From a rural shed to a multimillion-dollar acquisition by DB, with a few legal battles thrown in for good measure, Tuatara’s two decades in the business have been a wild ride. Now, after revamping the beers, its talented head brewer has called it quits. Alice Neville checks in.
For a while there, Tuatara Brewing seemed unstoppable. One of the first New Zealand craft breweries, it rode the wave as craft went from niche to mainstream, holding its own against the many, many newcomers that appeared on the scene with their flashy labels and beardy brewers.
But for the Kāpiti-based brewery, founded in 2000, the last few years have been as bumpy as the neck of a Tuatara bottle.
Before we get into that, though, let’s go back, way back, to the beginning. Imagine, for a moment (or remember, if you’re of a certain age), what it was like for a beer drinker in New Zealand in the 1980s.
“You’d go to a DB bar and they’d have DB Draught on tap, Rheineck possibly, or maybe the lager would be in bottles in the fridge,” remembers Tuatara founder Carl Vasta. “At a Lion bar there’d be Lion Brown on tap, and a lager in the fridge. That was it. That was your choice.”
But Vasta travelled to the UK in the late 80s and discovered a whole new world. “Trying all the real ales in England and the nice European beers they imported was really good to experience. I came back and thought I wanted to join this wave and set something up.”
He had been a keen homebrewer for some time, joining the American Homebrewers Association soon after it was founded in 1978, and after that enlightening trip abroad, Vasta set about educating himself further, hitting up the library for brewing books. He cut his commercial teeth at the Parrot & Jigger in Lower Hutt in the early 90s. He then set up his own brewery, Polar Brewing, at the Petone Working Men’s Club and ran it for a few years. “I had a bit of pushback from the bigger breweries with their cheaper beer,” he recalls, “so I decided I wanted to move more towards the craftier side of the industry.”
He sold the brewery to a place in Western Australia, moving there for a period to set it up, then returned and bought some land with his wife Simone in Reikorangi, inland from Waikanae on the Kāpiti Coast. “I built the cottage first, then thought we needed to brew some beer. I was going to homebrew but then sort of convinced everyone that if I was going to brew 50 litres, I may as well brew 600 litres and make it commercial, so that’s what we did.”
He teamed up with with Fraser McInnes from Bar Bodega and Sean Murrie from The Malthouse, who were looking for a decent beer supply for their Wellington bars, and Tuatara was born in 2000.
An electrical engineer by trade, Vasta built the brewery himself in a shed at the bottom of the sloping property. “It was old tanks and bits of equipment that I’d found and repurposed,” he explained as he showed me around the shed earlier this year – it’s still there, as is much of the equipment, complete with cobwebs and a bit of rust. “I need to set a bit of time aside and tidy it all up.”
Tuatara started out brewing “true-to-style” beers – a pilsner and an English-style IPA. “Then we had an Ardennes, which went really well, and a wheat beer that went really well too. It was about introducing people to these styles, which is why we called them pilsner, IPA, porter, and they had different-coloured labels, so people would either remember what beer they liked or the colour of the labels.”
As for the origin of the reptilian name? “Fraser was closing up at the bar one night and he was counting all his five cent pieces and all the little tuataras were looking at him and he rang me up the next morning and said, ‘How about Tuatara? Only lives in New Zealand, good steady icon, does his own thing, fairly robust, he’s a dinosaur, hasn’t changed at all – he’s sticking to his guns, not being swayed by anything.’” So Tuatara it was.
They expanded slowly, eventually branching out to supply other bars and cafes around Wellington, and building up a solid fan base. For many a young Wellingtonian, Tuatara was their first inkling that there was a world beyond green bottles.
“When we started there was no market, really – just the odd independent place had craft,” recalls Vasta.
“We had a different problem to brewers nowadays – we had to make customers. It wasn’t until about 2012 – that seemed to be about the turning point – that craft beer became cool and everyone wanted to sell it and everybody wanted to brew it. So now we’ve got too many breweries and it’s the opposite issue of oversupply.”
2012, tipped by Vasta above as the turning point for the industry, was also the year Tuatara moved out of Reikorangi, into the big smoke of Paraparaumu. “Logistically we were running out of water and we wanted to be nearer civilisation so we could run a tasting room, and it grew from there. We had a 1200-square-metre factory and thought we’d never fill that up, but within six months we’d leased the 1200 metres next door and then a year later another one. We’ve taken over half of Sheffield Street now.”
The new brewery was opened by then prime minister John Key. The following year, Tuatara launched its now instantly recognisable scaly bottle, and soon was exporting to Australia, Singapore, China, the United States and Europe. The brewery was named the fastest-growing manufacturer in the lower North Island in 2010, 2011 and 2012 in the Deloitte Fast 50.
The year 2012 was also when Tuatara’s fellow craft beer pioneer Emerson’s Brewery sold to Lion, a move that shocked the hardcore craft contingent. Several Wellington bars announced they would stop stocking the beer, and one, if rumour is to be believed, even ceremoniously poured the contents of each Emerson’s bottle they had in stock down the sink.
Speculation that Tuatara was going to follow suit soon emerged, but the following year, the brewery announced a 35% stake had been sold to Wellington investment company Rangatira Ltd.
“We’re happy to announce that we are not selling any shares to a major brewery – so our fans need not worry about the quality of our beer degrading under the watchful eye of big brother brewers and their corporate accountants,” said a post on the Tuatara website when the acquisition was revealed.
It appears, however – if later court documents are to be believed – that selling to a major brewer was always the plan, and Rangatira was brought on board to make the company more attractive to a buyer.
The year it all went nuts was 2016. Tuatara was going great guns from its shiny Paraparaumu brewery, producing a couple of million litres a year and exporting to an ever-growing list of countries. The previous year it had opened The Third Eye, a bar and microbrewery where new beers could be trialled, housed in a historic building in downtown Wellington. In October 2016, it dominated the Brewers Guild of the Year Awards, winning champion brewery for the second time (the first was in 2008 – it’s still the only brewery to have won twice).
A bunch of Tuatara beers won trophies too, but were awarded under new names that had yet to be announced, which confused consumers and raised eyebrows in the beer community. It turned out a rebrand was in the works, and Tuatara’s core beers were being given punny new names that some commentators dubbed “cringe-worthy” – the Helles Lager became Helluva Lager, the Bavarian Hefe was redubbed Weiz Guy, the Aotearoa Pale Ale was reborn as kAPAi and the Bohemian Pilsner became the Mot Eureka Pilsner (an infuriating reinforcement of the common butchering of the Māori hop name Motueka, and the Tasman town after which it’s named).
Around the same time, inklings of friction in the Tuatara world began to emerge. Nelson’s Townshend Brewery pulled out of its contract-brewing and distribution deal with Tuatara, citing a drop in quality in its product.
Soon after, in July 2016, Tuatara CEO Richard Shirtcliffe left the company to head up Coffee Supreme, later taking the brewery to the Employment Relations Authority. He made two claims alleging breaches of his employment agreement around incentive schemes, and also brought two personal grievances claiming constructive dismissal and unjustifiable disadvantage from being put on gardening leave. Tuatara counterclaimed that Shirtcliffe had breached his employment agreement and obligations of good faith. The authority dismissed both parties’ claims.
That year they also copped flak for attempting to trademark Amarillo, a hop variety, as well as the Māori word kapai, and eventually dropped both applications.
In January 2017, Tuatara was sold to DB Breweries, which is owned by Heineken, for a figure later revealed to be $30.5 million. “We sold to DB to allow us to keep growing,” says Vasta. “We sort of reached the ceiling in our domestic growth anyway, we needed some assistance to get through into the wider market and also help with export.”
Things went a bit quiet after that, perhaps related to the legal battle that ensued between Rangatira Ltd, the investment company that had a 35% stake, and the founding shareholders, The Malthouse Ltd (Vasta et al) over the valuation of the company. It went all the way to the Court of Appeal, which earlier this year ruled that Rangatira must pay The Malthouse Ltd almost a million dollars owing to an “earn-out” clause in the contract, a decision that raised eyebrows in the legal community.
But in 2018, Brayden Rawlinson, a Kāpiti local with international experience and a passion for wild-fermented and barrel-aged beers, came on board as head brewer. In April 2019, Tuatara announced a full brand relaunch, scrapping some beers, introducing some new ones, and returning the much-maligned renamed beers to their original style-based monikers.
“Feedback from our customers was that they preferred the style names because of the number of beers out there – it was hard for people to work out what they wanted to drink,” said Vasta at the DB-stage-managed media relaunch event in Wellington in April, which journalists from around the country were flown in to attend.
The new look is relatively simple, giving more prominence to the “third eye” – the tuatara’s parietal eye located on top of its knobbly old head – which had long been a feature on the bottle tops but now takes pride of place on the labels of the core range. The 500ml varieties – an NZ IPA, a hazy IPA, a Baltic porter and the renamed Conviction Belgian Tripel – feature more stylised takes on the eye.
Rawlinson said he was most proud of the tripel, which was yet to be released, when he spoke at the launch. “I pride myself on Belgian beers so I’ve been working intensely on reworking the tripel,” he said. “It’s coming out soon and we’re really stoked with it.”
It came out and was well received, getting a gold medal at the recent Brewers Guild beer awards, but Rawlinson left Tuatara at the end of October to be head brewer at Choice Bros, a small Wellington brewery based at the Husk brew bar on Ghuznee Street. Former owner/brewer Kerry Gray is a good friend of Rawlinson’s and sold the brewery and bar to Wellington’s Yu Group earlier this year. He’s moving to India to work on a beer project there.
Rawlinson’s departure from Tuatara is perhaps not surprising, as it was clear from the outset that he might have trouble toeing the corporate line.
“We’re a big fan of hazy styles and have been playing around with them a lot in the last year – our customers can’t seem to get enough of them,” Rawlinson was quoted as saying in the press release sent out when the relaunch was announced.
Knowing many brewers are infuriated by the haze craze, I asked him straight up his thoughts on hazy beers a few weeks later. “I fucking hate them,” he responded, without hesitation.
He did seem genuinely proud of the hazy pale ale, though, which developed out of a mistake brew. “I really don’t like the whole philosophy that DB has of first time right, because mistakes are what you learn from,” he said. “So if we didn’t have these mistakes that we picked up that, if we didn’t learn from that, we wouldn’t have been able to create a hazy pale ale. You’re always learning, it’s good fun.”
Rawlinson says he’s taken a “massive” pay cut to move to a brewery one-tenth of the size of Tuatara, but says he left on good terms, attributing the move to “pull factors” more than anything pushing him away from Tuatara. He was getting sick of the daily commute from Wellington to Paraparaumu, and Choice Bros is just down the road from where he lives. His new employer also doesn’t have a problem with him working on his side project, Nine Barnyard Owls, whereas his contract at Tuatara had a non-compete clause that meant he couldn’t sell the beer he makes. He also mentioned the appeal of having “full control” rather than having to go through a marketing team.
Acquisitions of small craft brewers by big beer companies have been a hot topic in the beer community for some time. Views seem to have softened since the shock of Emerson’s sale to Lion back in 2012, probably because Richard Emerson, a beloved figure in the industry, has kept control of his Dunedin brewery and the general consensus is the beer hasn’t suffered, which is why, perhaps, there wasn’t so much outcry when Lion also bought out Panhead in 2016.
“I’ve seen both sides of acquisition,” said Rawlinson. “I worked for independents in Australia then ended up working for BDB [Birra del Borgo] over in Italy, which is owned by AB-InBev, which is one of the biggest in the world. But it still had a dedicated team of people, and they [AB-InBev] didn’t have much involvement – they probably had as much involvement as DB Heineken do here. We produce all the beer.
“The worst thing they could do is if they took it off site and said we’re going to do 50,000 litre batches in Waitematā [DB’s main brewery in Auckland]. I’d walk, because that’s not what I signed up for.”
Perceptions of some in the beer community towards acquisitions frustrate him, says Rawlinson.
“They need to come here and see that this is a brewery run by people, it’s not the corporate face that people think when they automatically associate Tuatara with DB or Heineken. We’re dedicated people. It kind of pisses me off.
“I’ve got brewer friends who are drinking Tuatara now who haven’t drunk Tuatara since before the acquisition. They’re now drinking it and are like, ‘this is actually good’, and I’m like yeah, you guys are fucking dickheads,” he laughs.
“When I first started at Tuatara, I sat down with a six pack with some mates and they were like, ‘Wow, this is really good, you’ve done some really good changes since you’ve been here, the beer’s not as bad as we thought it was’, and I was like, ‘What’s the batch number?’ They were like, ‘Oh, it’s such and such – and I was like ‘That was three months before I fucking started!’”
Rawlinson finished with Tuatara at the end of October, and one of his former team members, Paul Roigard, who has also brewed in the UK and Singapore, has been promoted to the role of head brewer.