Let’s be honest, not many people come to Wellington for the weather. But anyone who lives here, or braves the all too often bumpy ﬂight into our little city, is rewarded with an incredibly vibrant café and bar scene. Our city seems to draw creative people who have small budgets and clever ideas. It then nurtures them with a culture that loves to embrace the ‘new’. It’s a city of hidden gems, bursting with its own quirky kind of cool.
This scene is one of the reasons we started Garage Project in Wellington, and its generous and supportive culture is one of the reasons that we’ve survived and thrived in the windy city. Take a trip back to 2009. I’d spent a decade brewing in the UK and Australia while nursing a masochistic urge to open my own brewery. I’d given it a good crack in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, but the bureaucratic hurdles there proved too much.
Exhausted and frustrated, I took a suitably turbulent ﬂight over to Wellington to visit my kid brother Ian. He and his lifelong friend Jos were working for a company creating computer games. Gaming’s fun, but both of them were ready for a change. The Japanese use the wonderful word otaku for the way certain hobbies can become almost an obsession. Jos’s work trips to the US and the craft beers he brought back to share with Ian had already planted the seeds of otaku. It would be a life- changing trip for all of us.
Even back then, Wellington had a vibrant beer scene. At the time, 57 per cent of all craft beer in New Zealand was consumed in Wellington. That’s no mean feat for a town of a couple of hundred thousand people. And yet there were no breweries. The inevitable question came up late one night in one of the city’s beer bars. Why not set up a brewery in Wellington? It seemed like a great idea at the time and, as Hemingway said, ‘Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.’
By the end of the trip, with a little cautious investigation and some gentle persuasion from Jos and Ian, I was sold. We started with a very clear ethos.
New Zealand on the whole was blessed with an impressive number of breweries per head of population. These were often little breweries producing very good beer, but all very true to style, offering drinkers a pale ale, a pilsner, a porter and so on. Why would we want to be just another brewery? For our plan to work we needed to do something different, maybe even something remarkable.
We agreed that two things were important to us — authenticity and the ability to take risks. This meant starting with our own (albeit tiny) brewery and without the weight of a hefty bank loan forcing us into making ‘safe’ decisions.
Starting small with the laughable budget we were able to scrape together guided our guerrilla approach. We bought a tiny pilot plant — basically a fancy home- brew kit — capable of brewing one keg of beer at a time, and started tinkering in the garage underneath Ian’s house, all the while looking for the perfect site for our brewery.
We ﬁnally found it in Aro Valley. Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder.
A graffiti- encrusted, rat-infested, derelict petrol station lurking on the dark side of Aro Valley with a Guantanamo- style barbed- wire fence surrounding its mud and gravel forecourt doesn’t sound instantly appealing, but the moment we saw it we knew we’d found our home. It helped to have a landlord who was willing to humour three guys who were clearly unstable and were rambling about starting a brewery.
It took months of clearing, cleaning, rewiring and painting, but we ﬁnally got Council and Customs approval to wheel in our tiny brewhouse and start brewing. Then, in August 2011, we released our ﬁrst beers. People have often asked where the name Garage Project came from. The truth is that it started as a placeholder title, scribbled on the top of a bit of paper.
‘What would we call this garage project?’ What followed was a long list of other ideas for brewery names. These names were all arse- cringingly awful, so terrible that they must never be revealed. In the end it was Garage Project that stuck, thank god. If we’d chosen any of the other options, you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now.
Guided by the philosophy of trying something new, Garage Project began with the 24/24 — 24 beers in 24 weeks. Each Tuesday for six months, we’d take two 20- litre kegs of beer down to Hashigo Zake — part underground bar, part beer bunker, full HQ for the pointiest end of Wellington’s craft beer movement. Along with each new beer, we delivered feedback coasters, which asked, ‘What did you drink and what did you think?’
As an exercise, this was equal parts exciting and terrifying. After brewing at much bigger breweries for a decade, the opportunity to really let loose was hugely exciting for me, but the frenetic pace and tiny volumes we were dealing with often meant that we’d be trying the ﬁnished beers for the ﬁrst time along with everyone else.
You could write a whole (other) book about the 24/24 — one packed with soaring highs and crashing lows — but perhaps the most important part of the experience was that we created an environment where we really laid ourselves bare. For any brewer, nothing beats a bar full of people loving your beer, but the ﬂip side is that criticism of your creations can cut deep.
The classic example of this was the now infamous Green Coffee Bean Saison, an experiment in pairing unroasted coffee character with the spicy ﬂavour of Saison beer. For me it was a huge success, perfectly capturing this unique ﬂavour. Unfortunately, it was a ﬂavour that only a very select group of people liked. Oh well, in the immortal words of Primus, ‘They can’t all be zingers’.
But for every miss, there were multiple hits, and many of our current Garage brews were born of the 24 — Pernicious Weed, Aro Noir, Day of the Dead and Trip Hop, to name a few. 24/24 was also the fast and fertile spawning ground for what would become Garage Project’s approach to art and design. A few choice recommendations led us to local designer Anton Hart who, along with Bill Cardon- Horton, developed the original old- school Garage Project stencil logo and delivered the tap badges at the same frenetic pace that we brewed. Although they were often a simple affair, there were a couple of classics to come out of the 24, like Anton’s Day of the Dead skull that you’ll see later in this book.
Luckily for us, the risk and the effort of the 24/24 paid off. Thanks to the support of the good folk at Hashigo (eternal thanks to Dom and his team) and the willingness of Wellingtonians to embrace and support the new, we gained what could fairly be called a cult following. Every Tuesday night, we’d deliver our new brew to a packed bar who’d be waiting for it to go on tap at 5pm. If you weren’t there on the night, chances were you’d miss out.
After six months, we’d built a brand on a bootstrap budget, held together with a paste made from equal parts hard work and sheer terror. With the buzz we’d created, we were able to raise the money to get proper brewing equipment and we’ve continued to grow from there. Flash forward to 2019.
We now brew over three sites. There’s our original Garage (now packed to the gunnels with shiny stainless). Marion Street houses our Wild Workshop, where we’re free to tinker with all manner of wild and weird yeasts (without them getting loose in the Garage), and where we even make wine and cider. And then there’s the B Studio brewery we’ve partnered with in Hawke’s Bay, which allows us to keep up with demand for our core beers, while maintaining the kind of inventive and proliﬁc brewing we like at our Wellington sites.
Eight years in and Ian, Jos and myself are still here (joined by a growing team of cool, creative people) and we’re still guided by an ethos based on a willingness to try something new. Why? Because it’s fun, and if we’re having fun I’ve always felt that it permeates the beer and the brand and creates an experience our drinkers enjoy being part of.
Inspiration for new brews comes from many places — from playing around with existing beer styles, to food, music and pop culture. Classical music, death metal, ﬂat white coffee, dashi broth, Lewis Carroll poems, comic books, traffic lights and roller derby have all been the inspiration for GP beers. Inspiration can also come through collaboration, sometimes with other breweries, but also with other creatives — artists, chefs, bands, composers and even the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
Ongoing collaborations have even become much anticipated yearly events, like our outlandish Fringe Festival brews and the rowdy, beer-fuelled performances of Shakespeare in the pub. As a team we also work extremely hard to come up with compelling offerings for the big beer festivals we attend each year. Our philo-sophy is that people pay good money to attend festivals like Beervana and GABS and deserve to get more from us than the standard range of beers they can buy any night of the week. Over the years we’ve created whole worlds of unique beers for festival goers, often served in theatrical ways, and inspired by everything from Circus Carnivals and Kaiju battles to 5- year- old birthday parties.
The trick is then converting inspiration into ﬂavours that work together. Beer should always be about balance, but this balance can take many forms — from the traditional bittersweet, to sweet and sour, to even more unusual ﬂavours combining sweet, savoury and even umami characters. Unlike winemakers, brewers have always used whatever ingredients are at hand — from fruit and spices to herbs, honey and hops — to create balance and ﬂavour. This creativity is something that’s always drawn me to beer, but there has to be a good reason to put something in. People can spot a ‘stunt’ beer. A beer must live up to the promise of the packaging.
One of the funnest parts of creating a new beer for all of us at Garage Project is the art. Great beer art only elevates the experience of drinking a beer. I’m a strong believer that every beer should tell a story. When you engage with a beer, the experience begins well before you open the can or bottle. The art draws you in, you want to pick it up and look at it more closely. A lot of our art rewards close attention with little ‘Easter eggs’ and fun hidden treats. Read the blurb on the label and it draws you in further, then ﬁnally, crack it open and pour it out (or drink it straight from the can). For us, it’s a holistic experience we take pride in.
Early on, a marketing expert warned us that our decision to use unique art for each beer was tantamount to brand suicide. The accepted wisdom was that your brand needed to be clearly visible from ﬁve metres away. The message was clear: embrace branding, or the Garage Project’s ride would be a short one.
We chose to ignore this, and so far we haven’t come to a sticky end. As Jos likes to say, we’ve become a house of brands, rather than a branded house. He’s right. Many of our beers could stand alone even without the Garage logo. BEER is the perfect example. Take our logo off it and it would still happily continue on as if nothing had happened. What you’ll ﬁnd in these pages is a selection of beer art (and a sneaky cider) taken from the ﬁrst eight years of Garage Project. It is by no means a deﬁnitive volume. The jury is out on exactly how many beers we’ve brewed over the years (it’s complicated), but it is in excess of 400. The decisions around which beers to put in and which to leave out has been agonising.
I’m often asked which beer is my favourite. I reply that our beers are like children, you really shouldn’t have favourites (even if some days you like some of them more than others). A lot of the kids got left out of this volume, but what it does offer is a bit of an artistic journey through the brewing history of Garage Project. What you have here in your hands is eight years of inventive brewing and fruitful collaborations.
The stars of this book are the amazingly creative people — the graphic artists and tattooists and game designers and painters and typographers — who have worked with Garage Project in creating these beers. Many are local, testament to the creative culture of Wellington, but there are also an increasing number from around New Zealand and overseas. As I write this, we’ve got dozens of projects in the pipeline that could easily claim a place in this volume, but you’ll just have to wait to see (and drink) those!
Garage Project has been a bumpy but exhilarating ride. Not so for you, though. The seat belt sign has been switched off and you can sit back and enjoy this volume. Maybe make use of the beverage service and enjoy a little Garage Project? If you do, raise a glass to all the artists, the designers, the bar owners, and of course the Garage Project drinkers, including yourself, who’ve made this possible.
Here’s to all of you.