Next in a week-long series chatting to Wellingtonians about what they’re up to in the windy city, Alex Casey talks to Choice Bros head brewer Kerry Gray about the Wellington brewer scene, stag semen and why his bar will be a haven from Trump.
“Kiwi drinking culture got fucked up because everyone wanted to get fucked up,” says brewer Kerry Gray, sipping thoughtfully on his Choice Bros creation, an IPA aptly called City of the Wind. Looking around Husk, his co-founded brew bar, eatery and soon-to-be coffee roastery on Ghuznee Street, there’s no suggestion that anyone’s going to get fucked up here anytime soon. There’s a couple canoodling in a booth, a student tapping away on his laptop and men in suits muttering.
Even if you get fucked up, at least you can charge your phone to get home safely by using one of the many USB ports that Kerry has taken great care to install through the bar. “There’s nothing worse than being on the piss and not being able to get an uber home.” It’s these sorts of relatable measures that immediately distilled any sense of snobbery towards beer rookies like me. Kerry himself even revealed that many local brewers remain fans of the Double Brown – or “DoBro” – and insists that washing down fish and chips with a pilsner is about as good as fine dining gets. He’s wearing gumboots. He’s cool as hell.
Kerry Gray started his beer empire Choice Bros the moment he decided to spend his final $100 food voucher from WINZ on a $99 Cooper’s brewing kit at Pak n’ Save, several years ago. He had been travelling on the great Kiwi OE in Europe, and had come to love the different beer cultures across the world. On his return, he was warmed by the early embers of the local beer boom – Tuatara APA, Garage Project, Epic Pale Ale – but couldn’t afford to drink any of them.
So, in the most Kiwi, number eight wire, DIY in our DNA kind of way – he started making it himself.
These days, Wellington is ripe with local brewers and a myriad of beer choices far from the humble Double Brown. You might recognise Choice Bros through their distinctive labelling, courtesy of fellow Wellington wunderkind Toby Morris, or their lyrical names, mostly inspired by David Bowie songs. You can drink a Serious Moonlight or an I’m Afraid of Americans any day of the week. The Bowie obsession extends to the machinery too, named after famous Bowie characters. “We’ll be doing a brew next week,” Kerry grinned, “and it will be going from Ground Control to Major Tom.”
After sampling some extraordinary sour beers, and settling on an IPA, Kerry and I sat down to chat about the local beer community, milking stags, and why you should never mention the ‘C-word’ around him.
I’m very keen to know how your early home brew batches were, and how they got you here.
You know, I thought they were really good at the time, but they definitely would have been rubbish. The early ones were good enough for other people to want to drink them, which was enough encouragement to keep me going. We’d take home brew into local bars, like Rogue & Vagabond across the road, to give to the bar manager and the owner to taste. Straight away, he would split it into eight glasses and give it to all the locals and forced me to take their feedback. I just wanted him to drink it, but he wanted me to get feedback and improve which was awesome.
It kind of all grew from there, I got a job at furniture store at the time and one of the silent partners was Mike Pullin who now runs Karamu coffee. He was roasting coffee at the time, so I was swapping him home brew for coffee. He really liked the beer and said “we could sell this.” We partnered up and Choice Bros came out of that. We kept on getting feedback from a group of home brewers and would just absolutely rip each other’s beers apart to try and get better. About half of them are commercial brewers now, so I’d say a whole community grew from there. We’re all running our own businesses now but we all still share information and give each other feedback.
Let’s talk about some of your weirder beers. Specifically, the stag semen beer. Do you still make it?
We were asked to do that for another bar in Wellington during their Wild Food festival. It was their idea, and we just tried to make the best beer that we could with that ingredient. It was an awesome beer, we won a silver medal for it at the beer awards. We still get emails from people who want to try it, a lot of inquiries from Americans on the cruise ships. We made 400L of it three years ago. It’s definitely not a beer I would choose to make, and I won’t be re-brewing it. We might do another version of it – without the stag component.
Can I ask… how… you got the special ingredient?
Stag semen is not cheap, so they have a stud farm where they… milk?… them. So we got sent a box of it one day. The Ministry of Primary Industries weren’t too happy about it, so they had a lot of questions. But they signed off on it and everything was above the board.
Beyond that, what are some of the more outlandish flavours you’ve got cooking?
Our most popular is our peanut butter and jelly English ale. We use raspberries and peanut butter, and that one will be on tap next week. We’ve got the Sun Machine has coriander, wormwood, star anise and foraged fennel seeds that we got from the Brooklyn hills. They’re actually from the roadside just by our house.
One weirder flavour that didn’t quite work would be our roast lamb and mint. That was for a festival, we didn’t have that much time to work on it and it just wasn’t great. We might try and do it again, but we just need to take our time with it and see what happens.
That’s crazy that you foraged stuff from the Brooklyn hills, so people are literally drinking their own city?
There’s definitely a movement currently in brewing, across a whole lot of different industries actually, to use what’s available around your location and going with the seasons. If we are able to forage for something and use local produce – then I’m all for it. There are a lot of indigenous plants that have awesome flavours, and people just haven’t really thought of using them.
What were your favourite watering holes before you opened your own?
Definitely Golding’s. It’s super colourful and interesting – it’s a dive bar but it’s not a dive dive bar. The great thing about Wellington is you can walk anywhere and, within about two minutes, you’ll be at a great bar. That keeps the standard high, because if you’re not doing it right people will just cross the road and go somewhere else. Nobody feels like they’re competing though, there’s a bar 40m from us and we always help each other out. If they run out of beer we’ll sort them with a keg, stuff like that.
What else do you like to do when you aren’t brewing?
For a capital city, the nature is incredible. It’s only a short drive to some of the most rugged coastline in the country. Head out to Red Rocks and it feels like you are 1000 miles away from civilisation and it’s five minutes away from the city. Zealandia and all the Otari-Wilton bush in that area just gets you immersed in nature and so far away from the hustle and bustle so fast. Also, we all love our karaoke. There seems to be something happening between brewers and karaoke, but I can’t figure out what it is.
In the past you’ve shared your step by step recipes online – what’s the thinking behind that?
It’s just about sharing the passion, because I learned how to brew from Google University. A lot of the foundations for recipes I was learning from had come from other breweries that had posted their recipes online – heaps of the American and Scandinavian breweries. In putting my stuff up there, I want to give back a little to those roots. Because our beers are a little off-centre, people home brewing might think our techniques are crazy, but once they see the step by step process they will see it’s not hard to experiment and try new things.
And If other breweries want to copy my techniques – that’s fine. I’m using other brewer’s techniques too. From a customer point of view, if there are home brewers that are replicating my beers, it’s only going to make them want to try more of my stuff. The other really cool thing is when random people from all over the country come in and give me a bottle of my recipe that they’ve made. That’s pretty cool, and usually it’s pretty good. It’s like someone covering your music. There aren’t many industries where people can replicate your work in that way.
You’ve got Toby Morris doing your labels, did you manage to get to him before he was famous? Because he’s bloody massive now.
Yeah I know, it’s very inconvenient. I discovered Toby by seeing his music posters around Wellington, and he was doing stuff for The Nudge, The Phoenix Foundation, Beastwars – all these bands that I liked. They always caught my eye, so I thought I would try and found out who he was. I spent some time flicking through the band pages on Facebook until he was tagged on one of the posters. I stalked him and saw his Pencilsword illustration and thought, ‘this is the guy.’
I contacted him and he was super interested, he was working for a bigger design firm at the time where I think he had less creative freedom – working for design briefs and going through editing teams. I gave him free reign to do the labels, I would just give him the song title of the beer and what the beer was going to be, and X amount of weeks later I’d get an email that just said “I hope you like this.” I didn’t even meet him in real life until two years later.
Are you a fan of the phrase ‘craft beer’?
No. It has no real meaning, which is the main reason. We don’t use it in any wording or marketing for Choice Bros, or Husk, or the brewery. All of our staff know about ‘the C word’. Nobody can define it, it used to be used to define small breweries and big breweries, but more recently people seem to be using it to describe good beer and bad beer. The assumption seems to be that big breweries can’t make good beer anymore, which is just not true. Beer is beer, it’s all just beer!
The word we are starting to use more and more is ‘local’, just because we want to stay a part of the community here. We want people to know where they’re beer is coming from – just like you want to know where your free range pork comes from. Also we’re lucky to have our brewery in a bar, because bars have always been community hubs, so most people who come in here will order whatever has been made onsite. People always want to go local because it’s fresher and it’s nice to enjoy something five metres away from where it’s been made.
Humour and openness seems important to you brand, are you trying to steer away from the more serious vibe surrounding c**** beer ?
Totally. We just want to have fun. The more fun we have and appear to be having, the more lighter people will be with their perceptions of what the beer community is like. There are definitely people out there who are super serious and dry and stick to old school marketing, but there’s no fun in that. It’s just beer. You can geek out and analyse it as much as you want, but it’s all just beer. People forget that sometimes. Go have a nice beer with your friends and have a laugh.
Do you reckon beer in New Zealand ever get to the same classy status as wine?
It will, but it’s probably about a decade away. Wine’s old, plus it’s got a lot of money that beer doesn’t have. I guess beer has always been the workers drink. Chefs and the food industry are definitely realising the potential in beer, as are winemakers. There are more and more winemakers installing small breweries at their wineries and realising that beer is something they can make all year round.
I think in Wellington, there isn’t a single fine dining restaurant you could walk into and not being able to buy a great local beer. There are already a few restaurants that provide a wine match and a beer match to a dish. People are starting to realise that, if your customers don’t drink wine, there’s a real opportunity there. Also with beer, there’s potential to make a brew to perfectly suit a dish. With wine, you have to work with whatever you’ve been dealt that season. Beer is less limited in that regard.
What’s next for Choice Bros and Husk?
We’ve got the coffee roastery coming in soon, and just yesterday we started our barrel aging process. We’re working with local vineyards in the Wairarapa, getting barrels from them super fresh and filling them with beer to age. Most of those barrels behind us are ageing with a wild culture that we’ve actually harvested from the air on Ghuznee Street. So it’s going to be unique to just this site, and we’re going to release those in champagne bottles.
Otherwise, we’ll just keep experimenting. I’ve got a list of about 40 beers to work on. Another big thing of us is collaborations, we’ve done 20 brews so far and six of those have been collaborations. Instead of competing, we’re much more interested in hanging out and learning stuff from each other round here.
Considering the huge boom in the local beer scene, where do you think it will be in 10 years?
Everyone will be drinking locally and have a better knowledge of beer quality, just like we do with wine. I would expect every suburb to have their own brew bar in ten years, a local brewery should only be a short walk or uber away. You know, 50 years ago, there was a pub on every corner. I’ll think we’ll see a return to that, as well as having the brew bar there on site. Where right now people still champion their local beer, they’ll become proud of their immediate communities.
The whole self-sustainability movement will keep growing across the board. People are becoming more concerned with making things in house, growing their own veges and supporting local businesses. The more that thrives, the better that is for us. In 25 years, we might even know who are neighbours are! Technology has made us drift apart a bit, but we’re slowly coming back together. And if it all goes to shit and Trump starts a war, we’ll have everything we need in our own community. And good beer.
So before the nuclear winter hits, what else do you suggest I do here in Wellington?
Go to Goldings for a drink, that’s my local and then 10 metres away is a restaurant called Shepherd. If I could go there every other night for dinner, I would. They are all about foraging and keeping it local And the foods amazing. It’s very Wellington, it sums up exactly where Wellington is now. Make sure you get the pumpkin, that’s the one that everyone drools over. Ask for the pumpkin, they’ll know what you mean.
It’s intimate. It’s exhilarating. It’s life, served fresh.
If you’re looking to live, and work, with a little more spark, and a little more balance – find out why Wellington… is personal. At WellingtonNZ.com