand damage compared to the sale value of the beer is so much higher now,” says Brown. “It’s expensive but, something that you’ve got to do.”
As competition has increased, Deep Creek and other breweries have looked for new sales avenues for their beers. One is export, and Deep Creek exports about 40% of its beer - to Australia, the UK, and China, among others. But it’s in supermarkets where the biggest change has taken place, with large grocery chains massively scaling up their craft beer offer. It’s not uncommon to go into an Auckland or a Nelson supermarket now and find beers from 15 or 20 different breweries on sale, and Deep Creek as much as anyone has shared in this growth.
I think our hazies have definitely grown as a response to the market
But it’s also put pressure on them to make sure what they’re offering is both visible and attractive. That’s where the impetus for the new canning line came in 2017, and why the brewery is currently in the middle of refreshing its branding and beer logos. “Bottles are dead, or if not dead then dying,” says Brown. “And I think can artwork has come along as well. The big advantage of cans is the ability to put artwork on them.” And in the last 12 months they’ve shifted some of the beer art from more sombre greys and blacks to a riot of colour and tropical fruit, nudging drinkers to better understand what they’re likely to experience if they pick up a can of Deep Creek.
But by far the biggest change in Deep Creek’s operation in 2019 is also the reason why - apart from the fact that the customs inspectors have left - Brown is in a jovial, relaxed mood. On November 7, they closed the deal to sell Deep Creek’s first home, the brewpub out in Browns Bay, divesting themselves of the last part of their miniature bar empire, and finalising a process of consolidation into a brewery focused 100% on production. The sale marks a definitive turn in their approach to selling beer in a vastly different retail landscape to 2011. “We opened the bars for obvious reasons, like route to market and getting the retail margin as well,” Brown explains. “But then, we found like we weren’t focusing on what we needed to on the brewery so it [the brewpub] was just a lot of work.”
With the sale completed, they’ve got a comfortable financial cushion with which to soften any potential drop-off in sales, and to insulate them from a tightening of the market that Brown suggests is probably inevitable. That bank manager who several years ago waved off their interest in getting a canning line as a fad that was sure to pass - he must be pretty happy to have you back now? “Oh, we changed banks,” Brown says, laughing uproariously. “So they probably don’t care anymore, but we did pay them back!”
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