Rob Beard was at the lowest point of his life when a mystery package arrived on his desk. He tells Chris Schulz what happened next.
In 2011, Rob Beard was at work when he received a courier package. That wasn’t unusual for the viticulturist. He’d worked in the wine industry most of his life, and thought it might contain grape samples for the following season’s vintage.
So Beard casually opened up his parcel and tipped the contents out onto a table. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Stacks of documents tumbled out, piles of worn paper and old cardboard covered in scrawled, handwritten lettering.
Clearly, it was something special, a personalised package that had taken the author weeks to put together. Dozens of recipes had been included, some scribbled down in pencil, others notes compiled on the back of Weetbix boxes. The collection included some pages the colour of nicotine, dating back to the 1930s.
In total, it condensed a lifetime’s worth of work into one mystery box.
“I cried like a baby,” says Beard. He instantly knew who they were from, and why they were there. It meant his life was about to change. “I looked at them going, ‘Holy shit’.
“I couldn’t believe someone had done this.”
Six weeks earlier, Beard had been at his lowest. His sister had committed suicide in Scotland, and his wife Lara was in hospital, suffering excruciating bouts of morning sickness while pregnant with their third child.
Making matters worse was his job: Beard was sick of it.
“I’d had a bit of a shit run,” he says. Losing his sister was the big one. “[It] … changed everything, the way I looked at life, and all that sort of thing.”
The only thing bringing Beard any joy was his hobby. He loved to hunt, turning the meat into sausages in a shipping container plonked outside his Hawke’s Bay house. He dreamed of one day turning it into a business, but with a family of three young boys, it seemed too risky.
Late one night at hospital, while dropping his wife off for treatment, all this was going through his head when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Beard turned around and was surprised to find an old man greeting him.
Bandages covered most of the stranger’s head.
“Hey young fella, any chance of a ride home?” the old man asked him. Beard had nothing else to do, and he was concerned no one else was there to look after the man, who seemed frail. “Shit yeah, of course, 100%,” he replied.
He helped the old man into his ute and, over the half-hour ride home, the pair got talking. “I told him what I did … I said, ‘I’m over what I do.’ He said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to start my own business.'”
Beard told him he made sausages and salamis for fun. The old man told him he used to be a butcher. “He said, ‘You just follow your dream, mate, just do it’.” Beard told him he couldn’t afford to: he had three young children and a job that paid well. He couldn’t give that up.
The old man calmly nodded his bandaged head.
Then he told him: “You’ll be fine. Just do it.'”
Over the next six weeks, the old man’s words rattled around in Beard’s head. At work, they’d come to him like a mantra: “Just do it, just do it, just do it.” He wanted to quit, but couldn’t. “I was on a good wage. Max would have been four or five, Sam (was about to be born)…”
Then the package arrived. It was from Garth Currie, the old man Beard had helped get home that night. It contained a complete collection of all Currie’s recipes, gathered over his many years running a local Bay butchery.
Beard could tell it had taken a huge effort to put them all down on paper. “For him to write these recipes, at his age, and his health, and the state he was in, would have been a major battle,” he says.
The writing was legible, but only just. “His focus is buggered, some are capital letters, some are smaller letters, they’re on an angle. It would have taken a mammoth effort to write that.”
Even with his limited butchery experience, Beard could tell Currie’s recipes contained something special. “There are so many recipes … of really old school stuff,” he says. “You couldn’t Google how to do it. It’s proper butchering.”
Some included heirloom herbs Beard had never heard of. Others were tried and true staples. Next to a recipe for saveloys, Currie had written: “This one’s a good seller, Rob.” Many dated back decades. One recipe was from “some French guy who knew someone in the war”.
Also included was a note from Currie. It said: “I would love to tie sausages with you one day.”
Out in his shipping container, Beard got to work. He installed a small beer fridge, and bought a mincer from a man called Wally in Palmerston North. He began testing Currie’s recipes, starting with black pudding and pork sausages.
He quickly realised these recipes were the real deal. “That was the push,” he says. “That was the snippet in time that made me go, ‘You know what? Fuck my job.'”
Finally, Beard started making plans to take the leap. He organised a three-month mortgage holiday. He began selling products using Currie’s recipes at a local farmers’ market. And he opened a small store at the front of his Hawke’s Bay house.
Then Beard had a thought: “I’d better ring Garth.”
He quickly got on the phone. Currie’s wife answered. She told him he was too late. Garth had passed away.
They’d never get to tie sausages together.
Looking back now, Beard doesn’t know how he pulled it off. At constant risk of losing his house, with a newborn baby joining the family, he started his artisanal butcher business Beard Brothers armed with a box of old recipes and a shipping container.
He made black pudding using secret herbs grown in his back yard, and sausages using specific ingredients supplied by Currie’s recipes. Even now Beard shakes his head remembering the early days. “I’m not even a butcher,” he says. “I’m self-taught. That’s crazy.”
Slowly, word started to spread. Beard’s black pudding began winning acclaim, then awards. Simon Gault praised it as the best in Aotearoa. One day, Peta Mathias knocked on his front door, asking for some. Supermarkets came on board.
Now, with a production facility in Hastings, and more than 20 full-time staff processing up to six tonne of meat a day, Beard Brothers is stocked in 102 New Worlds, 52 Four Squares and all seven Gilmores stores.
Top sellers include classic beef and pork sausages, as well as more unique flavours like pork and watercress. Beard has four hectares of puha, a kind of thistle, commercially planted for use in his pork and puha sausages.
His aim is to become “the Whittaker’s of the sausage world – we want to be a trusted New Zealand brand.”
Beard owes it all to Currie. “I don’t think I would have done what I’d done if i hadn’t met Garth that night.”
It sounds like an overnight success story, but it’s taken him more than 10 years to get Beard Brothers to this point. It hasn’t been easy. Beard recalls working 100-hour weeks, the pressure taking a toll on his family, his relationships and his health.
Two years ago, he suffered a heart attack.
“It’s been really tough,” he says. “I used to work Monday to Friday, drag the kids to the farmers markets on Saturday and Sunday. My wife Lara would look after the shop … it’s relentless. A hundred hours a week was nothing to me.”
Money was a constant worry. “I could have lost everything at any moment.” Beard spent many nights lying awake, wondering: “When’s it going to change? It must change. It’s gotta change.” It seemed like the day he’d run a profitable business would never come.
It did come, but it only happened about 12 months ago. That means Beard has had a little time to think about other things lately. Recently, he cleaned out his shipping container, serviced his mincer, and dusted off Currie’s old recipes.
He’s only used a few of them, and there are many more he wants to trial. “It’s gone full circle,” he says.
But there’s been something else on his mind. Beard feels like a caretaker, a guardian of sorts, for Currie’s recipes. That means sooner or later, he’s going to need to pass them on to someone else, to honour the gift that he’s been given. “They will stay in my safe keeping for the time being [until] I choose a protege,” he says.
When he does, Beard will tell them the story of the night he met a “sausage angel … a guy who had come to the end of his life, he knew his time was nigh, and he passed it on.
“It’s a pretty cool thing.”