Richard Croasdale catches up with two-thirds of your new favourite Kiwi brewery
Monday 20 January 2020
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Video interviews with New Zealand brewers are an odd affair. It’s a chilly December evening here in Edinburgh, so I’m wearing a down jacket and sipping a Bevog pale ale, because someone has turned the office heating off. Dylan Shearer and Jordan Evison, two of the three co-founders of Funk Estate, meanwhile, are sipping their morning coffee under glorious summer sunshine. I try not to hold this fact against them.
Together with their third co-founder Shiggy, the guys met at university in 2008, bonded over a shared love of beer and began brewing in their halls of residence (probably against any number of rules, but hey). The craft scene in Auckland wasn’t all that developed at the time, with garage project and parrot dog being the only notable players in town, but the trio had confidence in the quality of their brews and decided to, in Dylan’s words “back ourselves a bit”.
“We saw an opportunity to do something productive and have some fun at the same time,” he says. “We started off contract brewing, just with the idea that we’d do maybe a 10-hectolitre batch every few months. At the start we were constrained by money, but about 18 months later there was so much demand that we decided to take it more seriously, putting in more money and really ramping it up. So we found a distributor and started getting into supermarkets.”
Up until this point, they had all considered brewing a hobby job. The catalyst came when Jordan’s contract with an energy company was cut short as part of wider redundancies, and he suddenly found himself with time and some spare cash. Fortune, for now, was on their side.
“We were looking at different options, when we found this brewery on the market in Auckland. The guy had started off pretty ambitious; he was only going to brew lagers, which is hard to do economically on such a small scale, so it hadn’t worked out. With some negotiation and a lot of hard work from Jordy, we finally got the keys on 23 December 2014 and started brewing the very next day. It was ideal.”
Although it had involved all three upping sticks to another city, Jordan feels the move to Auckland put them in the right place at the right time.
“We felt the craft beer thing had well-and-truly taken off in Wellington and that there was still scope to make our mark in Auckland, which I think we did. When we got there, there were about half the number of breweries there are now. Not just breweries, but venues, bars and bottleshops. There’s a huge scene there now, particularly in the restaurants; there’s lots of good restaurants with a great beer selection.”
But their days in Auckland were numbered. The company that was leasing them the brewery building went bust, and the owner of the land took his opportunity to evict the tenants and redevelop the land. The only saving grace was that all of this happened in the winter, when the brewery was relatively quiet. After a desperate search around Auckland, Jordan eventually found Funk Estate a permanent home around 150km to the south, in the coastal town of Tauranga, where it’s still based today.
On the beer front, I was surprised to discover that Funk Estate doesn’t have a line in wild brews. The ‘funk’ it seems, is more about the guys’ general attitude to brewing and life, than about their preferred microfauna. Dylan admits this could be “a bit confusing” but, equally, the name does fit well with the wider branding, so perhaps this is more about my prejudices.
In any case – and much more importantly – the beers are excellent. Having started out with a pretty predictable line-up of IPA, pale ale and pilsner, Funk Estate quickly raised their sights and began really experimenting with style and flavour. Sitting in the brewery bar/shop, Dylan turns his laptop camera around to show me the board, which promises a strong hazy IPA, mango rooibos sour, grapefruit APA, raspberry and lemonade cider, west coast IPA and a stout with Nutrigrain (of all things).
“We’ve gone pretty left field,” laughs Dylan. “We experiment putting lot of different ingredients into different beers and try to have some fun as the market develops. Because we’re on the small side, we can’t compete in the same areas as the guys with the massive brewkits. So we’ve moved away from that high volume space and into the more quirky fun stuff, particularly focused on sours, which are becoming a bigger part of the market here.”
Funk Estate’s sours have had an excellent critical reception, and could be key to the brewery’s export plans. In a country of fewer than 5 million people, the appetite for sours is limited. Where’s in the UK for example, tastes are different and the market is simply larger.
The move to Auckland put them in the right place at the right time
“If we can crank up the sour beers and sell them internationally, that would be great, and the UK is a really important market for us. I think what the New Zealand Beer Collective is doing is awesome… it would be great to see more NZ breweries making a splash internationally. NZBC can bulk buy and coordinate shipping and do a number of things to bring their price down that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do on our own.”
Jordan chips in: “It’s important to have someone like them on the whole strategic side of it as well. There’s a lot of distributors we’ve worked with domestically and internationally, who take the approach of ‘you make some beer, we’ll take it and see how it goes’. That’s fair for a certain model, but for export you really need to be able to sit down with your team and say what are we trying to do here? How can we make this happen? The NZBC is great for that, because you can really get into those discussions a bit more.”
While this month’s Beer52 box will be the first time Funk Estate has received wide distribution in the UK, Dylan did represent the brewery at Craft Beer Rising 2019.
“I was the lucky one from our team that went! Drank a lot of beers with Todd and Becky [from NZBC] and worked the fest for a couple of days; it was a lot of scale, a lot of breweries. Not being too familiar with the uk scene I didn’t know where to start! We got a good reception from the beers though – very positive.”
With Jordan moving to the UK for a year in February, we can expect to see a lot more of Funk Estate in the months ahead. And with beers this good, there’s always space in our crowded market.
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