Meet the brewer: Bruce Turner from Urbanaut
We meet up with Bruce Turner, the founder of Urbanaut Brewing Co
Friday 17 January 2020
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Bruce Turner has the look of a harried man. He’s a little red in the face, his attention regularly drawn to his watch or to his brewing team to discuss this or that production detail. He’s just flown in from Wellington, where he lives, to Auckland to oversee the week’s production at Urbanaut, the brewery he founded with two old friends in early 2017 and which is just about to ramp up production ahead of the Christmas (read: summer) holiday rush.
But, for all the distractions and latent tiredness, he’s here at Urbanaut’s brewhouse and cellar door on a residential Auckland street, trolley suitcase by his side, and looks invigorated but what he always hoped to be doing. After years working in London breweries, it remained Turner’s plan to return home to New Zealand and open a brewery of his own. Urbanaut is the result. “I’d always planned to come back and start something with my friends Simon and Thomas,” Turner says. He spent 13 years working in London breweries Meantime and Fuller, but for several years knocked around ideas for a brewery back home with his two friends. Two and half years ago those conversations crystallised into the idea for Urbanaut, which they opened in 2017 in a converted industrial space just off of Auckland’s so-called ‘Beer Mile’ in the city’s Kingsland neighbourhood as a 320,000 litre-a-year brewery making beer for themselves and for other New Zealand breweries.
The building, in black and yellow with street art outside, stands out from the single-storey bungalows around it. But this was a conscious decision. “Wellington’s got so many breweries per capita, and in Auckland there was still only a handful of good breweries,” Turner explains. “We’ve been trying to establish ourselves as an Auckland-centric brewery, hence choosing this spot.” Opening their production brewery with a cellar door allowed them to attract not only Auckland’s beer geeks but also the beer-curious and the beer-uncertain from the surrounding neighbourhood.
The cellar door is an idea that brewers have ported over from the New Zealand wine industry, a way of offering their beers to drinkers without having to fulfil the onerous licensing laws that come with being a full-scale bar. In Urbanaut’s case, the brewery is split neatly down the middle, with the production brewery to the left, and what elsewhere would be called the tap room - refurbished arcade games, carpet floors, and recovered furniture - to the right.
For Turner, setting Urbanaut up like this had several advantages. The urban setting tied in with Urbanaut’s name and branding, which trades on connections to iconic urban settings - Miami, the Copacabana, Brixton. “Our branding is simple but quite colourful,” he says. “Our theme is around cities, we love being an urban brewery, taking inspiration from urban spaces. And when we think of a new beer style, we try to think of a place that would suit the feeling behind it.”
Turner and his partners hoped Urbanaut’s cellar door would be a place open to the people who lived next door. “The brewery being in a residential and central part of Auckland rather than in an industrial area… [means we] have a space where people can come in and connect with us, see us making beer, and try all of our new beers,” he says. “And we can talk to them about what’s going on in the craft beer world.” The restrictions imposed on the brewery by the cellar door concept - only small tasters (and usually served in flights of multiple different beers) - encourages their more cautious customers to experiment.
“We say okay, you can’t have a pint of pilsner but you can try these six beers,” Turner says. ‘Where they normally wouldn’t take a punt on a pint of something, they’ll get something like a Sahti and go, oh, that’s quite interesting.” And as Turner tells it, their approach has been a locally-driven success: “We’ve really been welcomed into the neighbourhood."
While the odd Sahti might pop up on Urbanaut’s bar, from the beginning their beers have leaned towards the beer styles of Turner’s previous home. “Obviously I’ve got an English influence,” he says, highlighting Urbanaut’s 4.4% ABV malty pale ale as an example, when many of their competitors are producing pale ales much more to new world specifications - light of body and hoppy in a tropical rather than assertively bitter manner. There has been a divergence away from these influencers, as the brewers flex their creativity and consumer tastes in New Zealand have changed. “Since we got [ourselves] established, we realised that more and more people wanted really exciting beers,” Turner says, “and we’ve aspired to try new things.”
We realised that more and more people wanted really exciting beers
Quick as a flash Turner jumps out of his chair and heads to the cellar door’s fridges, returning excitedly with what looks like a standard 440ml Urbanaut can. But it’s not, as Turner explains. “We like everybody [in New Zealand] started to do sours and hazies. But now we’ve really gotten into blending!” he says excitedly. And not just at festivals or ad hoc. “I had this crazy idea a year ago that we were going to convince people that they could buy packaged beer ready to blend,” Turner says, revealing that what looked like a single large can is in fact two individual 250ml cans stacked on top of each and hidden by a label with a pull-away tab.
“Mixing has been going on for a while in bars, with people asking what would it be like mixing this beer or that beer,” Turner says. “And then I thought, ‘No one’s made a take-home version that I could find.’ And it’s just become a really fun experience!” Since launching these “beer blender” kits, Urbanaut has released several different versions, including a milkshake beer paired with an imperial stout with coco and coffee, a yuzu lemon super-sour matched with Kolsch infused with Szechuan pepper, and a blood orange Kveik IPA packaged with a mosaic-hopped mango sour. The “crazy idea” paid off. “It’s been really great for us because it’s put us on the map,” Turner says. “It was awesome when it came out because people were like, ‘Where did you get the idea from…[and] now people associate Urbanaut with these cans together.”
As with many new-ish breweries in New Zealand, getting their beer in cans - regular sized or miniature - has been hugely important for Urbanaut, and already makes up around 50% of their output. “It’s where the growth is,” says Turner. “It’s better for the beers, and it’s easier for the production side of things.” And when they’re not canning their own beers on their basement canning line, the Urbanaut brewhouse can usually be found processing beers from New Zealand/UK brewery Yeastie Boys. Turner met Yeastie Boys’ Stu McKinley when both men lived in London and frequented the same Kiwi beer-centric events.
“Stu said to me that if you do start something up he’d be interested to have us produce it,” says Turner. Urbanaut has since become Yeastie Boys’ go-to brewery, Turner & Co not only brew the beers but also run the brand, its promotion, sales and distribution, taking a royalty from the profits. The two companies continue to collaborate on beers together, and the process of working through recipes for someone else’s beers has also enriched Urbanaut’s own beers. "A good example of this is Kveik yeast,” says Turner. “We were put onto that by Yeastie Boys, [and] we probably wouldn’t have used it so soon if it wasn’t part of a recipe of theirs.” If anything, having these contracts helps keep the brewery running at close to full capacity. “It’s a fun experience to do a contract,” says Turner. “And it’s good to have other things going on in the brewery.”
For now, Turner and his co-founders - “it’s still just the three of us, and the three of us are hands-on in the business daily,” Turner says - have enough work with Urbanaut and Yeastie Boys to keep them occupied. Although their initial focus has been on their immediate surroundings in Auckland, and Turner’s home base of Wellington, their beer is starting to leak out into other countries. “Mostly we want to sell everything we can locally, but it’s good to have not all your eggs in one basket,” Turner says of their expansion from distribution in craft beer bars to local supermarkets to prospective export to Australia and South East Asia.
Their participation in Beer52’s New Zealand subscription box will likely be the brewery’s first foray into UK export. As Turner prepares for a day of intense work in the brewhouse ahead - there is beer to be brewed for the Christmas summer holidays - and administrative details to attend to in the cellar door, he takes a moment to consider how far this urban project has come since he returned from the brewing metropolis of London. “It’s exceeded what we thought we’d do,” he says, with characteristic Kiwi understatement.
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